I spend a lot of time working with children. I help my Hubby teach a second and third grade Sunday School class. I co-teach two year olds at my Community Bible Study. I teach three and four year olds (and a few fives) at AWANA each week. I talk to children and listen to their prayer requests. I listen to the things they thing about and the beliefs that they have. I’ve actually learned to value children and the way they think.
A couple of weeks ago I reviewed a book called Aloof: Figuring Out Life with a God Who Hides. In it, the author talks extensively about his faith as a child, and how the teachers that he had–even though they were well intentioned–made him feel that his experiences with God were wrong. If that was all I had gotten out of the book, it would have been enough for me to have read this book. I never want to be that teacher who pushes a child further away from God. I’d rather have a millstone tied around my neck and be drowned in the sea than lead a child astray (Mt. 18:6).
Why is it so important what you say to children? I think Tony Kriz does an excellent job summing it up in Aloof:
Children are different. They actually believe their beliefs and that those beliefs have present consequences.
In this section, Kriz is discussing how adults compartmentalize their beliefs. I can intellectually give assent to something, but I may not really mean it. When I child gives assent to something, it’s a fact in their life. We have to be careful to build up those facts and faith in their lives and not tear it down. That’s the best way to give our children the firm foundation that they’ll need as adults in their faith.
I love teaching the preschoolers. Everything I tell them is true to them and real. Everything really happened and they don’t give it any further thought because their lives are a life filled with miraculous discovery and wonder, so me telling them stories that seem wonderful don’t change the whole thinking.
Sometimes, when we’re in children’s church or our Sunday school class, I can already tell that a child has been changed. They still really believe whatever you’re telling them. However, they don’t understand the vocabulary we’re using, and their desire to be right and to be seen as right allows them to give assent to things they don’t really believe. (Like telling me Jesus is the better than toys at Christmas in a wooden “that’s what I know you want to hear” kind of voice.) A couple of months ago I had one define a word for me with a series of other words that they didn’t really know the meanings to but had heard all their lives at church.
I’m still working on how to get beyond the superficial “church kid” talk that many kids learn to spout to the real heart of the matter, but I’m praying that God will lead me to that understanding. Our beliefs are real and have present consequences, even though we don’t see them yet, and I don’t want these kids to learn to compartmentalize and stick their faith into a “at church only” box.