Gibran’s “Children” – A profound look at child-rearing

Sometimes I will find something that strikes deep in the core of my being, and of course my first tendency is to repeat it in hopes that someone else will have the same reaction. Indeed, I think that it is why Ben Witherington posted what follows recently, just a little under a week after Father’s Day, and I presume the timing – and a shared experience – is part of why Dr. Witherington posted it.

So here it is, the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s profound look at child-rearing, “Children”:

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.”

And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

As Witherington aptly notes, we in American society are very much focused on making children in our image. (Witherington actually links this to conservative Protestant child-rearing, but I see this as a larger issue, as I will argue in a moment.) This is of course problematic for Christians because we should not be in the business of making our children into parent-imitators but into Christ-imitators, although it is conceivable that one might argue, like Paul, that parents can make their children into Christ-imitators by living like Christ.

One can see a potential reason for this from an evolutionary perspective: we focus on our children’s similarities to us because we think there’s something that should be preserved in ourselves that can be passed on to our children. It’s the same reason that most fathers want boys to be the heirs to the family name and that virtually all parents try to distinguish features or characteristics that their children inherited from them (e.g. “He has my eyes”; “She has your nose”). There is certainly something selfish in parents that makes us want to mold our children, stitched together with our genes and conditioned by our love, but Gibran puts forth a perspective of parents as a tool for children rather than as a ruler. In the language of the poem, children are gifts from God, not creations of parents as we are so prone to thinking, and like arrows to bows, children are meant to go further than their parents. To co-opt a metaphor of epistemological progress, parents are the giants upon which children stand, but once children get there, they will have no more need for the giants’ help. As Witherington concludes, “What did the old sage say ‘Train up a child in the way that they should go, and they…..’ And then let go and let God.” These are words to consider.

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