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How to Give Your Children an Authentic Childhood



Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. - published on 05/06/15

It's the secret to happiness, and it's their birthright

A person can be at home in the world or feel like a foreigner in a strange country.  Whether or not a person feels welcomed or alienated depends on the experience in his own home and family. A person’s sense of belonging to a family home—the microcosm of a little universe—prepares him for being at home in the larger world of human society and Nature—the macrocosm. Domus, the Latin word for home (“domestic”) also provides the root for “dominion,” God’s kingdom or the larger world that surrounds the home. To see the roof over one’s head and the light in the house in the house resembles noticing the dome of the heavens above filled with stars. A feeling security in the home invites a sense of being in tune with the world. Like the house in which man dwells that provides a sense of belonging, the world also offers a habitation suitable to fulfill man’s essential needs—especially for children.

Human happiness for both children and adults consists of this sense of association with a familiar environment where they are welcomed, known, loved, and missed and where they experience contentment in the surroundings. Without this rootedness to a family that provides a sense of permanence, a person feels alienated in the world or, to use Walker Percy’s phrase, “lost in the cosmos.”

Feeling like an estranged foreigner in the world makes a person feel insignificant, unimportant, and useless—like “a dot made by a fine pencil” or “a feather in the wind” to use expressions from Montaigne’s Essays. If the world is no more than vast spaces or infinite galaxies, man’s sense of identity and worth dwindles. He does not matter, he does not count, he makes no difference. A child deserves not only a happy home, but also an inviting, welcoming world that receives him with kindness.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses illuminates this distinction between being at home in the world or lost in the cosmos. The boy in the poems feels a sense of belonging to a loving world that never ceases to fascinate and excite the child. The famous line, “The world is so full of a number of things, / I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings,” captures a child’s love of life and delight in the variety of pleasures the world affords. The child is always playing, both indoors and outdoors; both alone with his imagination in games of make-believe in “The Land of Nod” and with familiar friends in “Farewell to the Farm.” Play abounds both in the summer in the hayloft (“Oh, what a joy to clamber there, / Oh, what a place for play”) and in the winter in the snow (“Or with a reindeer-sled, explore/ The colder countries round the door”). Every day brings an invitation to a source of play.

From morning to night the child plays. From the time the sun enjoys the game of hide and seek (“Though closer still the blinds we pull/ To keep the shady parlor cool, /Yet he will find a chink or two/To slip his golden fingers through”) to bedtime when the child gazes at the constellations (“The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all, / And the star of the sailor, and Mars”), he discovers inexhaustible sources of pure delight awaiting his exploration. How could a child not be at home in a world especially created for his endless delight at all hours of the day and night and in all the four seasons?

The child pictures himself a wealthy king with a vast domain because of the riches of play. He finds wonder in the friendly cow, in the waves of the sea, in the galloping wind, in the face of the moon, in the mysterious shadow, and in the chirping of birds. He participates in the excitement of larger worlds he calls “My Kingdom,” “Foreign Lands,” “The Land of Counterpane,” and “The Land of Story-Books”—the realm of the imagination that fills the mind with endless subjects of interest from “Seas and cities, far and near” to fairy land to the countries of “Little Indian, Sioux or Crow, / Little frosty Eskimo, /Little Turk or Japanese.” The child at home in the world is never bored or jaded but always anticipates the next pleasure or adventure.

In the poem “My Treasures” the child measures his wealth by his prized possessions, not gold and silver but “These nuts, that I keep in the back of the nest” and “The whistle we made (and how clearly it sounds!) . . . It was nursie who made it, and nursie alone!” In short, whether the child is playing at the sea, flying his kite, or looking at picture books in the quiet contentment of the nursery, he delights in all of life as a succession of enjoyable seasons and sees all of creation as ordered for the pure enjoyment of children. Day and night, sun and stars, wind and shadow, spring and fall are the playful friends of a child whose wealth of fun has no limits: “Sing a song of seasons! /Something bright in all! / Flowers in the summer, / Fires in the fall!” These experiences comprise an authentic childhood, the wealth of happiness owed to a child.

The child who experiences the great universe as a familiar place, a friendly world, and a land of abundant play is at home in the universe. He experiences the glory of being alive and participating in the fullness of life’s goodness. He is at home in the world because he enjoys a carefree, innocent childhood, and he experiences the happiness of kings because he feels the treasure of a home and the wealth of simple pleasures. The loving adults that surround him from Mother to Auntie to Nursie who make him the apple of their eye, the things they allow him to collect and keep, the time and attention they offer him, and the quiet contentment of “Happy chimney-corner days” filled with the picture books that entertain him in winter instill a love of life and a wonder at the abundance of joy that awaits him everywhere.

Without contentment at home with one’s family, a child can hardly have a sense of adventure to explore and enjoy the larger world.  Without sensing that he is at the center of life and that the home and family exist for him, a child suffers disorientation. To feel homeless is to be alienated, lonely, and lost in a heartless place where no beloved faces appear, smile, or welcome. Without the rootedness of the home and the intimate bonds of unity to persons and attachments to places, the child does not flourish as a king of happiness. Of the many sufferings inflicted upon the young, the loss of an authentic childhood of security, play, wonder, and adventure ruins the mysterious enchantment of this glorious time in life. Divorced homes, violation of children’s innocence, immoral sex education, child abuse and neglect, indoctrination into alternative lifestyles, the immodesty of popular culture  in fashions, and addiction to technology all rob the young of the magical spell of childhood that Stevenson’s poems capture—the just due of all children.

Without the foundation of an authentic childhood, adulthood suffers a missing part of human wholeness. In the poet Wordsworth’s words, “The Child is father of the Man.” To deprive the child is to impoverish the man. Childhood is formative and educational in forming the heart, awakening a sense of wonder, falling in love with life, and marveling at the goodness and splendor of creation. The child’s introduction to “the multitude of things” that invites his participation at “hunter, soldier, tar, /And all the thousand things that children are” prepares him for assuming his place in the larger world where he will bring the happiness of his childhood and his love of life to his work, family, and all his relationships that he will envision again as a king enjoying his wealth in the form of joys to share.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.has published seven books, and taught English for fifty.This article was originally published at Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum. The Forum explores issues concerning life, family and faith from a Catholic perspective.

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