For those who don’t know Kahlil Gibran’s iconic 1923 poem “On Children,” hearing the words put to music might seem an attack on today’s helicopter-parent culture, albeit with catchy tune by Ysaye M. Barnwell in four-part a cappella harmony. “On Children” is the Newton Family Singers’ women’s selection for our fall concert this year. It is super-fun to sing.
The words, though, are a bit of a slap in the face to today’s parents, full of reminders – no, that’s too weak, more like harsh declarations -- of the essential separateness between parents and their offspring. “They come through you but they are not from you and though they are with you, they belong not to you.”
For anyone whose children are still in the full bloom of baby/toddlerhood, this is anathema. Who, then, do these lovable, lovely dependent creatures belong to, if not their parents and families? Can’t they belong to us? For just for a little while? For just a little more? Please??
Even more galling to the uninitiated: “You can give them your love but not your thoughts. They have their own thoughts.” Well, sure, parents should not “give” kids their thoughts by brainwashing them or being intolerant to differing opinions. But what about “giving” in the sense of “sharing” thoughts? How barren the experiences of both raising a child and being a child would be if no one ever talked about anything.
As young children begin to grow up, it becomes increasingly obvious Gibran (who himself never had children) was right. “You can house their bodies but not their souls.” By the time the child is a teenager, it is all too clear how desperate to be liberated that soul really is, even while parental maintenance of that body is still a necessity.
“You can strive to be like them, but you cannot make them just like you. Strive to be like them but you cannot make them just like you.” There it is again – that jarring admonition that parents’ best role is to watch and adopt, rather than mold and shape. None of this is very 21st-century parenting.
To me, the message of “On Children” is that children are autonomous, self-actualized beings, and childhood is fleeting. Also, parents don’t mean as much as we think we do. That is a hard message to swallow, but also comforting in its way. We do not need to be perfect parents in order to turn out full-blown humans. For the most part, these “sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself” create themselves. Getting out of their way, watching and admiring as they flourish – that is our task.