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5 Spiritual lessons we can learn from little children

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A mother of four sees first-hand why Jesus wants us to imitate the little ones.

One of my favorite icons depicts Jesus with children scampering about him. It illustrates three verses from Chapter 19 of Matthew’s Gospel:

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Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked them,

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but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

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After he placed his hands on them, he went away.

Parallel verses are found in Mark 10:13-16 and Luke 18:15-17.

Mark makes the part about the kingdom into a solemn warning, “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” He also adds that Jesus took the children into his arms, embracing them and blessing them.

For his part, Luke specifies that “even infants” were among the children being brought to Jesus.

Thinking (and praying) about these verses can tell us a lot about the kind of guy Jesus must have been. Small children don’t want to be around people who scare them or intimidate them in any way. They certainly won’t let just anyone give them a hug. Through research on the Shroud of Turin we know that Jesus was tall and muscular, yet he must have transmitted a gentleness — and spirit of fun — that made children comfortable being with him.

At the same time, Jesus’ words in the passage ask us to reflect on how we’re supposed to be — what kinds of attitudes and practices we should live in our lives — because “the kingdom of heaven” belongs to people who are like little children. And we’re not getting into that kingdom if we don’t imitate them!

I spend my days around little children — four of them — so many possibilities come to mind when I think about what Jesus wants us to imitate in children.

Here are five things I’ve noticed recently.

1. Little children take joy in the simple things. There’s hardly anything cuter than hearing them erupt in giggles just because Daddy is coming around the corner with big stomp steps, or big brother is playing peek-a-boo.

2. They trust that whatever comes is for their good. We adults have to remind ourselves to repeat Romans 8:28 (all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord) when contradictions come, whether they be as minor as a full parking lot or as great as the untimely loss of a loved one. We know God’s taking care of us, but it’s so hard to give him free reign. Kids aren’t that way though. They’ll trustingly accept whatever comes their way. My 6-year-old made this point for me the other day as she called out from the mud puddle that forms in the backyard after a rain: “Mom! Little brother will drink the stinky water!” She offered it to him in a toy cup and (presumably) wasn’t expecting him to drink it, but of course he did.

3. Small children do have a certain sense of risk. Have you ever watched a young toddler navigate an uneven sidewalk? Usually they’ll notice the small ledge between the squares, decide they have to treat it like a stair step, and turn around to back themselves “down” the drop off — even if it’s only a half inch. But that same child, standing at the top of a staircase, will lunge several steps into Mommy’s arms, even if she’s not expectantly waiting. As long as Mom’s around, there’s nothing to fear.

4. Little kids are also bad at dwelling on regrets. My 4-year-old had never had a haircut because her hair had come in naturally even in gorgeous brown curls that — until the other day — stretched most of the way down her back. But for reasons I do not know, she secretly and suddenly decided that she needed short hair. So she took a handful under one ear and chopped it off. And another handful under the other ear and chopped that off too, leaving just a strand down her back that she couldn’t reach. I figured that she was sad, after seeing how everyone reacted and realizing that she didn’t have enough hair for a pony tail or a braid anymore. So I asked her some days later in the bath, “Honey, do you wish you hadn’t cut your hair?” “But Mommy,” she replied cheerfully, “when I’m 10 it will be long. And water makes it grow!”

5. They know that wrongdoing doesn’t destroy relationship. Pope Francis likes to remind us that God doesn’t get tired of forgiving us; it’s us who get tired of asking for forgiveness. It’s hard for us to realize that God’s love for us doesn’t depend on us, that we can’t misbehave ourselves out of it. But little kids realize that. My 2-year-old was having quite a tantrum in the bathtub last night; he threw the bath crayons across the room one by one in protest at having his hair washed. Seconds later, though, his sweet face was turned up in expectation, because he wanted me to put the toy goggles on him. It doesn’t occur to him that his misbehaving could affect my love for him in the least, and in fact his favorite place to work through his wrongdoing is tight in my embrace. Sounds like an image for the sacrament of confession!

So kids teach us joy, trust, surrender, more trust, living in the present moment, and humble acceptance of our weakness and dependence on God. That is a good recipe for entering the Kingdom.

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