by Ava Pennington
Is it ever too soon to teach children about God? After all, many adults grapple with spiritual truths and principles. For example, do we truly understand faith, grace, or redemption? If asked, can we explain prayer, the Trinity, or Jesus’s resurrection?
How can we expect children—especially very young children—to grasp what we struggle to comprehend?
A common objection to discussing spiritual truths with children is that they are too impressionable to be exposed to topics such as sacrifice or crucifixion. Since they do not really understand the concept of death, how can they be expected to understand the concept of resurrection?
One of the biggest mistakes we can make, however, is to underestimate what children need and what they are capable of understanding. Whether children or adults, we all wrestle with temptation, guilt, and feelings of insecurity. The living hope provided by our redemption in Jesus brings joy, peace, comfort, and confidence. Because of Christ, we have a hope that does not disappoint (Romans 5:5), no matter what our age is.
Our second mistake is found in not using age-appropriate methods to share our faith with little ones. Lecturing a three-year-old about the judgment that will occur before the great white throne of God will not be effective and may even be frightening. However, demonstrating that naughty actions have consequences is an easily understood concept, even to a toddler.
But creativity isn’t restricted to writing the Hallelujah Chorus or painting the Last Supper. Neither is teaching children about biblical truth limited to the realm of Sunday school teachers.
Being creative doesn’t require a particular job title. Creativity simply involves recognizing teachable moments in daily life. It involves a perspective that routinely asks, “What if…?” What if I asked…? What if we used…?
Keys to Effective Learning
Communicating biblical truth is easy when we remember the four “R’s”—relationship, relevance, repetition, and realization.
In Teaching Your Child About God, Wes Haystead notes that parents who live out their faith year-round for their children to see, will more effectively communicate spiritual truth to them.
Children will only understand biblical truths that are relevant to them. For example, even toddlers have felt sadness when they are separated from those they love. So in communicating the account of Jesus’s death, we can describe how sad Jesus’ friends were because they thought they would never see Him again. Then we can describe their joy when they discovered He didn’t remain in the tomb. Instead of being overwhelmed by the sadness that accompanies death, the child can relate to the confident hope and joy we have because Jesus is alive.
Repetition is critical to the learning process, but repetition isn’t restricted to saying or doing the same thing over and over again. One truth (that Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for our sins, for example) can be reinforced in multiple ways. Bible passages, stories, music, finger-plays, and other activities provide the child with a variety of learning experiences. Reinforcement can follow informally throughout the day.
Since children learn from their own experiences, lessons about biblical truth can be found in everyday illustrations. Plant seeds and watch them grow, and then talk about what we need to grow and live how God wants us to live. Use the beauty of creation to help your children appreciate the power of our Creator God.
Explaining the crucifixion to a child doesn’t need to include harsh details. Depending on the age of the child, it may be enough to say something like, “Jesus loves us so much that He died on the cross to take our punishment for the things we do wrong. Then something very special happened. He did what no one else could do. He didn’t stay dead, and because He is alive we can be friends with God forever.”
Don’t be disappointed if your children are not as impressed with the Resurrection as you are. Because they have difficulty processing the finality of death, and frequently expect those who have died to return, resurrection may be less surprising to them than it is to us.
Children do not learn in the same way as adults. We tend to want things presented in a linear fashion. We expect logic and order when we learn something new.
Children, however, learn according to what interests them. They are less concerned with logic than they are with enjoying what they are experiencing. They ask questions about whatever catches their attention at the moment. We need to be sensitive, however, to their level of interest and their level of comprehension when we respond to their questions.
For example, infants enjoy listening to you sing simple, repetitive tunes. A song as easy as “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” communicates one of the most profound truths any of us will ever realize.
Toddlers learn by doing. Fine-motor coordination develops from the natural “wiggles” of two- and three-year-olds. Their learning is stimulated through exposure to shapes, textures, colors, sounds, and above all, doing. Their play is learning.
What Can You Do?
You don’t need a teaching degree to communicate biblical truth. A variety of activities can be used to fit the age of your child and tap into his natural sense of joy and wonder, including:
Storytelling is more personal than just reading a story. By learning the Bible passage or story prior to telling it, you are free to incorporate a greater degree of eye contact, facial expressions and body language.
For two- and three-year-olds, visual aids are also helpful. Older preschoolers can hold up props to participate in the story time.
Plays can be as simple as a one person skit or a multi-person drama. Adults can act out a scene for preschoolers. Elementary-age children can read or act out a scene from the Bible. Older children can even write their own parts.
Show younger children a picture and ask them to tell a story based on what they see. Ask them how they would feel if they were the person in the picture.
Set activities to music to help teach and reinforce the truth about our living hope. Teach children to sing and listen to music, including hymns usually sung by adults, especially if it is music the child will hear in church. Many hymns or praise choruses about the resurrection have refrains that are easy for children to sing.
While there are many excellent Bible story books and children’s resource materials, don’t underestimate the importance of using the Bible itself. Schedule a daily time with your child to read together, but limit the time based on your child’s age and attention span. You can start with as little as five minutes and increase the time as appropriate.
Teach your children to pray. Start with simple statements, for example, Thank you, Jesus, for my food (family, toys, etc.) or Help me share my toys with my sister.
Model a lifestyle of prayer for your children by praying before meals, praying when you need the Lord’s help, and praying when you’re thankful. There’s much truth to the phrase, “more is caught than taught.”
Develop your own family traditions. For example, at Christmas have your children set up a nativity scene, but don’t place the baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas morning, and then talk about why Christmas is such a special day. Or during the celebration of your child’s birthday, share how we can have two birthdays—the first celebrating how we came into our physical family and the second celebrating our adoption into God’s family.
Watch for teachable moments throughout your day. An opportunity to do something nice for someone who doesn’t deserve it is a great way to illustrate God’s grace. A brother or sister who breaks a toy provides an opportunity to teach forgiveness. Asking your child’s forgiveness when you’ve lost your temper demonstrates humility.
With a little bit of preparation, we can communicate biblical truth to even young children, providing them with a foundation for greater depths of understanding as they grow older. Jesus said “your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14).
Your children may not fully understand every biblical truth. But even the youngest children have a deep capacity for spiritual things. They already live a life of faith as they trust you for their daily food, clothing, and shelter. As you model your joy, hope, and dependence on God and His word, your children will gradually learn biblical truth in age-appropriate ways. It’s never too soon to begin!
Ava Pennington is a writer, Bible teacher, and speaker. She is the author of One Year Alone with God: 366 Devotions on the Names of God (Revell Books), endorsed by Precepts founder and teacher Kay Arthur. Daily Reflections on the Names of God will be released by Revell Books in October, 2013. Additionally, Ava is co-author of Faith Basics for Kids. The first two books in the series are Do You Love Me More? and Will I See You Today? (Standard Publishing). Ava has also published stories in more than twenty anthologies, including sixteen books in the inspirational Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Her articles have been published in Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse, The LOOKOUT, Light & Life, Today’s Christian Woman, and other magazines. In addition to her writing, Ava also teaches a weekly, interdenominational Bible study class of 200 women. Ava is a passionate speaker and teacher, and delights in challenging audiences with the truth of God’s word in relevant, enjoyable presentations. For more information, visit AvaWrites.com.