Recently, I was speaking with a fellow Sunday school teacher about adding an emphasis on humility to the curriculum. “But how would you teach it to the younger children,” she asked. I immediately realize the task might be harder than I had considered. But several hours of thinking and multiple blind alleys later, I was inspired by an answer that had never occurred to me.
When people cannot explain a concept to children, they do not fully understand it themselves. This certainly proved to be the case with me, and I quickly found myself stumbling in the dark. Would a child understand if I told them, humility meant not looking down on people? I wasn’t sure, especially given that most children are used to looking up at people.
Next try: not thinking they’re better than other people? Maybe. But one of the beautiful things about childhood is that for many children the idea of wanting to be better than other people is not yet imbedded deeply enough in their young psyches as to be meaningful.
The problem with teaching children abstract concepts is that such invisible ideas generally must be made concrete to for children to grasp them. But it turns out, that’s somewhat of a misstatement. To be helpful in teaching children, an idea does not have to be concrete as much as it has to be “real” to them.
The idea has to be so much a part of their understanding and daily reality that you can extend the concept to apply to other abstract concepts by analogy. What I eventually realized was that if you want to teach children humility, one of the best concepts to connect it to is the notion of being thankful.
No, Thank You” versus “Thank you, No”
An example of this idea offered itself up not an hour after I arrived at the notion. Soon after I came home, my wife offered me a bag of oranges she had recently carried all the way from Florida, a gift just for me.
The problem was that when she handed them to me, they looked questionable. To be honest, I really wanted nothing to do with them. I hesitated, said a half-hearted thank you, and was about to place them in the refrigerator with the full intent of waiting until they spoiled so I could toss them.
That is, until my heart got the better of me. Suddenly, I realized I was just being polite. As far as thanks, I wasn’t thankful at all. In fact, I had just displayed the height of arrogance by not even trying the oranges before judging them worthless.
You see, the thing I realized about thank you is that it usually goes along with two other words, “yes” or “no.” God or someone else offers us something and we say, “Yes, thank you,” or “No, thank you.” Do you see the problem, the arrogance in both phrases? It’s in the order. We’ve already made up our minds before we get to the thank you.vIn my situation with the oranges, it wasn’t that I initially failed to say thank you, I did. The problem was that I somehow believed I was capable of judging a gift offered to me without ever even trying it. If that’s not a special kind of arrogance, I don’t know what is?
This story illustrates why one way to understand humility, and a great way to explain it to children, is to point out the difference between saying, “No, thank you” and “Thank you, no.” To be humble means to be truly thankful without judging beforehand. It means being willing to open up our hearts, mouths, or minds long enough to experience life’s pro-offered presents without bias. Then, by the time we are finished saying thank you – on the humble assumption that God, an event, or the person before us comes as a gift – that original ‘no’ will often change to a yes.
Try It on for Size
This may seem like a silly or overly simplistic analogy at first. But humble yourself for a moment. Try it on for size, and you may find a surprise. Think of how often we look at other people just like I looked at those mildly disgusting oranges. “No, thank you,” we say on the arrogant assumption there’s nothing there for us. What if we imagined that person as a gift and first said thank you, let me sit with your for awhile and really hear you out.”
“No thank you, I really don’t want this dark and difficult situation God’s just handed me.” “No thank you, you’re not pretty enough for me to imagine you would be worth getting to know.” “No, thank you, I don’t want to talk to him or her at all.” “No thank you, I don’t want to go to camp, even though you’re my parents and you think I might really like it.”
Humility is intimately tied to judgement. It is arrogant and unfair to imagine we can judge anything or anybody without first having given it a good solid try.
Which brings up the other reason it is hard to teach kids humility. Most of them are already naturally possessed of it. All of life is new to them. The sparkle we watch in their eyes when they see their first flower, snowfall, or other event, is evidence of that. They are vulnerable to all the beauty the world has to offer almost from the start.
However, time, society, and experience often conspire to begin to lock that humility (their humanity) away, and with it all their innate ability to feel wonder, awe, and a deep sense of beauty at the gifts life offers up. This is the other side of teaching humility, and what makes it hard: For many children, we’re not actually teaching them to be humble, we are asking them not to forget to be something they already naturally are. After all, according to the Bible none of us are getting into heaven unless we become like little children. I’m guessing a surprisingly large part of that verse is talking about the need to remain humble.
Read More from Love: The Foundation
In 2002, I visited Maine to see Gregg, my college roommate, and his young family. At the Naval Academy, Gregg and I made strange bedfellows: