Last week one Pastor gave an alert that a curriculum his church uses omits the Easter Story, the crucifixion and the resurrection. The authors gave two reasons; the first was that the Easter story is too violent for preschoolers. We talked about this objection on Friday. The second objection was that preschoolers don’t understand death and the resurrection. In response, I believe that, while the concern about understanding is important and a valid, the crucifixion and resurrection should be taught to preschoolers.
Let’s assume that we remember one of the challenges of giving spiritual instruction to children is considering their children’s ability to understand it. The stakes are high. Churches have faced significant disagreements stemming from objections to removing children from the “adult” worship service, in favor of an “age-appropriate” service. Christian school philosophies are based on the expectation of the results of “high expectations.” Even individual parents find the question of understanding to be a challenge. Since each person tends to use personal experience (his own childhood, or his children’s, usually) as a reference point, a parent might feel like he’s tiptoeing down a dark hallway littered with Legos as he teaches his children about God.
I’ll do my best to avoid personal anecdotes as a standard, but in the interest of fair disclosure, I’ve never read the Bible to my unborn children, and I consider very seriously the understanding of my children when I teach them. I also see the value in age-specific instruction at church.
If we start by looking at the Bible, we find that Scripture doesn’t specifically address timing of spiritual instruction. Parents are commanded to teach their children while they are young. Children are commanded to obey. We do see some clues, although we must think clearly and carefully as we respond to these clues.
In most cases, the child’s understanding is unstated in child-rearing passages. In Deuteronomy 6, parents are commanded to talk throughout the day, and nothing is said about understanding. It could be that understanding is irrelevant, but it also could be that Moses assumed parents would use discernment to know when and how to teach.
Some Scripture does seem to indicate that a scriptural foundation is given before understanding and fruit.
Paul reminds Timothy, “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15).
It appears as though Paul is saying that Scripture was given before salvation, and before understanding. Yes, the passage is talking about spiritual understanding, which is somewhat different from developmental understanding. It is the Holy Spirit who gives understanding, but the Holy Spirit uses the knowledge of the Word of God. In either case, a parent gives instruction in faith, before complete understanding is present.
Should we then conclude that nurseries are unbiblical, since we are to teach children from infancy, even before they can understand? Doesn’t this line of thinking indicate that the best place to put a young child is in the church service, where we will fill his mind with teaching far above his head, with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will use this information to bring forth spiritual fruit?
Another interesting passage may give a counterpoint to these thoughts.
Nehemiah 8:2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.
8:8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
In this occasion, it appears that some people were excluded from this time of preaching. Someone had to make a judgment call who could hear with understanding, and perhaps there was disagreement. I smile, wondering whether some mothers were tempted to compare with pride or despair their own children with another’s.
Should we disregard a child’s understanding? No, I think not. I think we should in some cases give instruction ahead of comprehension. At the same time, we should attempt to cause our children to understand, considering their ability as we do so. An analogy has helped me resolve the apparent contradiction and evaluate when I am expecting too much or too little. A coach who wants to get the best performance out of his athletes might set the bar of expectations a bit higher than he or his athletes might think possible. If the bar is set too low, he’ll never know what his athletes are capable of. More significantly, if he sets unrealistically high goals, he runs the risk of discouraging and even hurting the athletes he wants to inspire.
I tend to think the same way. I think it’s good to stretch our children beyond what they can understand. Now I can appropriately allude to all the anecdotes about children surprising us with precocious observations. Truly, we often underestimate what they can understand. Another positive effect of stretching our children is that they can see what is important to us, even if they don’t understand it. Repetition can be a powerful learning tool. At the same time, we can set our expectations too high. We can just as easily overestimate what our children understand, and we can unwisely ignore evidence of frustration, discouragement, and “tuning out.” This is why I believe we should be realistic about what a preschooler understands about death and the resurrection. I suspect many preschoolers truly do not understand death. Even so, I do not believe we should omit the most foundational event of what we believe.
My recommendation? If you want to teach about the cross to your infant, go ahead. Use simple vocabulary and simple syntax, particularly with young preschoolers. Repeat yourself. Don’t confuse memorization with understanding, but don’t miss the value of memorization. Don’t be discouraged when children’ appear not to understand, and don’t be prideful when they do.