5 Tips on Childhood – Denise Inge on Thomas Traherne
Denise Inge wrote this article for Christians Aware in 2007. She died recently (2014) and they republished the article. It is printed here with their permission. Denise Inge is author of Thomas Traherne: Poetry and Prose (SPCK 2002) and Happiness and Holiness: a Traherne Reader (Canterbury Press 2007)
The 17th-century mystic has much to teach society now about recovering the joy of childhood.
The spotlight is on a poisoned childhood. The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver campaigns for better school dinners, while a letter signed by the children’s authors Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, and the child psychologist Penelope Leach, among others, has sparked The Daily Telegraph’s national ‘Hold onto childhood’ campaign.
Incidents of childhood depression are on the rise; children’s brains cannot adjust to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. Supported by the Archbishop of Canrebury, The Children’s Society has launched its ‘The Good Childhood Inquiry’. . Clearly, the concern to salvage childhoods toxic with junk food, virtual play, and the pressure of exams and advertising is being felt as a need to change society.
If society at large needs to change, parents and carers also have immediate choices to make. For guidance, we might look to the 17th-century priest Thomas Traherne (c.1636-1674), arguably Anglicanism’s most eminent writer on happiness, who made childhood happiness one of his major themes. Out of his wider theology, here are five practical tips on detoxing childhood
TIP No. 1: The world is good.
More than positive psychology’s attempt to look on the bright side, this is a statement about the origins of happiness which are innate in creation, and in us as human beings.
Traherne believed that, as humans were made in the image of God, happiness was natural to human beings; it was unhappiness that was taught. We come into a world that is, despite the devatations o sin, still essentially good, with have a propensity for joy. ”You are as prone to love as the sun is to shine,” he wrote. Yet what our children hear, from the moment they wake up until the click of the light switch at night, is the background news of terror, shortage, conflict, and disaster. You are good; the world is good; God is good, we must remind them.
Traherne insists that we are heirs of a bountiful creation. Children alive to an inheritance of plenitude may learn to extend themselves generously to others.
Tip No. 2: Teach where the real treasures lie.
Grown-ups see treasure in the rare, the expensive, and the luxurious; but the conker, paper clip, and thread treasures in the pockets of any child’s jeans will tell you that their sense of treasure is upside-down. With them, Traherne sees treasure in things that are the most simple, common, and useful. The sun rather than gold; the moon instead of silver. We dangle baubles in front of children, and promise them empty rewards, when we could nurture their fascination with real hidden treasure.The lesson here is to teach truth. Have fun putting a label on your water jug, saying “Most valuable liquid on earth”, or a sign on the door, saying “This room is full of oxygen”. Thank God in your bedtime prayers for their beating heart. Children love treasure, especially if it is hidden. Run with this notion, and you can make them conservators of creation – not because they fear the destruction of the world, but out of delight and reverence.
Tip No. 3: Open your eyes.
Traherne remembered the wide-eyed nature ochildhood, and wrote: “We need nothing but open eyes to be ravished like the Cherubims.” As one child psychologist has put it: “Every day for a child is like going to Paris and falling in love for the first time.” In Traherne’s day, the newly discovered microscope and telescope were making the world suddenly infinite in two directions at once. For our children, these discoveries are still new. Like them, be fascinated by the tiny and the enormous. They come into the world with open eyes; don’t cloud their vision. Do less, and notice more.
Tip No. 4: Take time
Unawareness of time, maddening to adults, is a great gift our children have to offer. Let them give you this gift. When you can allow the clock not to matter. “All Time was Eternity,” wrote Traherne of his childhood experience. Stop rushing yourself. Stop rushing your child from one thing to the next. Very much against the ethos of targets and achievement, Traherne would say emphatically that childhood is not a race. Just occasionally, take your watch off.
Tip No. 5: Enjoy life
“Learn to enjoy what you have,” Traherne writes in the Centuries. We grow rich, says Traherne, not by having what we want, but by enjoying what we have. This is not to say live your life in little box, but savour. The better we get at savouring, the less we feel we need, and the more we then have to share. All of this, simple as it sounds, is difficult to practise. It runs counter to our culture of haste and waste that to live like this means to make choices seriously outside the mainstream. It means not giving in to pester power or to the pressure of upward comparisons.
Detoxing is not an easy option as any lover of caffeine can tell you. Headaches, tantrums, and sudden cravings may assault you on the way. Certainly your children will not always follow you obligingly. Perhaps the problem is not so much about vanishing childhood as it is about an abdication of adulthood. Here is one of the key issues in a toxic childhood that no one wants to face. If childhood is really being poisoned, we must ask who is administering the poison, or, at least, who is leaving the cupboards unlocked.