To sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE.
It all seems like a dream, yet the details are vivid. The setting was “Pension Paula,” built into the mountain overlooking Innsbruck, Austria, quaint and typically Bavarian. We no more got settled in our room than I was off exploring with Mark, our three-year-old son, leaving our younger son in the room with his father. A variety of trees, lavender phlox, magnolias, and tiny pink and yellow blossoms gave us a visual feast. The twilight air was misty, and I could hear birds singing and church bells in the distance. An affinity with nature made me feel so alive! Lights coming on in the city and a whisper of sunset beginning to color the sky added to the enchantment. We started down a steep hill and I said to my small son, “Keep hold of Mommy’s hand tightly, Mark. It’s very steep.” Then this little child took my breath away with words I didn’t expect: “I will, Mommy,” he replied, “cause you might fall.”
How many times do our children become our examples, our teachers, that we might not fall? Now that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are over, I somehow think we ought to have a day to honor children too! Not by giving gifts or indulging them as we do on many holidays, but by recognizing their pure spirits. The Savior didn’t say “except ye become as a mother or father ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.” It is little children he set forth as our great exemplars.
In Matthew 18:3 we read, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” And in Mosiah 3:18, “…except they humble themselves and become as little children.” The Lord infers that we are to learn from children, and in the best ways become like them. “Except ye become as little children. . . .”
“I have a hard time with that concept,” a friend of mine said. “Children in the Savior’s day must have been very different from the ones today. The Savior couldn’t have been talking about these selfish, whiny, disobedient children!” We talked it through and concluded that the great difference between being child-ish and child-like could be compared to the difference between the natural man and the spiritual man. The Savior was certainly not suggesting we revert to childish behavior, but that we cultivate the childlike characteristics that are also Christ-like.
In order to cultivate the childlike characteristics referred to, we need to define them. Years ago I tried to do that with examples I was seeing every day in my first four grandsons, Malachi, Nathan, Ammon, and Thayne, the children I was closest to in all the world at the time. They are all teenagers now and Malachi is preparing for a mission, so I’ve been able to watch these special people learn and grow over the years. I want to share what I wrote about them more than a decade ago.
The Veil is Thin with Infants
(April, 2003) Recently I spent the evening tending my four-month-old grandson Thayne. We had a wonderful time, just the two of us. He is in that glorious stage of smiling and cooing that Grandmas love. He keeps at it longer than any baby I’ve been around. We had one “conversation” that lasted twenty minutes! I asked him what it was like in heaven, and with big blue luminous eyes locked into mine he proceeded to tell me. I felt the purity and beauty of his spirit and my heart overflowed with gratitude for the privilege of being with him.
After Thayne’s mommy and daddy came to reclaim their precious cargo, I was happy to know I could go to bed and not be awakened during the night. Still, I hardly wanted the evening to end. Being so close to this shining new person, with nothing to distract me from noticing the beauty of his countenance, had somehow been a sacred time for me. I couldn’t quit thinking about him.
Thayne was born two months early and spent several weeks in Newborn ICU wired to monitors with a feeding tube threaded uncomfortably into his tiny nose and down to his stomach. He often tried to pull the tube out, succeeding twice, but in general, his patience with all the nonsense he had to suffer was remarkable. He would look at me so sweetly with seeming resignation, but sometimes I thought I saw pleading in his eyes too. I wished so much I could rescue him and take him home to all the loving arms that yearned to hold him. He was finally released, but was soon rushed back to the hospital with pneumonia. It’s taken Thayne months to get really well, but his patience and sweet nature through it all has impressed me deeply. Newborns have a Christ-glow that can truly remind us of what heaven is all about.
Children Are Alive in Christ
Thinking of Thayne, my thoughts turn back to the scripture “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).This scripture tells us it is the process of conversion that makes it possible for us to become childlike. In 1 Corinthians 14:20 we read, “Be not children in understanding . . . But in understanding be men.” Could it be that the conversion process (a lifelong quest for most of us) not only builds our understanding of spiritual things, but helps us become once more as little children? In what ways? Perhaps the summarizing statement is made by Moroni: ”For behold that all little children are alive in Christ” (Moroni 8:22). And so this is my goal, to be “alive in Christ.” What characteristics would I need to accomplish that?
What do I see in Thayne and my other little grandsons that could be the characteristics Jesus talked about and exemplified? What must I develop or “recapture” in my own character in order to be “like a little child” in all the right ways?
Many scriptures mention the necessity of the quality of meekness, which the dictionary defines as being “humbly submissive.” Thayne has certainly exemplified the quality of submitting with patience to all the Lord has seen fit to inflict on him so far. Since growth is a primary task of his little life, he readily submits to the need to spend lots of time sleeping and resting. As an adult, I’ve resisted that need, pushing my body to keep going when it was tired. I have been driven by the idea that growth requires movement, forward action, and continuous effort. Thayne teaches me that growth more often requires quiet rest, submission to the natural ebb and flow of life, listening to the needs of the body and willingly responding. And so I seek the kind of meekness and submission to God’s will that fuels spiritual growth and undergirds spiritual strength.
A Heart Full of Love
Tiny children find loving as natural as breathing—perhaps because they so recently came from a heavenly home full of love. When I look into Thayne’s little face and speak lovingly to him, he focuses his attention on me and the love just pours out of him. Is he selective of who he responds to in a loving way? No. When he was in the hospital, he responded in the same sweet way to all the nurses who kindly cared for him as well as to his family members. Is selectively loving, then, a learned thing?
My older grandsons, like all well-loved children, relate to others with open arms and total acceptance. Do I worry when I tend them that I haven’t had time to do my hair or that my shirt isn’t an exact match for my pants? Of course not. They notice only my love for them, and criticism is a foreign language they have not yet learned. So how do I unlearn it? Are children born with charity, the pure love of Christ, then gradually lose it? When we pray for charity, are we really praying to remember how we loved when we were little children?
Jesus, in His loving way said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein” (Luke 18:16-17). How would a little child receive the kingdom of God? In the same way he receives love from those around him—whole-heartedly, without questioning, withholding nothing. How can I return to that loving state? Only through the healing power of Christ and through following the injunction to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons [children] of God” (Moroni 7:48). In adulthood, we can recapture the loving heart of a small child only through the most heart-felt prayers. It is “bestowed” as we become true followers of Christ.
A prime quality of little children is their humble eagerness to learn, their willingness to be taught. One of the first phrases little Nathan learned was “what’s that?” He asked that question incessantly, pointing to the tiniest things on a storybook page, things I hadn’t even noticed, as well as every object in my house, wanting to assign names to all the wondrous things in this world he was trying to adjust to. My oldest grandchild, Malachi, has always seemed to take learning very seriously, concentrating on a task totally—whether it was learning to put a cassette in and out of a player, zip his coat, or put together a new puzzle. He wants to learn, asks you to show him, tell him, teach him. In that same spirit I can go to the scriptures, or to the Lord and His representatives, asking in humility to be taught the things of the Spirit, never assuming that my poor understanding is sufficient.
As mortal children we all have spirits in need of refinement and perfecting, and we have been given weakness to make us humble (See Ether 12:27). All children come to this earth as “works in progress” in need of the refinement that meeting mortal experience with spiritual help can bring. It is the life work of each growing child of God to seek the Spirit in order to become more Christ-like.
As children grow older, they find they can use agency to choose to be unhappy. Sometimes they choose to stay in their rooms and cry when they could choose to stop crying and come out. Sometimes they make a poor choice repeatedly when they know from experience that the consequence is going to make them unhappy. Too often I am like little children in these ways, which are far from Christ-like! Humility—the willingness to learn to do better—shines the Savior’s light on my life and I learn repeatedly to use my agency in more Christ-like ways.
Full of Faith and Joy
Faith is the life-breath of a child. Two-year-old Ammon’s face is full of faith, his life shines with faith and his faith is the fountain of his joy. Wasn’t I the same way at that age? I must seek every day to recapture the trusting nature of the child I once was. When I feel simple trust, I find again in me the child-spirit, with its joy in life. Could anything be sweeter than the laughter bubbling from Malachi when a duck waddles right up to his toes and gobbles up the bread he offers? That kind of laughter has a beautiful, pure crystal sound as much a part of God’s world as the babbling of a brook or the patter of raindrops. And it takes so little to bring it forth—a push in a swing, a tiny tickle, a funny noise, an unexpected clap in a finger-play. How I’d love to laugh again that way. [Recently I did— responding to the infectious laughter of three-year-old Ellie. Laughing together was pure joy.]
My grandsons take joy in BE-ing. I love to watch babies discover themselves. They do not know the meaning of self-consciousness or self-doubt. They simply enjoy being themselves. They think the little person in the mirror is wonderful. They do not doubt or criticize themselves or think they should look or be different than they are.
I watched Ammon the other day bounce and cavort and giggle across the couch with such total abandon that his laughter and joy lifted my heart a mile. Another day I played with Nathan and Malachi—holding the container so they could blow bubbles without spilling—and their absolute spontaneous delight reminded me again of what I have lost. [In recent years I’ve observed my granddaughter Ariana dancing, never just walking, feeling the joy of life through movement. And little Ephraim can find joy in the simplest things: a balloon, a paintbrush, a stuffed animal.]
I can barely comprehend recovering that capacity for sheer joy in the moment, of trusting life so totally that regrets for yesterday or fear or worry about tomorrow would be unknown. However, since the Lord said, “of such is the kingdom of heaven,” it will be possible to experience that level of faith and joy again. A special part of “man is that he might have joy” must be to love trustingly like a child again, to have a childlike capacity to respond with heart and soul to the wonder of tiny moments, to be fearless, full of faith in Christ, in life, and in yourself.
Quick to Forgive, Honest
Children are quick to forgive, without guile. My grandsons quickly forget wrongs done to them and do not carry grudges. When Malachi hurts Nathan for messing up his train set, Nathan cries, then forgets it. I’ve never heard from him later, “Grandma, do you know what Malachi did to me last week?” They are also honest and real and express what they really feel. I know immediately if Malachi is in pain, hungry, or unhappy. Heavy storm clouds roll in, and rain pelts his earth for a short time, then it’s gone. Within seconds his sun can be shining again, the storm is forgotten. When he does something wrong, his face shows it and his tongue tells the truth about it. I suspect it is only by the bad example or poor discipline methods of adults that children learn to be emotionally dishonest, to feel one thing and say another, to pretend, to lie, to sidestep, or to deceive. A little child’s natural nature is honesty and forgiveness and they look for those qualities in the adults around them. [I remember my baby granddaughter Ondalyn studying me for long moments, looking deep into my eyes. I felt she was assessing my trustworthiness, and I felt a sense of closeness and with her and validation when I passed her test.]
Children Are Whole and Clean with Great Spiritual Capacity
In 3 Nephi 26, the Savior showed us the spiritual capacity of children: “He did loose their tongues, and they did speak unto their fathers great and marvelous things, even greater than he had revealed unto the people. . . . They both saw and heard these children; yea, even babes did open their mouths and utter marvelous things.”
Isn’t that one of the ways we are to become as little children: to have our spiritual capacity restored? It is possible one step at a time. I think the idea of reclaiming pieces of our child selves is valid—but only the Savior and His true doctrine can help us become whole again.
Contemplating those memories of my grandchildren gives me pause. I have now lived so many decades in this muddy, blood-stained world, that the goal of experiencing once more the purity and innocence of a child sometimes seems unreachable. A child is innocent because he does not yet know the difference between good and evil. Christ was innocent because, having that knowledge, he always chose the good. As beautiful and pure as all children are, I’ve often thought of the joy Mary must have had raising the only perfect child, the only one who used His agency always to learn and grow and obey His Heavenly Father. Only Jesus maintained His purity throughout His life, so didn’t have to be cleansed and healed to recapture it. He who would provide the Atonement for all mankind was the only person who had no need of it.
Christ exemplified the perfect mix of manly maturity and childlike virtues. He was ever loving, humble, submissive to His Father’s will, full of faith and joy. He, a God, condescended to enter the body of a helpless babe, have the veil drawn, and be willing to learn line upon line, precept upon precept. What a rapid learning process that must have been as He was tutored by the Spirit! However, the scriptures that tell us to become as little children were not referring to the Christ child, but to our own little children and grandchildren. What a joyous quest to ask His help to become more like Him and to become more childlike in Christ-like ways!
My only hope for recapturing childlike purity and joy is to be healed and cleansed by the Atonement, one day at a time. Because of the mires and pitfalls of mortality, I always seem to return to the necessity of the Atonement, the wonder of the gift of love the Savior gave us all. Atonement means “at-one-ment,” becoming one with myself again, becoming one with the Savior and my Heavenly Parents.
Perhaps that whole marvelous process is simply becoming like a little child again. Perhaps the “wholeness” we hear so much about in modern psychology is accomplished only by the Savior’s power to wash us clean of “adult” nonsense and sin and restore us to childlike purity. I heard the other day that healing means to bring back together what has been separated. When I came to earth, I was separated from my Heavenly Parents. Along life’s path I have been “separated” from the truth about myself. Only the true doctrine of Christ can free me from false traditions and the lies I have believed. Only the Savior can restore me to the wholeness of being childlike.
In our quest to become like little children, however, we need to remember that our growing experiences along the way are necessary. In the Ensign article titled, “It Isn’t a Sin to Be Weak,” Wendy Ulrich said, “If our only goal were to be as innocent as we were when we left God’s presence, we would all be better off lying snugly in our cribs for the rest of our lives. Rather, we came to earth to learn by experience to distinguish good from evil, grow in wisdom and skill, live values we care about, and acquire the characteristics of godliness—progress we cannot make from the safe confines of a bassinet. Human weakness plays an important role in these essential purposes of mortality” (Ensign, April 2015, p.31). What a comfort to know that our experiences, no matter how difficult, are purposeful.
Cherish and Emulate Children; Become Children of Light
Could we make today “Children’s Day” and honor all the children of the world as Christ would, looking to them in awe and wonder? Let’s cherish children every chance we get, smile at every little child we see, and give encouraging words. Then we can ponder how, in our daily process of becoming converted, of seeking to be “alive in Christ” we can be more childlike and more Christ-like today. The goal is clear: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). To become childlike, to become like Christ, is to walk in the light. In Ephesians 5:8 we read, “For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light.”