“To see helpless infancy stretching out her hands, and pouring out her cries in testimony of dependence, without any powers to alarm jealousy, or any guilt to alienate affection, must surely awaken tenderness in every human mind; and tenderness once excited will be hourly increased… by the consciousness of dignity of benefaction.”—Samuel Johnson (Rambler, No. 148)
There are many sentiments about childhood. An example of bad sentimentality is the widespread insistence that children be indulged in rude manners and luxurious ignorance. Ironically, people who think this way are usually the first to complain how onerous children are and do their utmost to avoid them. The alternative is true parental love that speaks in deeds, not slogans or excuses. The ancient writer Plutarch once criticized those mothers who “take their children into their arms as if they were playthings (after others have cleaned them and smartened them up)” but “are not motivated by warmth of feeling,” which comes from truly caring for them. It is because children look up to us and impose the burden of being role models that quite a few parents shirk this precious duty. No doubt it is better to make the effort and to acknowledge that our job will involve some mistakes. Fortunately, Children are more forgiving of our faults than we are of theirs.
On a more positive note, the goodness of this holy season of Christmas, and its sentiments about true innocence, can penetrate even the most calloused conscience. I think of Oscar Wilde. Some men will only take their debaucheries so far, but when faced with the purity of childhood they relent. Wilde respected this innocence, as seen in his touching short story “The Selfish Giant,” which deals with the ultimate meaning of Christmas—the sacrifice that the Child has made for every one of us. In the end the Child converted the Giant. He also converted Wilde.
The treatment of children is a litmus test for society. I recall the story of Epictetus, the Stoic teacher who lived in the first century. He was reputed to be a strict, curmudgeonly fellow. But after many years of living alone, he wed an elderly woman so that she could help him raise an infant he adopted from a neighbor who was going to expose it (i.e., leave it out to die).
Love for children begins with allowing them to live. The challenge is to be at least as kind and selfess as the noble pagans, like Epictetus and Plutarch, given that we have a faith which places a Child at the center of its worship.
“I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.”—Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop