Maria Montessori wrote an essay entitled “The Blank Page” in 1930. I was startled when I came across this title a month ago; I thought it was a phrase coined by Sofia Cavalletti in reference to the time between today and parousia, the fulfillment of the Kindom of God. Montessori uses this term at the end of the essay, preceded by a detailed description of the oppression of children in every society, as they are forced to develop in an environment suited to adults.
The essay includes phrases to describe this oppression, including
- an abyss of unsuspected ills
- oppressed inner life
- compelled to give in continually to the adult’s will
- a form of discord
- violent adaptation of the child to the adult world
- tyranny of the strong over the weak
- forced labor
- harsh discipline
- hurt in their very heart by the injustice they suffer
- driven to the frightful darkness of total submission
- innocent victim of the suffering that afflicts the adult
- no claim to justice…or rights…or appeal
Montessori observed a child emerging from this oppression as “a fellow human being, better than we, who gives support to us on the road of life – who is yet an unknown figure.”
She concludes that the child is still unknown to us and that their page in history is still blank.
“This blank page we want to begin to write.”
The essay evoked surprise, dismay, and finally a call.
I was surprised that the use of the phrase in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is quite different from Montessori’s. While there is some overlap between them as both point to work that remains for us to do in the future, Cavalletti leaves behind the particular call to end the oppression of children and broadens it to working, with God, to build the Kindom of God. The end of all oppression is implied, of course, but the oppression of children is not named.
I was not surprised, however, by the three pages of this essay that sought to name the oppression of children. I have long been aware of this, and frustrated by the fact that this kind of oppression does not even have a name. At Howard University Divinity School I studied Black Liberation Theology, and we named the oppression of Blacks, women, LGBTQ folks, the aging and more, but the oppression of children remained unnamed and unmentioned (except by me). My thesis lays the groundwork for a liberation theology of children, and my first book DoubleClose, the Young Child’s Knowledge of God explores the gift of children’s theology to adults of the church.
My dismay is similar to the dismay I have lived with this year, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Despite years of awareness of racism among us, I found deeper layers of racism within myself, my family, my church, and even our own catechesis community. This is also true in regard to children. We love them, work hard to serve them, and STILL wield our power over them when it becomes “necessary” or expedient. Children I know are no longer forced into labor, but they have become the target of materialism, commercials and programming designed to addict them. This is the work of our capitalist society, and not done with the developmental needs of independent children in mind.
And so our call comes into focus: to work for children so that their gifts to humankind become manifest, and their true inner life gives rise to the vision of communion and justice that is so natural to them, allowing them to lead us in the way of peace.
What can we do? Use our spheres of influence in our families, our churches, our communities, and culture to advocate for the rights of children, for their freedom of choice, for their unique understanding of the Bible and liturgy, and their clear-eyed vision of justice.
Many of us are in a unique position to share the wisdom of children as a gift to our communities and congregations. Gather their art, their prayers, and their insights and make them available to adults. The gift of essentiality of children under six, and the gift of a sense of communion with all (including creation) of the child over six, are particularly important in our churches and culture today.
One in three girls and one in five boys in every community in the country is sexually abused by the age of eighteen. Defend them fiercely from predators and abusers.
Children in the Roman Catholic church are barred from Eucharist until age seven. What does this say about them as fully baptized, light-bearing members of the body of Christ? Does this encourage adults to see them as unworthy of God?
The intersectionality of oppression falls hard on girls, LGBTQ children, and BIPOC children. We can be the adults in the community who make space for these children to express the fullness of their humanity, freeing them of cultural boxes that marginalize or erase them.
We are approaching Mother’s Day as I write. The 1972 Farmer’s Almanac gives the history of Mother’s Day and ends with these words: We commemorate the many ways mothers have fought to better the lives of their children, from social welfare to non-violence. May we renew our commitment to the welfare of all children, freeing them from the injustices, abuses, and conflicts of childhood.