I enjoy watching children of different ages playing together. My family just returned from vacation at a family camp, where fifteen families, all with multiple children of various ages, were there together for the week. The children rapidly made friends with one another, of course. All of them, from age two to sixteen. I especially enjoy seeing the older children learn how to make room for, watch out for, relate to and learn to adjust to the needs of the younger children. It is an amazing opportunity to witness compassion being learned and practiced on its most basic level, as the kids learn how to care for and include these other human beings who are not as big, fast, strong, coordinated, articulate, or well-developed as they are, who cannot do or understand things that they can.
This ethos takes children out of the realm of the competitive. The camp kickball games reflect this. The older children – many of whom are involved in athletics and are well socialized to strive for victory over the opponent, to do whatever is necessary to win - quickly un-learn the competitive mindset when a three-year-old is up to kick. This may sound obvious and basic. However, having observed this re-framing for several years now, it is clear to me that there is in fact a process involved of actively, consciously letting go of an engrained mindset and re-thinking the terms of how you play a game. Some twelve-year-olds do this more easily than others, but they all get it eventually. The result is that older kids learn how to have enormous fun “fumbling” the ball accidentally-on-purpose (dropping it, falling, and rolling on the ground with great drama, flare and acrobatics) so that the young child can have a chance to run to the bases on her tiny little legs. The older children and teenagers learn a metric other than the importance of winning, of being “better” than the other, and that fun and joy and value can come from an activity even if it is not framed in a competitive format. So unlike what they learn in so many other aspects of their lives.
Sometimes, there is a conflict. I have to restrain myself from leaping up immediately and solving conflicts among the different-aged children. But usually, if given time, they figure it out themselves. Not always as I would solve it, mind you. One actual argument, where one of the children was indeed misbehaving, was resolved somehow involving an ogre, a volatile potion, and some other magical spell. Not the solution that I, as an adult, would have come up with for this conflict. But the happy consensus in kid-land was that this resolution to the argument was fair, just, and right, and everybody was fine with it and able to continue playing together merrily. And the beauty of it was that everyone had to “give” a little. The younger children were corrected in their behavior, taught by the older children what would be tolerated. The older children, on the other hand, did have to make allowances and compromises for the younger children, for what the youngsters could and could not do and comprehend and handle. It was wonderful to see.
When people of different ages – children and adults – hang out together, they learn to be a community in a way that is simply impossible when we are separated from one another by age group. At its best, the Church creates this opportunity for children and adults. This is becoming more rare and valuable, as families are increasingly separated geographically and we have fewer and fewer opportunities to be in meaningful relationship with people of many different ages. The other day, my daughter was reading a story about someone in their eighties, and asked what someone that age would look like. I was able to identify a person in the Church community who my daughter knows who is that age. She began asking about other ages – what about someone in their seventies? Their sixties? Their nineties? Their thirties? Their twenties? And so on. We were able to identify folks of every age from Church, people who my daughter knows, and provide a concrete frame of reference for what people that age are like. What an amazing gift! So obviously important, but yet hard to come by in today’s society.
Like a group of children of various ages playing together, adults have to adjust and compromise and give a little in order for community to be built with different age groups. Creativity is necessary, along with compassion and care on a very concrete, basic level, since adults at different seasons of life have different needs, concerns, hopes and abilities. And like children, we have to un-learn our competitive, achievement-oriented mindsets and re-frame how we value one another – and ourselves. Being with people of different ages changes the metric away from how we look, what we have (or can get), and what we can do or accomplish. The emphasis is shifted onto a human being’s worthiness in a relationship of love and faithfulness, which is something totally different. When the Church, or any community, offers this opportunity to re-frame how we value one another and ourselves, we offer nothing less than a little glimpse of the Kingdom of God. And the gift in this is immeasurable, infinitely wonderful to the soul, like the sound of children boisterously, gleefully playing together in the coolness of a firefly-lit dusk.
In fact, the sound of children playing might be one earthly manifestation of the music of heaven, which can teach us old crusty adults how to be, and help us remember how we are meant to be together, simply enjoying one another outside the metric of accomplishment. Humor, laughter, imagination and play, rather than being regulated to the world of children, are essential ingredients in real community-building, concrete signs of love, joy and grace among people of every age.