Suffer the Little Children

Donald Ratcliff ed., Children’s Spirituality: Christian Perspectives, Research, and Application  (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2004).

Boy prayingMy two year old loves going to church. She dances to the songs, colours in worksheets, plays with the toys in the nursery, and gets cake afterwards. A few weeks ago she took communion for the first time. She listened carefully when I explained how special it was but I’m not sure how much she internalized. One of her favourite books is My Pretty Pink Prayer Bag (2011).  It gives patronizing advice about how to “talk to God” and tell Him when you are happy, cross, or sad. She listens carefully to the story at least once a day and then concludes, every single time, “Yeah, we really need to get a puppy.” The collection of essays in Children’s Spirituality: Christian Perspectives, Research, and Application (2004) tries to work out exactly what children do get out of religious education and what we as adults can do about it.

The essays in this volume vary greatly in quality, but most share certain basic assumptions drawn mostly from the work of Jerome Berryman and Rebecca Nye. Berryman has pioneered the idea of “godly play” as a way of introducing children to important concepts that will shape their spirituality into adulthood. He suggests playing hide-and-seek, for example, because throughout our lives we play hide-and-seek with God. Children, as you will know if you have any, are terrible at hide-and-seek. They tell you where they are going to hide and then call out to you while you are looking in case you need help finding them. The point of the game, Berryman insists, is that it develops a sense of security because we learn that even if God is hiding, or if we have done a pretty good job of ensconcing ourselves, He will always find us. Our parents never got bored of looking for us when we were children, and they never hid themselves so well that they could never be found, so there is no reason why we cannot find God as well.

At the foundation of Nye’s research is the idea that knowing stories about God is not the same thing as knowing God. Through careful unstructured interviews with young children she has shown that people have profound religious experiences at very young ages. An adult’s job, she suggests, is to give children a vocabulary to express their spirituality and therefore a way to explore it further. Nye argues that choosing to “let them choose when they grow up” by not introducing them to any religious concepts until they are teenagers effective handicaps a child who has no framework for explaining what s/he feels and so stops feeling.

This volume guesses at how children explore their spirituality rather than obsessing over how to teach them doctrine or to memorize Bible verses. Authors discuss how various Protestant traditions have thought historically about children, look at the biological and development prerequisites for a mature spirituality, and show how adults can nurture children’s spirituality in churches, schools and homes. One of the biggest lessons I took away from this book is that children are more impressed by what their parents do than what they say – preach at your kids all you want but if they see you that you pray and cherish the scriptures then you have made an infinitely more valuable contribution to their spiritual lives. As the father of a young child I found these essays very liberating. If there is a proper way to raise Christian children then the experts have no idea what it is. But the best research suggests that hanging out with kids, talking to them about their thoughts and feelings, and taking your own spiritual journey seriously is the best thing you can do for them.

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