The Importance of Childhood

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A very wise teacher once told me that “good things are hard.” While rich with fulfillment and abounding with joy, parenting is definitely something that fits the bill as a great good while being extremely difficult at the same time (like putting clothes on a toddler who is running away from you difficult). However, it is precisely this degree of difficulty in our parenting that will aid us in the raising and sanctification of our children and ourselves.

St. Theophan said, “What good fortune therefore it is to receive a good, truly Christian upbringing, to enter with it into the years of youth, then in the same spirit to enter into the years of adulthood.” Childhood has a profound impact on a person’s life. If a person’s life is a tree, then childhood is that stage in which the roots of the tree grow in order to establish a person in a life of either joyful abundance or despairing emptiness. However, unlike the house built on a foundation of sand set on a course of irreparable destruction, God’s grace can rescue anyone, regardless of his or her childhood experience. Yet, we can still see that a moral and uplifting childhood mixed with other positive elements can pave the way for a good and fulfilling life.

Three of the most important aspects of childhood that can lead to a good life are: 1. Innocence, 2. Playtime, and 3. Imagination. Each of these can help lead the youth toward truth and grow in virtue, two of the main ingredients for this life of peace and joy. One might say that people can be happy without them, but it seems that it would be easier for people to find happiness and fulfillment if they are allowed to experience these naturally occurring aspects in their early years.

First, Innocence is powerful in childhood as it aids in avoiding sin and assists the child to maintain purity. Innocence is a return to Eden before the Fall when lust and other evils were left unknown. It is that joyful part of life when one almost lives exactly as man was created to be, without the annoyances, stress, fear, and responsibility of knowing the sinfulness of lust, almost free from the chains of brokenness.

While children are still born with Original Sin and it’s effects, there is still much about the world they do not yet know. This is a positive ignorance that should be sustained as long as possible. What true good can come from knowing the ways of sin during one’s childhood, particularly the sins of impurity? Would it not help a person to lead a better life later on in practicing the angelic virtues if he or she is able to more easily practice these as a child without the temptations of immorality?

I have heard that scuba divers learn to dive in swimming pools, firefighters train in difficult yet still controlled environments, and pilots train on flight simulators before climbing into a real cockpit.  Allowing a child to grow up with innocence could be like these various persons training in less dangerous environments, before facing the real danger later on. With a longer experience of innocence, a child could continue growing in grace and virtue in a less dangerous environment before facing the real dangers of sin later on.

Parents can help protect their children’s innocence by screening the movies and tv shows their kids watch to ensure they will not see corrupting images or themes. They can censor the music their child listens to so as to ensure age appropriate material. Furthermore, they could even help their kids find good friends with whom to spend their time.

The next important aspect that helps set a child up for a good life is playtime. A child at play might seem like silliness and nonsense to an adult, however playing helps children learn and prepare for their future. While studies show that playing assists in forming the brain to better handle emotions and practice critical thinking, I think the best benefit of playing is that it prepares the child for a life focused on heaven.

Children at play, whether pretending, participating in a game, putting on musical or theatrical performance, or other traditional modes of play, concentrate only on what is before them. They are essentially living in an eternal moment of joyful satisfaction. This experience is a beautiful image of heaven, in which all the souls of the just will live in an eternal moment of joyful satisfaction. In this way, children’s playtime is also a foretaste of the Liturgy, which itself is a foretaste of heaven that allows us a similar freedom from worries and struggles that childhood play can allow.

In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Romano Guardini compares the playtime of a child to the Church’s Liturgy. While not forgetting the sacred importance of the Object of our worship, Guardini notes that within both playing and Liturgical celebration is found the aspect of meaningful purposeless. To play, for a child, is to simply move, speak, and act in the realm of youthfulness without a cause that one might deem “productive”. So too could we find the same “unproductive” element in the Liturgy as it has not a specific goal in mind as it does not truly exist for the sake of man, but for that of God.

Moreover, just as the play of a child exists in a realm all its own, so too does participation  in the Liturgy. Guardini sates, “The liturgy creates a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life, and allows the soul to wander about in it at will and to develop itself there.” The child truly plays in his or her own realm set apart from the world of adults, which includes stress, worries, and other burdens of life. This is what we should experience within the Liturgy, a time away from these discomforting realities so as to focus on Jesus and our relationship with Him. Therefore, the playtime of a child will help to train him or her for the Liturgy and seek the eternal playtime of heaven.

Finally, the imagination of childhood is of the utmost importance. The continual practice of believing without seeing helps to send the child down a path of Faith. While God is not just real, but the absolute center of reality, I think a child’s act of ‘make-believe’ or ‘pretending’ can lead him or her to understand that this world is not merely material or only validated by what immediately meets the senses.

Furthermore, following in the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, I think that Fairy Tales are a great tool to foster imagination in children, first to assist with leading them to the realm of Faith, but also to better instruct them of the great important truths one needs to lead a faithful life. These truths, which are handed down with clever narratives and poetic imagery, can include that evil exists and can be defeated, that we are made to be happy and can be happy, and the true sacrificial character of love.

Tolkien writes of the nature and importance of Fairy Tales in his work entitled, “On Fairy Stories”, concluding that they pass on to us much more than important facts. They give us a slew of values and ways of being, not merely listed for memorization, but delivered beautifully in  a story that is easy to follow and retain. Tolkien expresses this poetically when he quotes George Dasent, a translator of ancient folklore, “’We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.”

Moreover, the imagination sets the child up for meditative prayer. It is much easier to think about the life of Jesus with a well exercised imagination than without. Even more difficult would it be to read or hear the stories of the Bible for one who cannot imagine the events found within it.

The way we raise and form our children is of utmost importance. In the fabulous journey of life, this is the stage during which we hold their hands and teach them the correct way to travel this road. By concerning ourselves with the three aspects of childhood mentioned above I believe we can set them up for an easier joy-filled life.

Thomas Clements

Thomas Clements

Thomas Clements is a High School and Middle School Theology Teacher. He graduated with an B.A. in Theology from Southern Catholic College and received an M.A. in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. On the side he has recorded a CD and performs music at various colleges, churches, and conferences. He lives with his wife and 3 children in Atlanta, GA.

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