What are the unique blessings of childhood?
It took economist Larry Summers to point out that part of the point of childhood is childhood itself.
First is the gift of moral innocence: Young children are liberated from the burdens of the knowledge of the full extent of human evil—a knowledge that casts a pall over adult life. Childhood innocence permits children to trust others fully. How wonderful to live (even briefly) with such confidence in human goodness. Childhood innocence teaches us what the world ought to be.
Second is the gift of openness to the future. We adults are hamstrung by our own plans and expectations. Children alone are free to welcome the most improbable new adventures.
Third, children are liberated from the grim economy of time. Children become so absorbed in fantasy play and projects that they lose all sense of time. For them, time is not scarce and thus cannot be wasted.
Finally, we parents are so focused on adult superiority that we forget that most of us produced our best art, asked our deepest philosophical questions, and most readily mastered new gadgets when we were mere children.
Tragically, there is a real conflict within childhood between preparation for adulthood and the enjoyment of the gifts of youth. Preparation for adulthood requires the adoption of adult prudence, discipline and planning that undermine the spontaneous adventure of childhood.
Parents are deeply conflicted about how to balance these two basic demands: raising good little ladies and gentlemen, while also permitting children to escape into the irresponsible joys of Neverland.
Our wisest sages also disagree fundamentally about the nature of childhood. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle famously declared that “no child is happy” on the grounds that children are incapable of the complex moral and intellectual activities that constitute a flourishing life. Aristotle said that when we describe a child as happy, what we mean is that he or she is anticipating the achievements of adult life. For him, the only good thing about childhood is that we leave it behind.
By contrast, Jesus frequently praised children, welcomed their company, and even commanded adults to emulate them: “Unless you become like a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.”