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Being Childlike: Lessons from Preschool

The beauty of the Church, the Body of Christ, is that we can learn so much from one another. One part of the Body that we may tend to overlook in this regard, is children. Often we think we must learn things from those who are older and wiser than ourselves, but today I’d like to remind us that children play an important role in teaching us how to journey to heaven. During this past year, I had the opportunity to be a Preschool Instructional Aide at a Catholic School in Seattle for several months. In this position, I helped students take care of their basic physical needs, follow instructions, and stay safe. Though I was there to be of service to them, these little souls were also of great service to me – being part of their lives offered me an opportunity for me to remember how to be “little”, how to be childlike!

By taking on the name “Lisieux House”, our community lives under the patronage of St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Claiming her patronage invites us to learn about and strive to live according to her spirituality, which is that of the “Little Way” to heaven. Therese’s “Little Way” consists of learning to accept our own littleness and weakness in order to allow Christ to lift us up. She describes: “It is to recognize our nothingness, to expect everything from God as a little child expects everything from its father…”. We also hear directly from the mouth of Christ the importance of being little and childlike. In Matthew 18:3, He states, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is a very bold statement from our loving Jesus! He means what he says here, and wants us to be attentive; this is not simply a recommendation, but a command. We must be childlike. But what does it mean to be childlike? How can we understand this teaching and practically live this out?

In order to gain an understanding of the childlike identity that Christ is inviting us to, I think it is appropriate for us to take time to reflect on the behaviors of children. Below, I’d like to share just a few aspects of what it means to be childlike, based on what I observed during my time in the preschool classroom. As you read, I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that though it is certainly important to reflect on the actions of children, I think the greater treasure can be found in noticing the disposition or posture they carry while acting as they do.

Children are Content Being Dependent

It comes as no surprise that children need a lot of help to live, and are thus incredibly dependent on those who are bigger, stronger, smarter to help them. As one of the adults in the preschool classroom, I helped the children put their backpacks away, open their lunchboxes and food packages, put bandaids on their owies, fill up their water bottles, and reminded them to go potty so they wouldn’t have any accidents. The children knew I was there to help them, and they were open to asking for help (even demanding at times!) because it was clear to them, too, that they needed help. When considering what it means to be childlike, I think an important characteristic to note is not just the fact that children need help, but that children are perfectly happy to live in this way. They know they couldn’t do it all on their own, and they are completely content in their “weakness” – in their need for help. As we grow up, we somehow lose this contentment in being dependent. Sometimes we even deny that we need help and come to expect that we can and should be able to do everything on our own! We forget that Someone else is in control, taking care of us, and wants to provide for us in our areas of need – work-related or financial needs, relational needs, housing needs, needs for healing, etc. When we turn to our Loving Father who is more powerful and wiser than we are, we may finally come to realize we are called to accomplish great things, but not by our own strength.

  • Practical step: Practice asking for help! Let’s share our areas of weakness and poverty with God and with others. We can even start with little things and work towards bigger things if we need to. And (important!), rather than asking for help from a place of shame, embarrassment, or frustration, let us aim to ask for help with joy!

  • Scripture to Ponder: Dependence on God (Luke 12: 22-24), Paul’s Boast: His Weakness (2 Corinthians 12: 6-10)

Children Exercise Free Will with Confidence

My favorite part of working in the preschool classroom was seeing what projects or games each child would choose to undertake during “choice time” or recess. Their creativity, ambition, and excitement impressed me and inspired me daily. Particularly, I was fascinated to see how each child was drawn to different things; some children were very active in their play, some were regularly drawn to the art projects, some were always interested in trying new things, and some wanted to build trains (every. single. day.). In addition, some students enjoyed doing projects by themselves, while others loved joining together with others for their projects or play.

Through reflecting on the different ways children chose to spend their time, I was reminded how God designs each person’s soul so uniquely and profoundly different to be naturally drawn to different things. He has given us each different interests, charisms, and gifts, and He designed us this way so that we each might be a unique expression of His heart to the world. As such, when we live in alignment with how we were created we find that we can flourish, just like children experiencing joy and peace when they discover what they love. Yet, as we grow up, how often it seems we get discouraged or confused (whether that be from fear, over-analyzing, social pressure, etc) about how we should take steps forward. Considering this, I was able to admire the confidence and ease that each child had when freely choosing what projects to pursue. Not only were children drawn to different things, it was simple for them to “follow their hearts” in terms of choosing how to act. By seeing the witness of these children, I’ve come to understand more fully God’s design for our free will. God desires that we know ourselves and the heart that he has knitted within us, that we act confidently in alignment with our heart's design, then simply trust that He will bless us and be with us. I think sometimes we can put more constraints on ourselves than God does, and fall into the trap of thinking there is only one right way to act, and if we aren’t doing that one thing, then we’ve mis-stepped or failed. Our God offers us so much more freedom than that! Sure, we might not have it all figured out on our first try, and it’s gonna be messy because we are human. But, I am confident that God delights in looking at us in the same way that I looked at the preschoolers; He is overjoyed to see us striving to engage in work, relationships, play, and vocations that are lifegiving for us and that bear good fruit in the world around us.

  • Practical step: We should take time to learn about ourselves: what we are naturally drawn to, what our talents and charisms are, and the rhythms of life that help us thrive! Odds are, God made us this way very intentionally; let us be confident that God has placed good desires in our hearts to bring about His Will and to express His love to the world through us in a particular way. Then, we can aim to say “yes” to opportunities that allow us to live into our God-given gifts and interests, trusting that God is with us!

  • Scripture to Ponder: Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14-30), Spiritual Gifts (1 Corinthians 12)

Children Pray Simply from the Heart

In Preschool, our morning prayer with the children was “Good morning, dear Jesus, this day is for you. We ask that you bless all we think, say, and do. Amen.” Certainly, a simple prayer. But behind the rhyming and sing-songy nature with which we shared this prayer, these words that we spoke communicated something incredibly profound! We were making a morning offering, entrusting our day to God and opening ourselves to be blessed in word and deed – for the Lord to be present in all we do. Not only that, when we ask for a blessing, we are also acknowledging that God can use us to bless the world. By making a simple offering of self to the Lord each day, we open ourselves to be an instrument through which He can bless the world!

  • Practical step: Let us try praying simply with few words, great trust, and a generous heart!

  • Scripture to Ponder: Concerning Prayer (Matthew 6: 5-14), Abram’s Call and Blessing (Genesis 12:1-3)

Children are Authentically Expressive

Kids say the darndest things! Because children’s brains are at an early stage of development and they don’t really have a “filter”, they often express in words and actions exactly what they are thinking and feeling. In preschool, it was common to see children jumping for joy when they were happy, hear children say “I miss Mommy” when they were sad, grab someone’s hand when they’d like to spend time together, or say silly or blunt things that were shockingly honest! It’s always a joy to witness children behaving this way because it is a pure expression of what they are experiencing.

In other words, there is a tangible authenticity to how children share themselves. Unfortunately, as we grow up, it can be easy to lose this childlike innocence in how we express ourselves. We think we need to have it all together or that it's only ok to show the parts of ourselves that will be pleasing and presentable. As you can imagine, these tendencies hinder us from living authentically, freely, and vulnerably, and can be very harmful in our relationship with others, and especially in our relationship with God. So how can we re-learn how to be childlike in the ways that we express ourselves? We must be genuine. In order to do this, we must first come to believe in the depths of our hearts that God created us good and that He made us the way He did for a reason. We also need to know that despite the fact that we are sinful creatures living in a fallen world, God wants to see our authentic selves (not just some perfect, filtered version of ourselves). In a word, we need to be secure in our identity (as children of God), while recognizing our humanity (what we are experiencing and where we are at). Children are such a good model for us in this regard because they are acutely perceptive to the fact that they are unconditionally loved (they are constantly allowing themselves to be cared for!) and they can’t help but be expressive about what they are thinking and feeling. Where we might have learned to hide ourselves, children have it all on display. As mature adults, we know of course that we shouldn’t have everything on display all the time; there is of course a prudent and discernible level of sharing with others. But in our relationship with our Heavenly Father, nothing should be held back. If we are confused about what to do, we should bring that to Him. If we are struggling with vice or sin, we should bring that to Him. If we are joyful and thankful, we should bring that to him. If we are angry at what's happening to us, we should bring that to Him. At its core, it is an invitation to greater truth and transparency. And in this way, we can take off the shell of perfectionism, detachment, self-protection, and the fear of mis-stepping, and run into the arms of our loving Father who wants our hearts. As a result, our relationships with our God and our neighbors will be filled with greater authenticity and intimacy, because a true exchange of persons will now be possible.

  • Practical Step: We need to give ourselves permission to take what is on the inside, and express it on the outside, and to be not afraid. We can pause and reflect “what do I genuinely think and feel about what is happening right now?” and allow ourselves to share generously and prudently. God is delighted to hold the hearts of His children through whatever season of life we find ourselves in, and by living authentically in this way, we learn to let ourselves be loved right where we are.

  • Scripture to Ponder: The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), Renunciation of Vice (Colossians 3: 9-10), Teaching About Oaths (Matthew 5:37)

There are certainly many more lessons we can learn from children, but these four capture just a few characteristics of being childlike that could help us better order our relationship with God, and allow us to live into Christ's call to become like little children. As we can see, the disposition of our hearts is where we will truly learn to be little, so let us strive to be content, confident, simple, and authentic!


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