‘On Children’ by Kahlil Gibran is a thought-provoking poem that talks about how parents should think while upbringing their children, not thinking of them as their property but as a part of the universal soul. The poem belongs to the popular fable-like poetry collection, “The Prophet”. This book contains discursive discussions on several important aspects of life such as love, marriage, children, death, joy, friendship, etc. In this thoughtful meditation on children, Al Mustafa, the prophet was asked to throw light on this idea. This poem records what he told in response.
In this piece, readers can find Al Mustafa is asked by a woman to enlighten them about children. Previously, he has talked about love and marriage. In this section, he explores how parents should think about their kids.
Firstly, he makes it clear that the children don’t belong to the parents at all. They are part of the divine being and come into this world through their parents. They have to bring up their children and provide them nourishment. But, they should not impose their thoughts on them as they have their thoughts.
If parents try to shape their minds with their ideas, they are eliminating the inherent power of their souls. Al Mustafa uses a metaphor of bow and arrow to clarify the role of parents in their children’s lives. According to him, parents are the bow of the almighty and children are the arrows. Using them, the almighty sends forth the arrows to the mark placed at infinite distance. It is a metaphorical reference to the universal soul. In this way, Gibran explores the ideal way of parenting through this piece.
This poem reveals the true meaning of parenting. How two individuals, one a male and another a female, tied together with the bond of marriage, can become ideal parents gets featured in the poem, ‘On Children’.
The prophet, Al Mustafa is a wise person and he is aware of all worldly affairs. The difference between him and others is, Mustafa knows the best way to guide them. Whereas others are confused regarding what they do in their lives. Therefore, when the mother asks him to throw light on children, the first thing he says is that, whom they treat as their children, are not their children at all. They are the parts of the universal soul.
According to the prophet, a soul needs a medium to come into this earth. Parents are this medium. They have to nourish the souls until they break out their chrysalis and start to discover the mysteries of the self. Parents are like arrows that are used only to launch arrows. God grips the bows and directs the arrows in a specific direction. Parents have to act accordingly. If they try to change this course, they are not only taking the wrong decision but also hindering the divine scheme.
‘On Children’ is a prose-poem fable. It consists of sixteen prosaic lines and does not follow the scheme of conventional poetry. The overall text somehow follows the poetic form but it does not present all the features. The lines are comparably longer and they don’t have a specific rhyming scheme. So, it is in free verse.
This poem is written from the perspective of the prophet. While the introductory lines are written from the omniscient point-of-view. There are two speakers inside the text. The first speaker is a woman or an enquirer and the second speaker is one who knows the answer. The latter is prominent throughout the piece as he is the center of attraction. Everybody around him wants to learn from him. So, readers can find that this poem is in conversational form but the central figure speaks throughout it.
This poem does not have a set metrical scheme. The lines are in prosaic format. Readers can say that this poem consists of both the iambic and trochaic meter. There are some variations as well.
‘On Children’ contains several literary devices that are used for making the ideas more interesting as well as thought-provoking. For example, the third line contains a paradox. This device is used for hinting at a truth that is shocking at first hand. In the following line, Gibran uses a metaphor in “Life’s longing.” This phrase also contains an alliteration of the “l” sound.
Moving on to the following lines, readers can find the use of epigram in the fifth and sixth lines. If they look at the beginning of the fourth and fifth lines, the same word is used. It is an example of anaphora.
The eleventh line, “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you,” contain an antithesis. The following line contains a personification.
There are some interesting metaphors in the next few lines. Gibran compares God with an archer and parents with his bow. Besides, he makes a comparison between arrows and children. The last line of this piece contains an epigram as well.
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
In Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” the poem, ‘On Love’ appears in the fourth chapter. The first chapter introduces the titular character, Al Mustafa, and others. In the following chapters, he elaborates on love and marriage. He was asked to do so by another prophetess, Almitra. In this chapter, he is asked by a commoner to throw light on the concept of children.
The enquirer is a woman as well as a mother. She is holding her baby and standing near Al Mustafa. On her request, the prophet starts to speak on the mentioned idea.
The first and foremost thing that he makes clear that every parent has to treat their children, not as their own. This idea is confusing enough to raise several counter questions. But, why does the speaker say so? To understand the meaning of his statement, “Your children are not your children,” readers have to dive deeper into spirituality. According to holy scriptures, the soul belongs to one and only God. He is referred to as the universal soul or the supreme “Life.”
The human soul is part of this larger framework. Therefore, it is incorrect to say the soul belongs to a mere human being. In this way, Al Mustafa talks about the spiritual self inside the children. They belong to God. Parents are only a medium to give them the bodily dress, nothing else.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
The following line makes this idea more clear. According to the speaker, children are the sons and daughters of the “Life’s longing.” What does it mean? It means that the almighty spirit longs for the human form. It sends its fragments to the earth to discover the beauty of mother earth. This cycle of life is nothing but God’s longing to be a human being and enjoy the mysteries of nature.
So, the meaning of the first two statements is clear to the readers. Then comes another important concept. The prophet remarks that children come to this earth through them. It means that parents are only mediums. If the supreme being wants to come into this world, he needs a way to do so. Parents or souls who are in marital bond, become a medium of the divine scheme. He chooses them. Then he sends the fragments of the supreme spirit to those who are best suitable for the soul.
Everything is under his control. Therefore thinking that children come into the world from the parents is not wise spiritually. Biologically it is correct. But, from the spiritual aspect, this concept is wrong. As it speaks on the perspective of the soul, not the body. Human beings can create another body. God infuses life into the zygote.
A soul starts its worldly journey after getting a human embodiment through parents. On the way, a child’s mortal parents stay with him and guide him. But, when the time comes to an end, it returns to its origin. So, parents are short-term companions of children. Ultimately, they belong to God.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
In these few lines of ‘On Children,’ Gibran’s speaker explores how to nurture children. The first line deals with the difference between selfless love and self-centered love. The first one makes parents disregard the return. They will keep loving their children selflessly whether they are following them or not. It is to be made sure that the children are getting the right resources for their complete development. That’s all. The thoughts should end there.
Selfishly wanting to make children do something is not the duty of the parents. According to the speaker, they have no right to impose their thoughts on them. When the soul chooses its mortal parents, it is not sure about how the future will unveil. So, it’s up to the parents to recognize the soul within a child and secure what is already written. If they try to contravene the divine scheme, they are unknowingly disregarding God, whether they confirm it or not.
Parents provide the nourishment that is needed for the body of a child. They keep the metaphorical house tidy and healthy. Thus the soul can reside inside it without any problems. They should not think that they are housing souls. As the supreme creator protects it. They nourish the external environment that is needed for the overall development of the spiritual self of a child.
According to the prophet, every soul has the same house, a metaphorical reference to the universal spirit. This place is referred to as “the house of tomorrow.” It hints at the place where the soul merges after the body expires. This house cannot be visited as each soul has specific spots to fill in. Parents’ souls have their respective places in the divine spirit. A human being cannot even dream of that place. It is only unveiled after bodily death.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
In these lines of the poem, ‘On Children,’ the speaker talks about how a mature person thinks about the childhood days. Childhood is the phase when the soul is in its purest state as it is just detached from the divine spirit. An innocent child can see what others cannot see.
As William Wordsworth speaks in his Immortality ode, childhood is the time when everything appears to be garlanded with divine light. When a person matures, he tries to imagine this phase and feels sad. The time that slid in the past cannot be lived again.
Thus, parents may strive to be like their children. Sadly, they cannot revert the process. This grief may result in something wrong. As a parent cannot be a child again, he tries to change things according to his order. Furthermore, the speaker warns parents not to make their children like them.
The following line presents another important idea. In this line, the speaker talks about the course of life. Once life moves forward, it cannot turn backward. Besides, one cannot tarry with the thoughts of yesterday for living in the present moment. Therefore, a mature person may wish to be a child again. In reality, it is impossible. Living in the present is the best way to live life fully. If parents can develop this mindset, they will think twice before imposing their thoughts on their children.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
These two lines of ‘On Children’ are the most important of all the lines taken together. In this section, the speaker, Al Mustafa presents a beautiful image as well as metaphors. The image consists of a bow and arrows. The almighty is holding the bow and he is ready to launch the arrows to the mark placed at infinity.
In the first line, the speaker uses a metaphor of bows. According to him, parents are the using which the almighty sends forth their children as “living arrows.” The quoted phrase contains a personal metaphor and here the children are compared to arrows. Readers must introspect on this line for a bit longer. After doing so, they can understand how the poet connects the ideas for hinting at an excellent concept.
Bows and arrows have no use until they are together. An arrow cannot move further without the acceleration provided by the string of a bow. Even a bow cannot send forth the arrow if there is an external source of force present. In this way, the speaker fuses three elements, force, bow, and arrow. Each one of them cannot work without the other two. It needs a skilled archer to send an arrow to the exact mark by using a bow, qualitatively firm and flexible.
In this way, God is compared to an archer metaphorically. He looks at the mark, a symbolic reference to the divine spirit, that is placed upon the “path of the infinite.” It is again a metaphor for the universal soul that has infinite power. After seeing the mark, God bends the bow with all his might to send the arrows swiftly to the mark placed far from the earth. So, parents should be flexible enough in their thoughts. Then, their children can develop fully both mentally and spiritually.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
The last two lines explore the kindness of the creator. According to the speaker, bending in God’s hand is a pleasurable experience. Here, “bending” does not mean stopping. It refers to the flexibility of the human mind. If parents don’t have rigidity in their thought process, they become the ideal tool in a child’s spiritual development. The more a bow can bend without breaking the more swift the arrow becomes.
When the almighty as an archer touches the bow, it is a moment of gladness for it. He loves both the arrow and the bow. It means there is a place in God’s heart for the parents as well as their children. In the last line, the arrow that is heading towards the mark is a metaphor for children. Along with that, the speaker says God loves the bow too. But, it needs to be stable first. Through this line, the prophet provides another important instruction to the parents.
According to him, parents have to be stable enough. When God holds them, they should not tremble in fear or break apart. They have to stay firm and bend accordingly. Thus, their children can reach swiftly to the ultimate destination.
The poem, ‘On Children’ appears in the fourth chapter of Kahlil Gibran’s poetry collection, “The Prophet”. It consists of 26 poems dealing with diverse topics such as love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death. This book was first published in 1923 and it’s one of Gibran’s best-known works.
Kahlil Gibran was influenced by Christianity as well as Islam. The Sufi mysticism also appealed to him. In April 1912, after meeting Abdul-Baha, the leader of the Bahai Faith, he had a spiritual awakening. The same year he started working on “The Prophet”. So, there are strong connections between the concepts described in the poems with the ideas of Baha’i Faith, Christianity, and Islam.
Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the themes present in Kahlil Gibran’s poem, ‘On Children’.
- may we raise children who love the unloved things by Nicolette Sowder – This poem contains a piece of advice, asking parents to raise their children to be kind and it explores the need to love things that may not be loved otherwise. Explore more poems by Nicolette Sowder.
- Children by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – Longfellow, one of the best 19th century American poets, explores how he becomes happy while he around children in this piece. Read more poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
- Holy Thursday by William Blake – It’s one of the best-known poems of Blake. In this poem, he uses concrete historical events to reflect on human attitudes and presents the innocence of children. Explore more William Blake poetry.
- Warning to Parents by Elizabeth Jennings – This poem is an address to parents warning them to avoid letting their children know and be exposed to terror and violence. Read more poems by Elizabeth Jennings.
You can also read about the best childhood poems and the devotional poems on God.