Whitney Houston's song The Greatest Love of All is one of those songs that pervades the zeitgeist, almost subconsciously.
I'd like to bring it to a conscious level in this post and think about the opening lines; do we really believe these words?
Firstly there's the title. The Greatest Love of All, according to Houston, is "learning to love yourself"... Really?
Jesus would disagree: John 15:13 "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." That is a greater love, according to Christ, greater even than "love your neighbor as yourself."
The song title is a sweet sentiment, but I don't think it's true. It's valuable to be able to love yourself, but it's a far cry from being the greatest love of all.
In Luke 14:26 Jesus uses some hyperbole when he says: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
I think that clears up the value of the sentiment. This sentiment forms the premise of the whole song; and, like all sweet things, it's easy to swallow but not extremely nourishing.
- "I believe the children are our are future." OK, no problem with that. They certainly are! If you're between the ages of 20 and 40 then children today will be making the decisions on your end-of-life care! Let's ensure they don't stay children longer than is absolutely necessary!
- "Teach them well and let them lead the way." Which is it, do we teach them well or do we let them lead the way?
You can't do both at the same time. This is so blatantly obvious, but we seem stuck, as a culture, on the sentiment of child leadership in society. Child singers, child teachers in the classroom, child politics; where do we get these ideas from? Well, we get them from Ms Houston's sentiment et al.
I remember the 1992 World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro. Out of this summit came the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. A young Canadian, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, then 12 years old, spoke at that conference in Rio. Her speech went viral and she was honored as "The Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes".
10 years later she wrote an article for Time magazine, here are some of her thoughts at 22: "Now, a decade from Rio, after I've sat through many more conferences, I'm not sure what has been accomplished. My confidence in the people in power and in the power of an individual's voice to reach them has been deeply shaken...
When I was little, the world was simple. But as a young adult, I'm learning that as we have to make choices—education, career, lifestyle—life gets more and more complicated... we are learning that what we wanted for our future when we were 12 was idealistic and naive."
Yes, that is so fundamentally obvious isn't it? Truth she couldn't possibly have articulated, let alone known, at 12. So then why are we so enamored by children leading? They are, by definition, naive. That's OK, they are children, they are supposed to be; and we are supposed to teach them well. They are not supposed to lead the way, not yet. That does not mean that children can't be brilliant, even profound at times. Sometimes adulthood gets in the way of making clear decisions and we need a child's faith to help show the way forward, but to "let them lead the way" is simply foolishness, and it creates a great deal of unnecessary anxiety in children.
I have argued against peers teaching sex education in schools. Usually the argument I come up against is that "studies show that children learn better from peers than from adults".
Well, if that is the case, then why stop at sex education? Why not have peers teach math, and physics, geography, and english, and sports. We'd save a lot of school budget currently spent on teacher's salaries, and kids would learn better, right?
We don't do that because we value being taught by the qualified; those who have mastered the discipline they are to teach, in the midst of life's other responsibilities, and also mastered some skill in teaching. We are not just concerned with how children learn, we are equally concerned with what is taught! Which is why sex education should be taught by adults, preferably parents, who have children and responsibilities and some measure of success at leading their own life, and it should not be taught by those who merely possess sexual organs.
I would argue that the quality of what is taught in sex education is even more valuable than other subjects, since not every child will be doing advanced math, or geography, or english... But just about every child will grow up to have sex at some point.
- "Show them all the beauty they possess inside." I agree that children have some beauty inside and we ought to point it out when it shows itself; but let's be honest, it's not as much as we need or as much as they think they have. Most children grow up to be liars, and cheats who will compromise their ethics when given the chance, including me. Some also grow up to be sociopaths, murders, and rapists; others, like Ms Houston will battle addictions and self medication despite (or even because of) unusual success. We were all children at some point. We don't fail children by neglecting to show them the beauty they possess inside; we fail children when we neglect to show them, and then to correct, the ugly they possess inside.
We need to show them all the ugly they possess inside, and how to rightly master it, that is how to truly love someone. The idea that children are entirely innocent is a very obviously flawed idea, as Augustine admitted for all of us in his autobiography, Confessions:
"It can hardly be right for a child, even at that age, to cry for everything, including things which would harm him; to work himself into a tantrum against people older than himself and not required to obey him; and to try his best to strike and hurt others who know better than he does, including his own parents, when they do not give in to him and refuse to pander to whims which would only do him harm. This shows that, if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength."
- "Give them a sense of pride." Ahhh, pride, my old nemesis. By that I mean that my pride is as old as I am, I do not mean that it is an enemy I have by now conquered. Of course there are many forms of pride, a few are even somewhat healthy, but we don't start childhood development there.
It is not love to give children a sense of pride. It is love to to give children a sense of right and wrong, and accomplishment.
All childhood development starts with ethics: Health, mental development, relational, physical, all of it. We cannot expect a healthy, productive adult population if we start by giving them a sense of pride, teaching them to love themselves when they are children. But when we give children a sense of others, when we allow children to feel the pain of others, then we give them the greatest gift the world could receive, empathy. Or as Jesus put it, "laying your life down for your friends."
If we are that serious about human dignity then I suggest that when it comes to our children, we let go of the broken sentiments epitomized in this song and that we stop following the advice of those who espouse them.