While visiting a friend last year, I was captivated by her five-year-old sprite; a black-eyed lass with banshee curls and the smile of a vastly mischievous angel. I returned one night, just at her bedtime and she jumped into my lap, settled herself squarely and took my face firmly in two hands. "Sarah," she squeaked, her eyebrows lifted importantly, "thank you for coming back to us." She is in my mind today, her innocent words a theme in my head as I think over a book I've been reading that threatens to change my life: Wes Stafford's Too Small To Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most. Stafford is the head of Compassion International, the Christian child-sponsorship organization that works with children in the most poverty-stricken areas of the world. The gist of his book is that children in all societies, rich as well as poor, have become the second-class citizens of the world. Children, he says, are the most vulnerable members of humanity, but also the ones who bear the seeds of its future. They are the last in the global line to receive care, food, protection, nourishment, but it is the hope or despair begun in their littlest years that will shape future societies. The most basic of provisions of food, clothing, and education, can change whole generations. I love this.
But what truly caught my eye in what Dr. Stafford said was that children, even rich, Western children, can also be marginalized in spirit just as easily as body. Shunted aside in soul. We westerners, with our busy schedules and easy food and constant entertainment and ease have the whole nourishment, shelter, and education thing covered, but we often forget the soul. We forget what spiritual potential is in the young, impressionable heart of a child. We allow busyness and the voices of TV, hurry, peer pressure, and a materialistic view of the world to fill, and ultimately shape, the heart of a child. Satan knows this and rejoices. A child's heart is a vast, devastatingly vulnerable space, a blank canvas, a fallow field. What is sown there in the earliest years will found the faith, morality, and purpose of a whole life. But do we busy moderns even know what is means any more to spark the eternal spirit of a child to life? Do we understand the need of the human soul for deep thought, for quiet, for strong relationships, for beauty? Do we understand how necessary these things are to a living, active faith in God?
Oddly enough, I've been smacked in the face with these questions even before I read Dr. Stafford's book. Every bit of research I had to do for my book on children's lit., Read for the Heart, ended up having to do with how the mind and soul of a child is formed, and the consequences early influences have on an entire life. Of course, the first force I studied was reading. As I researched the scientific side of what a "word-rich atmosphere" does to a child's brain, I became convinced of the power of books to literally mold a child's mind, to set the groundwork for an entire education. But I moved beyond the merely physical, the merely educational value of reading, and began to question how stories actually shape the spirit. I looked at research comparing the cultural activities of readers vs. non-readers. Did you know that a reader of fiction or poetry is almost twice as likely as a non-reader to see a play or concert or piece of art, get involved in politics, or volunteer with a charitable organization? I had to ask why. Why would a reading child have a heightened interest in music and art, in the forces of cultural ideas, in helping needy people?
Because stories wake the soul. Great stories with heroes and heroines teach us that we were meant to live in a meaningful way. Imagined beauty makes us want to create real-life art and music and song. Stories teach consequences to actions. At the end of this research process I'm raring to write a whole new book because I am convinced that reading is not about merely fulfilling a quotient of words in order to make a child smart. Reading, I believe, is about the imprint of a great story on a child's soul. Reading is about great words and vivid imagery sparking a child's hunger for beauty, for good work, for friendship, for heroism. A good story teaches us, just like Scripture, that we are part of a story, and we are called to live a heroic, compassionate tale ourselves.
Realizing that pushed me to look beyond just reading into every force that shapes a child's understanding of life. You wouldn't believe the statistics about the things that really shape children. Things like how love and affection are more important than material goods. About how the freedom to explore, to have empty hours (yes, be bored!) free of technology is the place where ideas are born and intelligence formed. About the importance of being outdoors. About how TV literally drugs the brain. And how music wakes it back up.
In the end, I find that what I am ultimately passionate about is not merely books, it is the nurture of what is eternal in a young human being. In our modern, affluent culture, we have physical ease, we have food, we have huge systems of education, but none of these are enough to spark and nurture a new spirit to life. To do that, there must be a loving family and community instead of isolated hours with electronics. There must be great stories to widen the soul, and discussion round the dinner table instead of another hour of screen time and loneliness. There must be immersion in nature, the world of God, there must be beauty, laughter, daily rhythms of work, rich homes, strong images of what is right and good instead of morally ambiguous entertainment and constant, frenzied activity.
Dr. Stafford advocates for children poor in material goods and that is something I want to join him in doing. But he also advocates for children poor in spiritual truth, and that is something I want to jump up and yell about. As I have read his book, glimpsed again the vulnerable beauty of a child's spirit, it has made me want to stand up and fight for the souls of the children in my time. It breaks my heart to see children robbed of curiosity by hours of screen time, bereft of innocence because they've already been exposed to images and messages they should never see. I hate seeing lonely children because we are an isolationist culture who spends more time on facebook than on actual friends. I hate seeing busyness, the constant push to buy, see, and do shoving out the rich hours of quiet, of conversations with parents and mentors, of space for creativity, because we as a culture have lost sight of what it means to nurture not just the body, but the soul. The absence of affection, of beauty, of deep relationships, of quiet and nature and creativity, can produce just as devastating a future for our world as material poverty.
I think back to my black-eyed little friend, her "thank you for coming back to us," and I find an invitation, a challenge, hidden in her simple words. We must, as a culture, come back to the souls of little children. We must advocate for their spirits. I don't yet know clearly what I mean by this, or what it will look like in my life. I stumbled into this whole children's literature realm because I was raised on books, and it was natural to tell other people how lovely that was. I stumbled onto Wes Stafford's book because it was in my church bookstore, and I loved his heart for kids. But God never wastes any bit of our lives, and I begin to realize that my own rich childhood, my own love of books, my gift of parents who knew how to nurture my soul, has helped me to see how much the souls of other little children need reviving.
I don't know if any of this is coherent, but I had to write it out. It is a drive in my veins right now. I'm praying how to begin.
What do you think about it all?