On Children

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In her autobiography, Life on Two Levels (1978), Quaker dynamo Josephine Duveneck tells of a year when she provided a foster home in Los Altos Hills, CA, to a seven-year-old Jewish boy from Germany, while Hitler was rising to power in Europe. “What a sweet little personality he was . . . He had been to school just before the time when Jewish children were banned, hence he was thoroughly indoctrinated with Nazi ideology. . . He told me that Adolph Hitler was the greatest man since Jesus Christ. I did not try to disillusion him. Soon, with the help of our horses, his hero worship was [redirected]. At Peninsula School, he learned English and also found out how to play games instead of how to march. I remember vividly the day when the portrait of Hitler that he had tacked up on his closet door had disappeared, and a poster with Franklin Roosevelt’s photograph on it took its place.”

Friends often speak of “continuing revelation” as an indomitable force of Truth advancing through centuries of Quaker worship – allowing each generation to reinterpret sacred texts in contemporary terms. Unfortunately, “continuing revelation” is a force that Falsehood exploits as well. News flash – this just in – today’s innovations in lying, stealing, torturing, and killing will astonish you. Both the ocean of darkness and the ocean of light suffuse us all. The route we hope to navigate from birth to wise old age is a confusion of countless crosscurrents. Psychologist Erik Erikson’s life work examined the many tensions that we must learn to bear during the different stages of our lives: trust and mistrust, initiative and guilt, intimacy and isolation, generativity and stagnation, to name a few. Each little boat that navigates this life is “a human being’s existence [which] depends at every moment on three processes of organization that must complement each other” – a body, a psyche, and a culture (Erickson, 1982). Few people are born with blessings in all three areas.

It’s a lucky child who is born into bodily health. Due to malnutrition worldwide, approximately 3 million children die and approximately 150 million children under age five are stunted in their growth each year (UNICEF, 2018). It’s a lucky child who is born into psychological health. “It’s estimated that over 1.1 billion people worldwide had a mental or substance use disorder in 2016 . . . around 1-in-6 people” (Our World in Data, 2018). It’s a lucky child who is born into a culture that’s safe. The International Institute for Strategic Studies listed these nations as suffering from active armed conflicts in 2018: Afghanistan, Brazil, Congo, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Iraq, Lebanon, Mali, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Despite the unique mix of blessings and tragedies in any life, virtually every person aspires to accomplish a similar sequence of tasks: learn to walk, learn to talk, learn the culture, make friends, form a family, do productive work, and find some meaning in it all. This path requires each of us to learn to balance our own needs and desires against the needs and desires of others. The lucky child will grow under the guidance of adults who, when they must set limits, will take care to “define the small individual’s leeway in such a manner that some basic choices remain guaranteed even as certain areas of self-will are surrendered.” The unlucky child will suffer under adult authority that is rigid or capricious, so that “the necessity to differentiate between right and wrong, good and bad, mine and thine, may degenerate either into an overly compulsive compliance or, indeed, into a compulsive impulsivity” (Erickson, 1982).

The world stage is crowded with autocrats, gangsters, war lords, and sexual predators, who revel in the powers of compulsive compliance and compulsive impulsivity. As Friends, we can each of us patiently seek to foster greater maturity and wisdom in at least one of our fellow human beings. We can search for “a sweet little personality” in each, no matter how noxious their ideology, and, as John Woolman assures us, “if we obediently attend to that wisdom which is from above, our gracious Father will open a way for us to give them such an education as he requires of us” (circa 1764).  ~~~