One summer evening, my young children and I were walking around the track when I noticed that, a few yards ahead, a woman was watching us from the sidelines. As we came closer to her, I could tell she wanted to say something, and I was sure I knew what it was going to be: She would exclaim same phrase I hear from well-meaning strangers nearly every time I take our four children out in public—“You have your hands full!”—and I would respond with my usual polite smile and nod.
But I was wrong. She was about to say something else.
“I would give anything,” she sighed, looking at the children, “to have those years back again.”
Her words sank into my heart, leaving permanent impressions like letter blocks from an old printing press. Indeed, I might have my hands full now; but this woman reminded me to be grateful, because I have my heart full, too. When my children are grown, I know I will yearn, as she does, to have these years back again.
The presence of children in our lives is a joy and a gift—and it is steeped in holiness.
In Luke 9: 47-48, Jesus takes a child, puts him by his side, and says to his disciples, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me….”
This verse is different from Jesus’ imperative in Matthew 18:3 that we “become like children.” In Luke 9, he is not asking us to become like children, but to receive children in his name.
It is interesting to note what was happening when Jesus said this to his disciples. Right before he pulled the child to his side, the disciples had been arguing. What about? They were arguing about “which of them was the greatest” (Luke 9:46). After that, Scripture tells us that “when Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts,” that was the moment when he told them to receive a child in his name.
Jesus’ words were a response—a response to the pride and self-centeredness the disciples were displaying in arguing about who was the greatest. He was giving them the antidote to their lack of virtue. What is the antidote to pride and self-centeredness? Humility.
But Jesus didn’t say, “Stop arguing and be humble.” Instead, he told them to receive a child in his name. It makes perfect sense: In my experience, children are a direct route to humility.
We are part of a Church that asks us to receive the children God sends to us, the hoped-for and the unplanned; the well and the sick; the few or the many; the born and unborn; the natural, adopted, fostered, or orphaned; the neighbors’ children knocking on our door; the students sitting in our classrooms; the grandchildren, nieces, and nephews clamoring for our attention; and the children in poverty who need clothes and shoes and clean water.
What happens when we receive these children? Whether they are our own or someone else’s, when we spend enough time with children, the effect is universal: We are humbled.
The Humility of Intellect
“It feels like you aren’t getting anything done, when you’re just sitting on the floor with your child, doing a puzzle,” a friend said to me one day. “But the truth is, what you’re doing is so important.”
It is humbling to interact at length with people whose intellectual level (usually) has not reached ours. Many stay-at-home parents crave adult conversation because they find it difficult to converse all day at a child’s level. We naturally want to exercise our minds with complex adult tasks; yet being with children is a work of simplicity.
This is why my friend’s words struck a chord with me. When we are “sitting on the floor” with children—when we truly meet them at their level, instead of towering above them with both our height and our minds—when we are engaged and interested in what they are doing, we lose sight of our own “higher-level” and “advanced” interests. We give ourselves over to the job that may appear, on the surface, to be lesser, but is actually far greater: the job of nurturing a child’s mind and soul with our loving presence—a presence that cannot be replaced.
The Humility of Heart
“Parenting is one big, long examination of conscience,” I once heard a father of ten say.
It is humbling to see my own failings through the magnifying glass of raising children. Every single mistake, every fault, every sin seems a hundred times larger because it affects the dear souls whom God has entrusted to my care. I know they are watching me. I know that every move I make influences them in some way, for the good or for the bad. Flaws in myself that I might have overlooked and made excuses for before I had children are glaringly obvious now because they are reminders of how much I want to be a perfect mother, and how often I fall short.
This is a constant act of humility, and I must be cautious and keep it at humility, without giving in to the temptation of discouragement.
If parenting is one big, long examination of conscience, it is also one big, long chance to improve. With a humble heart, the knowledge of my imperfections will lead me not into despair but into a firm resolution to pick myself up, brush off, and to say with Saint Francis de Sales:
“Alas my poor heart, here we are, fallen into the pit we were so firmly resolved to avoid! Well, we must get up again and leave it forever. We must call upon God’s mercy and hope that it will help us to be steadier in the days to come….God will help us; we will do better.”
The Humility of Home
A few years ago, my sister Michele was getting a tour of a friend’s house. When they got to the garage, the friend apologized to my sister about its disorganized state. Michele reassured her that she did not need to apologize.
“We’re raising children, not garages,” Michele said. This friend later told me the story because Michele’s reply meant so much to her.
It is humbling when our homes are not the bastions of organization we want them to be. Young children, in particular, have a way of dismantling a room mere minutes after they just helped you straighten it. No matter how organized we may be, the fact remains that children bring messes. Houses with children can and do get messy. This is not a bad thing—it is a natural thing. Finger-painting and papier mâché and one-year-olds eating sweet potatoes are messy. If our children are going to actively engage in life, some messes will follow.
It may well happen that when the doorbell rings, our guests will arrive to deconstructed block buildings scattered on the living room floor, half-wet paintings covering the dining room table (with spilled paint on the chairs), and falling-down forts strewn along the length of the basement. Our shelves might overflow with twice the toys and games we wish we had because we have been too busy reading books and “sitting on the floor doing puzzles” with our children to clear out the giveaways yet. Our garage might be embarrassing.
But we are raising children, not garages. The messes keep us humble. When we receive the children who make them, we receive God. And if, God willing, I live to be 80, I imagine I will give anything to have those messes back again.