See to it that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.Matthew 18:10-14 (ESV)
It is no secret that we all matter in the Kingdom of God. We are all made in His image. People are the beloved of God. Yet, somehow, most of us don’t see children as people. We see them as potential people. We see them as an extension of ourselves. We see them as projects. We definitely don’t see them as people.
Martin Buber was a Zionist Jew born in Germany is 1878. He wrote a theological theory on personhood, asserting that the self cannot be whole and full without another whole and full self in relationship with it—that the self exists not just in relationship, but it holistic relationship and is largely limited by our poor view of others. His book I and Thou (1923) is an exercise in patience to understand, but the concepts are profound.
When we view children as ITs instead of THOUs, denying them fully engaged, mutual personhood, we objectify them. Instead of a relationship with them, we seek to manipulate them. We deny their deep humanity, their created image. As a result, we also lose something of ourselves in that exchange. We lose the opportunity to connect in real, deep ways. Denying their created image, we deny a little of our own, as well.
How this typically plays out is that, when children are toddlers, their fits and tantrums affect us deeply because we don’t see them as actions of someone else, but actions about us. In young childhood, when children are learning to be industrious and find that they are capable, we rob them of that as we do too much for them, trying to shelter them from failure—because we see their failure as our failure. We micromanage their behaviors, so they reflect us in the way we want to be seen, not show who they are. We don’t let them see themselves as the beloved of God; we want to see them as a reflection of ourselves. Their search for identity becomes personal, because we see it as a rejection of who we are. As they strike out on their own as adults, we don’t see them as individuals. We still see them as an extension of me, an IT who is here to make me feel the way I want to feel. We see their choices as being all about me—either an embrace or a rejection. We deny them their personhood. And we all lose when we do. If we accept that the little ones are loved by God, made in His image, and are complete persons, we can accept the same in ourselves. This plays out by seeing toddler tantrums as a natural point of development. Their tantrums are about their shifting view of their place in the world and not about my ability to parent. They can feel what they feel, and we can hold our standards and decisions without feeling bad about how they react. (Me saying “no” to candy before dinner might elicit a meltdown from them, but they are learning how to deal with disappointment and that they cannot have their every whim. I don’t feel bad about the tantrum because their feelings are not mine.) As they enter childhood and work to be industrious and competent, we can cheer them on, and we can be there when they fail—knowing both are simply part of everyone’s life and don’t reflect our worth. We don’t micromanage how they do their homework, their chores, their play. We let them be their own people and sometimes do things differently than we would do them. As they enter the teen years and begin searching for their identity, we stand as reminders of who they are in Jesus. That their hair color, choice of footwear, or style de jour is their own and not a reflection of who they are in Jesus. When they strike out on their own as adults, we can trust them to make their own decisions, and we can enjoy them as the people they have become. We know their worth, we have a relationship with them as a real person, and as a result we get to be people of worth.