‘Today, as in times past, the most important and also the most difficult task in raising a child is helping him to find meaning in life’ – Bruno Bettleheim
In my job as a priest I often find myself in moments with people where they are trying to meaning out of life. There are some moments that bring us all up short and force us to ask questions that otherwise, in the everyday course of our lives, simply fade into the background, crowded out by the demands of life. But then there are moments, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, that force people to confront their deepest questions and to try and make meaning. Things like the birth of a child, as that new searing, overwhelming loves comes into you life, or when someone dies and all the ultimate questions come at us with full force.
These times are difficult because grappling with these sorts of questions is really hard work. So it makes sense that most of the time we just let them be, rather than delving into the big questions that we have. But I do believe that asking these questions is part of what it means to be human and is something that happens for all of us at some stage of life or another. For children this seems to be another part of their way of relating to the world that comes so much more easily than it does for us adults.
You’ll know this scenario well if you have a child who is at the ‘Why?’ stage of development. They are full of questions about why things are the way they are and about the meaning of life. Recent studies of the spirituality of children have found that this questioning is another hallmark of the way in which children interact with the world. Everything is to be explored and question, very little is accepted as simply the way it is or so beyond our understanding as to be not really worth thinking about. It is often our discomfort as adults when presented with these big questions that stops children from asking them. We struggle with the feeling of ‘not having an answer’ and so struggle to accompany children on the journey of exploration.
And life, ultimately, is one long journey of exploration. One long attempt at making sense of the world around us. Again, I am reminded when I spend time with children of how vital it is to stay open, to keep asking questions and to keep looking for meaning as a part of my everyday life rather than waiting for when the real challenges come.
So how can we help the children in our lives in their quest for meaning?
Firstly, we might consider cracking out that dusty book of fairy tales on the shelf. Bruno Bettleheim in his book The Uses of Enchantment suggests that fairy tales are a great way for children to address fears, grapple with big questions and search for meaning. Fairy tales often contain themes, like the death of a someone on whom they depend, being lost or embarking out into life alone, that are (quite naturally) worrying to children.
Fairy tales, Bettleheim suggests, allow children a safe place to grapple with these questions and to follow the progress of the hero or heroine as they overcome these challenges. Bible stories, he suggests, also operate in much the same way for children if children are allowed the space to grapple with the story themselves.
Secondly, we might do a little bit of practice at how we deal with big questions from children. In the many, many assemblies and classes I have taken talking in school talking about the big themes of life I have yet to lead one where I knew the answer to every question. I like to turn the question back to the child and ask them what they think or perhaps, if there is a group of children, asking them all the question and seeing what answers come back.
I always begin by affirming the question as a great one to ask. Sometimes I share where I am on my own journey with the question. If a child, for example asked me what God was like I might say something like ‘I didn’t use to believe in God but then I had a moment where I felt amazing peace when I was talking about God with a friend, so I think God might be peace. What do you think?’
And of course it is impossible to lead anyone anywhere that you are not going yourself. If we believe that asking questions and looking for meaning builds resilience and well rounded people then it is important that we walk that path ourselves. In fact, truth be told, our kids might just be the very best guide for this. Seeing things through their eyes, enjoying their freshness and openness might be just the thing we need to look again at the world and how we see it.
This doesn’t mean coming to any particular set of answers or agreeing with any one religious perspective rather it is a stance of openness and a willingness to explore that I have seen be so fruitful for people in their lives.
So what do you think? How do you help the children in your life find meaning in the world?