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...or in your life, for that matter.
Qualifier: I speak from the perspective of a young single adult who has no young siblings or children living with me, (unless you count two guinea pigs!) but who has been teaching Sunday School for several years, and also spends the rest of my week teaching children of assorted ages! These are just some thoughts I have developed, watching how adults interact with children--myself included--and seeing what has been helpful (and not!) for the children in a spiritual context.
1. Help them develop a love for reading the Bible. Help them see the excitement and fascination in the stories, the beauty of how the Old and New Testament reinforce and reflect and complement each other, the person of Christ as unfolded across both books as Messiah, King, Healer, Friend, Saviour. Help them to see the human, personal, side of the characters, to go beyond what may seem to them as stiff and formal words, to feel for them. I remember how a major change in Sunday School Bible reading happened when I started to unpack the Bible passages, not just as static factual events with a moralistic ending, but as stories which featured people very much like us, with feelings and thoughts and weaknesses and strengths like us. How God worked in their lives and spoke to them, just as He does to us. How they struggled to serve Him, how they made mistakes, how they learned to love Him--through joy, grief, shame, repentance, as we did. The children used to go through the motions of reading, sounding bored (especially those who had already read the story before) yet when I asked them to summarize what they had just read, they couldn't. I realized right then and there that just because they could read the verses aloud without physical difficulty didn't mean they actually understood or benefited from it from the content itself. So every few verses I would stop to summarize what happened, taking pains to help them imagine and relate to the characters, the situations, the conflicts/tensions, the ironies (I suppose my lit degree came in handy here.) To help them appreciate and engage with the passage.
Often, when they relate to the stories, when they start to feel and respond together with the characters, they grasp a lot of the spiritual truths on their own, instinctively; without needing me to hammer it in "ok now this is the interpretation, the take-away lesson." Often, they voluntarily give me examples of similar situations in their own experience, drawing parallels between the Bible stories and their own lives, so that the "application part" comes naturally. I'll always remember how, after we discussed what it meant to not have any idols, one little girl said suddenly with an enlightened face, "It's like my korkor (older brother) with his hair!"
And that's how they truly remember what they learned. Once they've engaged with the Bible, not just as a fun story, but reflecting truths that apply and can be seen in their own everyday lives, even within the limited circle of their short life experience.
And if you're not a parent or a Sunday School teacher and you're wondering how on earth this relates to you--you could always ask them about the Bible stories they've read, who's their favourite character and why; tell them about your own, what part of the Bible you enjoyed reading this week... Heck, be creative.
2. Encourage them to pray often, to feel comfortable and safe and loved talking to God, to share their fears and thoughts sincerely and naturally with Him. Give them opportunities to sincerely and simply pray, without making them self-conscious or overly aware of formalities; don't insist they close with "in Jesus's precious name" or tell them they "can't" pray for their pet hamster. Children learn quickly. They watch how you pray, they remember what you impress on them when it comes to how or what to pray about. They develop their own idea of what prayer means, and that reflects their idea of God, how they relate to Him.
From how you pray, does it come across as a duty, as a formal speech, as a ritual...as talking with a beloved Father and Friend?
3. Show them by your own example what the love of Christ means. Children are basically humans at the stage where they are the most receptive to love, and the lack of love. I mean, I think I'm pretty receptive to affection too, but in the nursery class I'm teaching now, the kids in the front row will start kissing my knees and trying to sit on my lap when it's storytime. !!!
Often, they are the most sensitive and appreciative of love, and as a Christian, you have the opportunity to show them through your example the gentleness, long-suffering, forgiveness, and self-sacrificial love that Christ demonstrated for us. So that when you tell them about Christ, they can imagine from their experience what such a love means.
Be kind. Take time to play with them, to listen to them, to talk to them.
4. Treat them seriously--purposefully avoid hypocrisy.
All right, this is a very big and complicated topic. I think I didn't manage to articulate it very well but I hope the main jist of it gets across anyway, because I feel it's very significant.
Listen to them, with respect for what they are trying to say, even when they're not good at articulating their thoughts yet. You'd be surprised how many insightful or unexpectedly probing, important questions/thoughts are going on inside that little head, once you sit down and take the patience to listen to the stammering, the pauses, the garbled syntax and confused references.
And don't talk down to them. I have realized, from watching others interact with children, and then changing how I interact with them--that there is a fine line between being playful/having fun and talking down. (If I manage to come up with a litmus test for that I'll add that to this post.) It's surprising how differently the same child will speak, act, and relate to you once they know that you take them seriously, that you don't see them as a cute stuff toy or kitten that only knows how to play and be teased (and some of them then go on to milk that to their advantage, manipulating adults and "acting cute" shamelessly. Unhealthy much? Go figure.)
This sounds weird, but really there is so much unconscious hypocrisy and insincerity--taken for granted even--in the way grownups interact with children. Children appreciate sincerity and humility a lot more than we give them credit for. You might think they're particularly gullible, but on the flipside, doesn't that show how much more they value and expect sincerity/honesty?
Whenever I share about my failures, or from my personal experience, I can really see them respond--they are responding to the fact that you're putting yourself on the same level as them, not playing the adult-talking-condescendingly-to-little-kids-that-I-clearly-see-as-inferior-to-myself card, or adult-ostenstatiously-dumbed-down. Which is a long title, but pretty much sums up a lot of adult-child interaction I have seen and experienced myself. There is something very damaging in encouraging the idea that adults are always 'better', and having reached some supernatural realm of perfection (which already comes quite naturally to children in their propensity to adore and admire and emulate; they are actually more used to humility than most of us) especially since the very way we define 'perfection', by implication, is often problematic.
One of them asked me if I cried when my pet died and I told them frankly, yes. They were surprised, and quiet for a while. "But you're an adult already," one of them pointed out finally, and I realized that to them, being an adult meant you were invincible, invulnerable, all capable. Oh darlings, who are we kidding?
Likewise, if you take this together with the many instances of hypocrisy, insincerity, and even falsehood with which many adults treat children (think promising rewards/telling scary stories/manipulative love--"If you're a naughty boy Mommy won't love you anymore..." and all the times we let them get away with stuff because they're cute)--well, it's depressing. What kind of security are we teaching them to have? What kind of standards are we depicting?
I remember, even as an older child, how damaging it was when another child got away with destroying/breaking one of my belongings, simply because his mom refused to make him apologize. She dismissed it with a flippant "oh dear, but he's just a kid, never mind lah, huh? You're the jiejie (older sister), you just don't mind it ok?"
I remember looking at that child, listening to what his mom was saying, and the expression on his face as he absorbed the fact that he could get away with something he obviously knew was wrong, as long as he played his cards right.
Again, having a friend refuse to let go of my stuff toy dog when it was time to go home, because he liked it. His mom, instead of telling him off, asked me to give it to him; "it's just a toy, you've still got others". I didn't want to, and I thought it was very rude and greedy of him--I expected his mom to make him return it, and when instead she asked me to give it to him, I felt a very strong, if confused, sense of injustice and betrayal. But because it was An Adult asking me I didn't dare to say no. I cried myself to sleep that night, even though it was "just a stuff toy", and I had "so many others!"
No. NO. Take them seriously.
Teach them to be honest, sincere, fair, and reliable by your own example. Don't dumb down for them. Don't have lesser moral standards for them just because they're kids. Don't dismiss their feelings or thoughts just because they may seem less important, or may not be well articulated. Don't underestimate the impact that you have in how they see themselves, and how they learn to interact with others.
5. Teach them to desire a relationship with Christ, and be aware that your Christian witness affects how they define what it means to be a Christian.
Help them to see, even as there is so much for them to learn--Bible stories, Scripture memory, worksheets to complete, catechisms to learn--that the most important thing is for them to believe in Jesus. The Gospel, in its most beautiful and most simple essence, should never be missing from the mass of Sunday School lessons and sermons and quiet bedtime talks. Its preeminent place should never be uncertain.
Ask yourself--calling myself a Christian, what kind of impression, on what it means to be a Christian, would a child who knows me get from my life? I know many dear older Christians who have helped me in many ways, but I especially appreciate those who showed me that being a Christian didn't mean having to constantly keep up to a specific image. Or always be on the lookout for reasons to disapprove of something. Or being unable to enjoy the simpler things in life. Or relate to people who didn't agree with your worldview. Come on, before I was converted I had the idea that after being baptized you couldn't be playful and make jokes because somehow it meant you weren't properly saved. How messed up was that, and yet that was the unspoken impression I'd received and formed.
6. Be comfortable with talking about spiritual things with them, and encourage them to ask you questions on what they're unsure of. I'm not sure how much of an issue this is with you. Most of us feel rather awkward discussing spiritual things with other adults. It could be worse, or easier, to do so with a child, depending on you. But most people don't bother to, because they assume that children can't understand/appreciate such thoughts. Don't mentally shelve them on the Jesus Loves Me This I Know level of theology! Be open to, and encourage them to ask questions about spiritual things. Be forewarned though; that probably means some very probing questions you'll have to think over and even study up on before you can answer. I remember when I was seeking, how it felt so unnatural and difficult to ask questions, even though I so badly needed answers, because I had never been in the habit of talking about these things with the older Christians in my life. Whereas this would be notoriously challenging to start with teenagers, it's different with children, who often have less expectations on what is "normal/awkward," less inhibitions, and much more trust/honesty in expressing their curiosity or questions. If they ask you questions about faith, about the Bible, encourage them, don't make them feel stupid or heretical; share from your own experience. The first time one little girl in my class asked me--she wasn't from a Christian background, so she didn't feel as much inhibition--"How do we know God is real?" I was struck by the reaction she got from the others, all from Christian homes and upbringing. They stared at her in shock and one of them nudged her to indicate she'd asked a taboo question, something akin to heresy. No, no, NO. I asked them one by one how they knew God was real, and they all gave pat textbook answers that rang hollow. I probed deeper and sure enough, they eventually acknowledged that they weren't really sure why those were the answers, they weren't very convinced, though they felt bad for doubting or feeling this way. That meant having to abandon the current lesson plan for a How Do We Know God is Real series, but it was worth it. We made some real connections that day, had some serious and insightful discussions. I hope they learnt not to be afraid to ask questions, to study the Bible, and get help when they needed it without feeling ashamed or guilty.
They're not children for very long. Treasure this chapter of life when they're at this stage. There are many blessings and opportunities in it, both for you and them.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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