"The Cry of the Children" begins with the speaker asking listeners if they can hear children crying. Young animals and even plants are living carefree lives, but while the animals play, these human children are suffering and seeking comfort, even though they supposedly live in a free country. The speaker asks listeners if they've ever questioned the crying children, since they aren't supposed to suffer. Older people and things might reasonably suffer because they have more to mourn or because they've been through hardship, but children shouldn't cry, especially in a country that is supposed to care for them.
The children look up with faces that look as if they've been through hardship, even though they're too young to have suffered. They explain that they are tired, and all the more so because they are young and will live for a long time: the restfulness of death is far away for them. On the other hand, they might die young, like a girl they know named Alice. She was buried in a grave that was so small she couldn't possibly work in it, and she no longer cries. The other children are sure she is very happy because she can finally rest. The speaker laments that the children are seeking ways to feel as if they have died even while alive, and urges them to go to a meadow, pick flowers, and enjoy themselves.
But, the speaker reports, the children refuse. They are so tired from working in mines and factories that they have no energy to play or pick flowers. Their eyes are too tired to perceive the bright flowers, and they spend their days turning wheels as part of the machinery in their factories. These wheels constantly, noisily turn and make the children feel like their entire world is spinning. They often want to just yell at the wheels to be quiet. The speaker then commands the wheels to be quiet so the children can actually hear one another, touch one another, and understand that God's creation extends beyond the world of industry. But the machines don't stop and the children's souls, rather than entering God's light, remain lost in darkness.
The speaker tells the listeners to instruct the children, telling them to pray to God. But the children don't think that God can hear them over the sound of the spinning wheels, because humans aren't able to—they ignore the sound of the children's cries. Therefore God, surrounded by singing angels, won't be able to hear them weep. The children do report remembering two words of prayer: "our father." They know God is supposedly good, so they suspect that, if he could hear them saying "our father," he would intervene and invite them to rest. But God is silent, and, to make matters worse, people say that abusive industrial bosses are made in God's image. The children have lost their faith because of how hard their lives are, and the speaker asks the listeners if they realize how hypocritical and false their religious preaching sounds.
In fact, says the speaker, the children's crying is justified. They have all the burdens of age—exhaustion and sadness—without any of the wisdom or memories that age brings. They also suffer like martyrs, but don't have the purpose, agency, or faith of martyrs. The children look up sadly and ask the listeners how they can bear to stand on a child's heart, crushing its heartbeat with an armored heel, for the sake of industrial and material power. The children warn that, though tyrants thoughtlessly crush them as they make their way to their throne, they will suffer from the curse of children's cries, which are more powerful than a strong man.