Unexpected Teachers: Toddlers and Spiritual Lessons

IMG_0111I triple check stove knobs before leaving the house, recount pages in stapled assignments, and proofread text messages long after hitting the send button. At my worst, in the middle of the night, I lie awake debating whether or not I closed the garage door. My desire for control pervades my daily life; it ranges from stove knobs to completing tax forms to remaining hydrated. I desire control so much I decided my best way to cope was to father a child.

“Parenting is like wearing your heart outside your body for the rest of your life,” a friend warned. My son’s birth created an unprecedented test for my inner control freak. While he rested in my palms, I experienced a new level of vulnerability. I felt a complete loss of control.

As my son developed from sleepy infant to wide-eyed toddler, my need for control was further challenged. My son hurls himself off furniture, launches into walls, and bangs his head against hard surfaces. He does these daring activities with a smile on his face.

Children are like little mirrors. My son’s wild exploration of the world reflects back to me my control seeking behavior. He reveals to me my own issues, weaknesses, and unresolved problems. I do not raise him to provide myself with accountability, but it comes with the package.

I like to think my compulsive need to control his environment is a noble act—a sign of a good father—but I know there is more going on inside me. The twenty-five pound mirror in front of me reveals a larger picture.  He shatters my illusion of control.

The truth is I want to prevent my son from experiencing pain because I don’t want to be reminded of my own vulnerability. I don’t want to face the reality of my own fragile nature. I don’t want to face the reality of living in a harsh world, a world where I am not in control and at risk of pain and suffering. This is an unpleasant reality that my furniture-climbing toddler forces into my awareness.

Children are often unexpected teachers; miniature prophets speaking truths we can no longer see. “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” Jesus announces. He spoke these words to his disciples who questioned the presence of children. The disciples, like us, often need to be reminded to remove the barriers between ourselves and the innocent, clear eyes of children. 

What do the children in your presence reveal? If you listen closely and observe their actions, they might reflect back to you the places within your heart where spiritual growth is needed. Children have a knack for exposing our blind sides–the ways we deny, manipulate, and seek control. They disclose our attempts to force life into our own hands.

Recently, at nap time, I noticed my son’s small stomach rising and falling in a beautiful rhythm. Of course, he was unconscious and relying on his body’s autonomous systems to perform the essential act of breathing. In that moment, it dawned on me how little control I have over his life. I can pour endless energy into carrying out his best interests, but ultimately his existence is in the hands of the God who created his beautiful stomach. My son is given to me not to control, but to receive as a divine gift. And the best way to respond to a gift is appreciation, not control.

Loosening a tight grip on life can feel like a step into darkness, but the good news is when we embrace our lack of control, we make room for God to work in our lives. A new space is formed within our hearts. A space where we can relinquish our petty control attempts, and place our lives (and our loved ones) in God’s hands, where they belong.