There are times when you come across a thought which may not strike you with realization in the moment, but which rolls around in your mind for years and then, one day, emerges from the midst of your musings and bears fruit.
So I must say that everything that follows is indebted to Madeleine L'Engle and her observations from her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, which I read a couple years ago. I didn't agree with everything in the book, but there were several thoughts in it that were helpful, and the one I found most helpful was this:
In one of the chapters, Mrs. L'Engle relates a story in which her husband, an actor, was trying to decide whether or not to accept a role in a certain play. The play was edgy enough to make them uncomfortable, but it paid well and they desperately needed the money. As they wrestled with the decision, eventually her husband came up with the question, "Would I want the children to see me in this?" After asking that question, he realized he would never want the children to see him in that role, so he turned it down.
Mrs. L'Engle goes on to say that the question stuck in her mind ever after, whenever she was trying to make a difficult decision about what was and was not acceptable in art -- "What would I want the children to see?" She says that children can understand a lot more than we give them credit for, and can understand many of the difficult issues of life if we take the time to explain them. But there are things that children shouldn't see, things that will hurt them instead of helping them. When we make art, we may make things that are beyond a child's ability to comprehend fully, or that will require a bit of thought before a revelation materializes, but we should never make something that will hurt them.
This thought originally fell into the "Oh, That's Nice" category in my mind. I didn't realize at the time that if we are looking at it right, it really is an illuminating standard. Frequently when I have looked at an aspect of the culture – or American Christianity, for that matter – that I felt had something wrong with it that I couldn't quite pinpoint, an application of the simple question, "What about the children?", suddenly made everything clearer.
What about the children?
We've forgotten about them, haven't we?
Our culture remembers to deal carefully with many things – it has to, living in this lightning-quick era where anyone can get offended at the drop of a hat. But in the midst of overthinking so many trivial issues, it's managed to forget a number of the most important things. Children are one of them.
We've not just forgotten about our specific children, living their growing-up lives and turning into adults whether we're watching or not. We've forgotten about children as a concept. I would argue that most of the time, we don't even remember what they are. We put everyone under the age of 12 or so into a box labeled 'Child.' Around age 13 they are scooped out of that box and dumped into the 'Teenager' box, where they stay until they are shipped off to live in the 'College' box, and finally once they return from this box they will have the education necessary to settle into the 'Adult' box. The problem with this system is that once we have everyone properly organized, we tend to start dealing almost exclusively with the boxes, and not with the people in them. It enables us to forget the most obvious and ordinary thing in the world: that every adult was once a child, and every child is an adult in the making. The two are inseparable, because they are the same being in different forms. The thoughts we give the child to chew on will be the thoughts the adult will rely on. A child's mind starts small and grows to adulthood by eating whatever it can find – the adult mind will form, by itself, constructed out of whatever thought-materials happen to be nearby.
This means that, contrary to popular yet unspoken belief, children have a great capacity to begin to understand the most important things in life from a very early age. Because the minds are young and small and not yet fully-formed, the knowledge about life and death and other things doesn't come front-first or logically, but it still comes. Children observe and absorb and can reach startlingly profound conclusions because they are paying attention, even if the adults around them are not. This is why adults must pay attention from the beginning, because by the time the children are ready to be moved to the 'Teenager' box and modern society tells us that now at last we can give them real things, it may be too late. The children have already learned an alarming number of real things, whether right or wrong, and those thoughts will bear fruit for years and years to come. By giving them little more than 'age-appropriate' fluff until we deem them 'ready,' we are harming them and robbing them of the foundation-forming thoughts their young minds need.
Is it not, in a way, insidious to save our more complicated themes in literature, TV, movies, and the like for works that are only appropriate for older age groups, when they are desperately needed to begin molding the thought life of the younger generation?
My thoughts on this topic are still growing, but the more I look, the more I see that the most-forgotten people group in our culture may very well be our own children. And considering that we were once children, and our children will someday be us, that means we are hurting ourselves.