For Johann Christoph Arnold, a septuagenarian and longtime pastor of the local Bruderhof community, his previous book, a meditation on finding meaning and tranquility at the end of life, might have seemed a good place to end a writing career which produced about a dozen books. Indeed, the pastor himself had said 2013’s Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life would very likely be his swan song.
But now comes a coda, inspired by what Arnold said was his very deep concern about what’s happening to children both here at home and around the world. Their Name is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World, available for free by visiting theirnameistoday.com or by calling 1-800-521-8011, weaves Arnold’s philosophies and contentions on how kids should be raised and how parents should raise them with anecdotes and accounts to make a powerful argument: by not letting children be children in the way children have been allowed to be children for millennia, we are making a very grave mistake and putting their adult futures in a perilous position.
“The plight of the children is becoming stronger and stronger,” Arnold said during a recent interview at his home in Rifton. In a culture where standardized testing and Common Core’s demands put more and more pressure on youth, said Arnold, “children are not allowed to be children anymore. … They’re being turned into miniature adults and that’s going to have a devastating effect on their emotional stability when they grow up.”
The title points out a salient fact often overlooked in the debate over education and how it can be improved: Kids are only young once. That immediacy and irrevocability makes it crucial to allow children to develop naturally. And it makes it crucial for parents, said the pastor, to disengage some from their own busy lives and engage more fully with their children. “If a society doesn’t welcome children, that society is doomed,” wrote Arnold. “It’s a book of hope — there are many people who care for children and who want to make this a better world,” said Arnold, who credits his wife, Verena, with sharp-eyed copy-editing. “We need to give them a chance and make their voices heard.”
Arnold excitedly rebutted two modern contentions — that children are a nuisance and a hindrance to adult happiness and that overpopulation is a threat to the planet. “Greed and selfishness are ruining the earth, not children,” said Arnold. “Children are born givers, not takers. They are also born teachers. If we are wise enough to hear the truth that children bring, in the midst of our adult lives, we must have time to take in the lessons that only children can teach.”
Arnold and his wife have traveled the world, going to places both rich and poor and to some of the most troubled places on the globe. He said there’s a marked contrast to the family cohesion shown in poverty-stricken lands to the self-absorption, aided and abetted by the Internet and electronic devices, of our own society.
“Instead of embracing the children like they do in these third-world countries, we give children video games to keep them occupied so [parents] have time to play [their] video games,” Arnold said. “Everybody is busy on their smart phone and it’s terrible! … You think you are connected with so many people but you forget … that it’s a complete illusion. You lose what it is to be a human being.”
Arnold is a pastor and while his book contains a lot of advice that could apply to the non-religious — cut down on kids’ screen time, spend more time with your children, be pleasant to children one encounters in public, make sure kids have enough free time to be able to learn and discover things in unstructured settings — he does stress the importance of a connection to the divine. “Faith in God enables a child growing up to meet any challenge, to meet any adversity,” Arnold said. “If that faith in God is robbed, it’s like the emotional blanket of security is pulled from under your feet and everything collapses.”