An eight year old child had the courage to stand up in church and speak when our pastor asked if anyone had anything to share. She told of a dream she’d had. It was an abstract dream filled with symbolic imagery, and she wanted to know what it meant. We have an amazing church body: her dream and her request were taken as seriously as any grown-up’s. We prayed for an interpretation, and it was not long in coming. I will not go into what the dream was or what it meant in this venue. But it was meaningful and relevant to everyone present and I am so thankful that our people in our little church body have learned what children are capable of.
Unfortunately, it is a lesson most of America has yet to learn. Just a few days ago, I received a “learning chart” during a teachers’ training session which outlined what children are able to learn at what ages. I wanted to pull out my hair and scream. We short-change our children in this country because we’ve bought into the myth that children are incapable of learning until it’s too late to teach them. By the time our schools, and yes, even our churches get around to teaching deeper truths and thinking skills, the prime time for learning these things has passed.
From where did this insidious belief that children are not capable of abstract thought until they have reached puberty come? I have no idea. Certainly it was not invented by anyone who has ever actually spoken to a child! Children are born hard-wired for abstraction! This is the reason, as everyone knows, that the younger the child, the easier it is to teach him languages. What is language but mutually acknowledged symbols in a given culture? What is an alphabet but a series of symbols associated with certain sounds? And what is make-believe but highly abstracted thinking? Our children are being encouraged to be stupid by our society’s refusal to train their natural abilities at the optimum age. Instead of teaching them what they need to know, we set them in front of a TV and let them learn to have short attention spans. We send them to school at ever-younger ages but do not allow the schools to teach them what they are capable of learning until that capability is gone. I offer the most obvious example of this: teaching foreign languages in high school. By the time a child has reached puberty, the optimum age for learning language has passed. But we refuse to “inflict” such learning upon children until they are just old enough to be frustrated by it.
The most frustrating aspect of this cultural mentally to me personally is that this thinking has permeated Christian education. Children are taught the same, tired watered-down Sunday School lessons over and over until they are old enough to have learned that the Bible is boring and irrelevant. Just how many times can we teach a child, for example, about Noah’s ark (emphasis on cute, furry animals) without actually getting into the horror and tragedy of the story? This story is told with all the realism of a fairy tale without the symbolic language, leaving out the most important points: mainly, that the ark itself, while perfectly real, was also a symbol of Christ. Then when they are older, we try to get them to study the Bible on a higher level, usually when they are teens. By that time, they have passed the age of easily grasping abstract thought and must be taught how to think abstractly again. Many times, these teens have not the patience to relearn such skills, or are not able to do so. The deep symbology of the Scripture is lost on them.
Children have so much potential. God has built into them the ability to learn and grow at an amazing rate early in their lives. We squander His gifts to our children by our neglect of them. We should be encouraging our children to be “seen and heard” in our churches. We should be taking them seriously, listening to them, giving them opportunities to serve and take part in the body. Most of all, we should be teaching them from the cradle the things of God. ALL the things of God, not edited, prettified versions of the things of God. I have previously posted my recommendations on how to teach young children theology in this blog, specifically in my first two offerings: “Teach Your Children Well–Even the Little Ones” and “Teaching Theology to Children.” I hope to hear the ideas of others who teach children. We need to spread the word!