What My Children Teach Me

by Martin McDonald

The paradox of Christian parenting is that whereas I have a duty to raise my children to become saints, it is they who reveal to me what saints are made of. Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:1-4).

This sobering statement is the second part of Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question: Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

The first part is even more striking: And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them. Jesus’ actions speak louder than words, and in parallel passages we see the affection with which he treats this child. In Mark’s account, he takes him in his arms (9:33-7). And according to Luke, he put him by his side (9:46-8).

As a father, I find myself standing in the disciples’ shoes, for I am evangelised daily by the children whom the Lord has affectionately “put in the midst” of my marriage. Though I teach my kids who Jesus is, it is they who show me how to love Him.

For the first four years of our marriage, my wife Rose and I lived on the stunning coast of Wales, and every time we went to the beach, our eldest daughter, Janie, would spend the entire time collecting shells and pebbles. She hand-picked every one; the tiniest were her favorites.

When it was time to go home, she would continue searching as she strolled away, as if she had all the time in the world. If she could, she would have happily stayed forever, trying to fit the countless shells into her pockets.

Janie’s unpolluted mind can see the goodness inscribed into tiny gems carved by the sea which, far too often, adults like myself walk past obliviously. Whilst I tend to be lost in the cares of the world, she finds herself through the beauty of creation. She reminds me that life is a contemplative play date with the Divine Toymaker and that the universe is his handmade toy box.

The best toys, however, are hidden from the wise and learned and revealed to children (Mt 11:25).

Last Advent, as a way of making room for the Christ Child, we sorted through our possessions and picked out things that we don’t really need but which could be of use to others. One item in particular, a snail bath toy, Janie was reluctant to part with. When Mommy explained that if we give it away it might bring joy to another child, Janie stormed away in a typical four-year-old tantrum.

Later that day, she came up to Mommy, gave her the toy she had cradled in her hands, and in the sweetest little voice said: “Here, Mommy, I want you to give my snail to the children.” We were so proud of her.

It was a teaching moment for all of us, challenging me to examine my own attachment to the things of this world. Do I really practice what I preach when I ask my kids to give up something dear to them?

Rose has often told me of times when she would be feeling down or tired and our second daughter, Jacinta, would comfort her by saying, “It’s okay Mama, I’ll take care of you” or when she (Jacinta) would cover her with a blanket as she tried to get some rest.

Then one day I experienced the caring nature of this three-year-old for myself. I came home exhausted and collapsed on the sofa. Without being prompted, Jacinta quietly tiptoed into her bedroom, dragged out her duvet and delicately covered me from head to toe with meticulous precision.

She didn’t say a word. She didn’t need to. Her face, which I could see out of the corner of my semi-closed eye, said it all. She was trying to keep me warm; but she ended up melting my heart.

Then there was the time our highly sensitive smoke alarm went off unexpectedly. When this happens, I usually grab a chair and disconnect the alarm while Rose covers up the ears of Jemma, our youngest. On this occasion, my hands were covered with dough so Rose dealt with the alarm.

With lightening speed, Jacinta ran across the room and covered Jemma’s little ears. Her actions stunned us more than the ear-piercing alarm.

Jacinta has a gift for noticing when someone is in need, and the reflexes of her heart are quick to respond. If she had been the child whom Jesus called, she would have run to him immediately and without reserve.

Would I have done the same? Do I hear Christ calling to me through the needs of my family, friends, neighbours? I am humbled when I think of all the times that I have hesitated or failed to help Jacinta when she needed me.

Our third daughter, Jemma, who is almost eleven months old, has been a revelation to me of how life is not a casual gift from God but a gift which we need and which needs to be received.

She was “put in our midst” to bring light to a dark and difficult chapter in our family’s history. Within hours of giving birth, my wife and I both felt and said to each other that “God knows exactly what we need and precisely when we need it!”

Like the disciples who questioned Jesus about greatness, I have a great need to humble myself like this child (Mt 18:4). I need to accept who I am—sins, wounds, and all—so that I can receive the Father’s love for me. And this realisation came through Jemma’s extraordinary smile.

Janie and Jacinta smiled, of course, but not as often or as infectiously as Jemma. Smiling comes as naturally as breathing to her and is as soothing as a breath of fresh air to us. It is as if the Lord has written into her smile a personal message which says: “Don’t worry, just smile, as I smile at the trivial things you worry about.”

A year before Jemma’s birth we had an 8-week miscarriage. To our surprise, Janie, who was two years, nine months old at the time, displayed symptoms of grief following the death of her brother whom she had, of course, never met.

A month after the miscarriage, we were having lots of fun at the beach when Janie suddenly became sad and wanted to go home.

When Mommy asked her why she was feeling sad, Janie replied: “I miss baby.” “Do you mean baby Jaden?” “Yeah, baby Jaden.” She wanted to play with him at the beach.

There were moments during that short pregnancy when I didn’t want to have another child yet, and my initial reaction to seeing the lifeless ultrasound image was, to my shame, relief.

But through Janie’s grief, as well as my own, I have learned that if I cannot receive this child (Lk 9:48) whom God has willed for his own sake and for my family’s sake, I have no right to call myself a child of God, nor should I take my place in heaven for granted.

The key to becoming like little children is to be close to them, as Jesus is. The highlight of my parenting day is bedtime stories. What once seemed like a chore has now become a much needed reawakening of the child within as I sit with one child in my arms, one by my side and one on my shoulders.

But these precious moments won’t last forever. Children grow up so fast, and my time as a student in the school of childlikeness will soon be over. If I graduate, if I become a saint and enter the kingdom of heaven, it will be because my children, my greatest teachers, taught me how.

The McDonalds, our friends and neighbors, live in Combermere.