In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.

Erika Christakis made waves at Yale University last fall over a Halloween email in which she stated:

I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?

In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.

She resigned amidst the ensuing controversy and, in the meantime, published The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups. Though a book on early childhood education and child development might seem, at first glance, to share little in common with Christakis’ remarks regarding the freedom to offend with Halloween costumes, the texts share a common theme: adult desire to control children and young adults.

As Christakis says in her book, “There’s a surprisingly fixed, but false, belief that what we call learning must come from somewhere outside of the child, to be given, or withheld, by a qualified adult. But every young child’s brain contains the basis for learning. Wherever that child is is where we can find the child’s curriculum. Some early childhood educators capture this reality in the phrase ‘the child’s environment is the curriculum’.” The assumption about “a qualified adult” carries into Christakis’ Halloween commentary precisely because she believes that young adults are (or ought to be) capable of the discourse required to negotiate costumes on their own. I must say I agree with her.

Trusting children and young adults to be creative and thoughtful, and getting out of the way so they can actualize their visions, is a messy and uncomfortable process.

When I taught the course Women and Popular Culture, one of my students chose to do her presentation on Halloween costumes; it was timely, and she educated her classmates on some of the misperceptions and stereotypes that drive some of the more popular and controversial costumes. I won’t say that no one dressed like a Geisha or an Indian princess after that presentation, nor would I say that’s necessarily the point. But my students produced thoughtful dialogue about our rights and desires, the rights and desires of others, and the inevitable conflicts that arise between them.

It’s a matter of trust, of trusting that children and young adults alike are competent without official adult or institutional hand-holding. Take, for instance, Christakis’ points about the ubiquitous hand-outline turkey craft preschoolers produce every Thanksgiving. It’s quick and easy, because there’s no real skill required and teachers do most of the prep work beforehand, Christakis tells us. And it gives parents the impression that kids are producing something, however banal. As Christakis says “[t]heir sham output serves dull and simplistic goals.” It’s all too easy to transfer the same mentality to young adults, and I say this as the mother of two small children and someone who’s taught at the college-level for the last fourteen years. Trusting children and young adults to be creative and thoughtful, and getting out of the way so they can actualize their visions, is a messy and uncomfortable process. It’s also what education (as opposed to schooling) is about.

Much of Christakis’ book signals that the landscape of childhood has changed dramatically since those of us reading the book took part in it. There are benefits to that, as indicated by declining rates of childhood mortality. My worry-wart-self appreciated Christakis’ response: “Memo to anxious parents out there: Nice work! Your hypervigilance is paying off! (Improved safety regulations made a difference, too.)” But there are also a lot of question marks and concerns, like the unexamined use of technology and the push for more rigorous “curriculum” for younger and younger children, not to mention the widening gap between rich and poor in access to high-quality childcare. Christakis canvases all of these topics with personal insights from her years of working with small children, succinct summaries of academic research across a variety of fields, and general good sense. She’s a pragmatist at heart, but a passionate one.

I found much of her reflection on preschool particularly interesting because my children never attended. It’s a culture I witness only vicariously through friends and family members. Nationally, my family is a rarity, and so at times I found the emphasis on institutions a bit foreign. Christakis sticks to the fundamentals, though, acknowledging “that families will always matter most, and strengthening families and the locations where we find them, as much as preschools themselves, may be where we see the greatest impact.” These words served as an important reminder for me, that it’s not about whether my own children are in preschool but that all families with small children need support. Christakis takes this point further to argue “[w]e are all someone’s child, and we will one day depend on the enterprise and labor of somebody else’s children, if not our own.” The message that education is fundamentally relational runs throughout Christakis’ book, and that relationship extends from parent and child to preschool and teacher to community. It’s still true that investing in children is investing in the future.

I found myself called to be more compassionate, to show more grace to the children around me after reading Christakis’ book. I know, intellectually, how little control children get to exercise over their lives, and I know, experientially, how much influence loving adults can make in the lives of children. But, as Christakis cautions, that requires seeing children for themselves and nurturing a relationship with them instead of commanding from on high. It’s not so different from the Halloween email that urges college students to talk to each other instead of accept institutional edicts. Yet so few of us take the time to talk to each other, or to listen—to really listen—to children. And I can’t help thinking, as I write those sad words, of Matthew 19:14: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.” It’s an older message than Christakis’ The Importance of Being Little, but the concept is the same. Sometimes the best way to love children is to get out of their way.

Obviously I don’t mean neglect or abandonment there, but play—real play. Because the phrase “unstructured play” is an oxymoron. Even in spiritual matters, we can instruct, but we can’t force. And ultimately whether in secular or sacred education, children will one day have to make the learning their own. It’s never really learning until it is their own. It’s not easy to watch them struggle, but the meaning-making lies in the struggle. To answer the prompt from Christakis’ title, what preschoolers really need from grownups is the chance to be little, to bask in being little without adult intervention and interference to serve the ends of adult desires and fears. Just to be. And, connecting that back to Matthew 19:14, it seems that we grownups could take a few lessons from the children too, to play and to be in the image of our infinitely creative God.