Perhaps I love children so much because I had such a delightfully pleasant childhood. Some might say it’s because I never grew up. Be that as it may, I love children—my own, my grand children, all children. I suggested to a man running for mayor of a major city several years ago that his campaign slogan ought to be “People First—Children Foremost!” He didn’t use it and lost. So there! But that theme is the thesis of my own life. You can understand why I love being a grandfather to my four grand children. And you can understand why I love the research and writing of Robert Coles, who has written more than 50 books, many of them on children around the world.
No one, it seems to me, has done more to understand the rich texture of childhood than Coles. What is most remarkable, beyond the scope and volume of his important scholarship with children, is the humane manner in which he conducts and reports his findings. He is always conscious of his own childhood and totally sensitive to his relationships with those whom he interviews.
What we have, then, is marvelously contoured storytelling, which begins, scholar-like, with the immediate; it is tempered by his expressed feelings about himself at the moment; and it is enriched by his own memory of childhood, with his loving mother, father, and brother. To complete the circle, as it were, Coles’ own family—wife and children—are involved in his research and add a further dimension to the contour.
Robert Coles is, indeed, one of the great storytellers of our time, and my favorite of his books and one of the most important books of the 20th Century is The Spiritual Life of Children (1990). The book is a splendidly developed inductive argument around the thesis, which is the title of the final chapter, “The Child as Pilgrim.” It is a collection of stories about the spiritual lives of children of all faiths and persuasions from around the world. It is, finally, a testimony to the interplay of family in the intellectual processes of children, which is necessary in the nurturing of every child’s spirituality. In an age and culture that takes the rearing of children far too casually, this is an urgent book, which ought to be assigned reading for every parent.
My favorite story is about Natalie, an eight-year-old Hopi child, living with her family in New Mexico. Natalie and her constant companion, a dog named “Blackie,” together taught Coles what Hopi spirituality is in practical, everyday terms. After many long hours of dialog with her, Coles finally asked Natalie, “What is the ‘spirit’ you often mention?” The child looked at him “with worry on her face. Was I all right? Did I need some water, some food?” In the silence that followed, he concluded that he would never learn on his own terms the answer to his question.
After a long silence, Natalie and Blackie suddenly stood up and moved a few steps toward the distant mesa, where the spirits of her ancestors dwelt and where her own spirit and Blackie’s would one day dwell. It was a “terribly hot” afternoon on the desert, and Coles feared she would lead him on a long, hot hike to the mesa, and he was tired.
But she surprised him by raising her right arm high in the air and twirling it round and round very rapidly. In response, the dog broke at a full-speed run toward the mesa and ran for 20 seconds. She then stopped, turned to face Natalie, and then broke into a run back to her feet, where she knelt. Natalie hugged her and said, “Thank you.”
The demonstration seemed to provide words to her: “The ‘spirit’ is when you go running for someone. It is when you try to send signals to someone. It is when you are being as much as you can be. When Blackie ran, her spirit was there for me and you to see! When I used my arm with her, it was my spirit talking to her spirit! Every time I look into her eyes, and think of her, and all she does, and all she has been for us, I am trying to see her spirit, I think.”
This story and the hundreds of others, told so lyrically by Coles, create a record for our time of loving relationships between children and adults. He delineates the sort of associations urgent if we are to produce balanced, humane, and appropriately child-like adults, who grow up relatively free of cynicism and guided by love—agape—toward people of all faiths, races, nationalities, and genders.
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