Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings - 25/08/2012

Earlier this week Sir Elton John expressed anxieties about how his young son, Zachary, might be treated when he goes to school. He fears he might face bullying because his parents are gay and Britain can still be homophobic. He may be right; though in all the schools I know, children come now from every type of family circumstance - and don't think twice about it. Nevertheless, the playground can be cruel and adults need to be vigilant.

But Elton John's anxiety made me think more generally about how our children experience childhood and what we want for them from it. Of course, childhood is not a stage in life determined by our biology but a human convention. This is why we can sometimes get in a muddle about it, especially about the point of transition to adulthood. We send mixed messages when we tell our children different stories about their level of maturity in relation to getting married, casting a vote, taking out a loan, fighting for their country, and so on.

I once had an argument with someone who passionately believed that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised from 10 to 16, even 18. “We have to remember”, she said, “that these young people are children.” I was not unsympathetic, but all the time I kept hearing some words of my own teenage son – words most parents hear at some time - “Dad, stop treating me like a child.”

At one time getting a job was the rite of passage out of childhood. But now unemployment suspends many young people between childhood and the adult world with few helpful precedents as to how to live well in this in-between existence.

In the gospels, there's just one reference to the childhood of Jesus –though a significant one. It's the story of a twelve year old who gets taken by his parents to Jerusalem and inadvertently left behind when they and their extended family return home. Mary and Joseph go looking for Jesus – and find him in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. I find it striking that in an age when children would be valued not so much for their own sakes as for what they would become – productive workers and reproductive mothers – these busy and learned men take childhood seriously, make time for a young boy and pay him attention. And the child, we are told, grew in wisdom.

The story takes us to the heart of what makes for a good childhood. The challenge is about how far we can offer our children this kind of interaction. For parents it's not easy. If both have to work and work means long journeys, it's not surprising that in our exhaustion we fall back on the television and computer. But keeping children occupied is not the same as giving them our attention.

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