The war is over, and they have won. This is the background for James Clavell's short masterpiece, The Children's Story. The story is set in a second grade classroom somewhere in America. It begins at two minutes to nine as the children discover they have a new teacher. She is one of them, yet the children find her pretty, engaging, and understanding not at all the horrible monster they had expected. And she talks with them, not just at them. She asks them questions. She wants to know about their routine and what it all means: "What does pledge mean?" "What does allegiance mean?"
The children, typical American seven year olds, cannot answer her. No one has ever explained these words. The children have simply been required to memorize grown-up talk without understanding. Carefully, deftly, the young teacher walks the children through a series of clever questions and suggestions that lead the children to cut up the flag, abandon their prayers, and generally embrace the new socialist order. The story ends at 9:23. Twenty-five minutes have passed.
Clavell came up with the story after his own daughter — "almost six" — proudly rattled off the Pledge of Allegiance, which she had just memorized, but which she could not explain. Clavell writes, "It was then that I realized how completely vulnerable my child's mind was — anyone's mind for that matter — under controlled circumstances."1
It Has Happened Before
The re-education program Clavell describes is even more insidious and effective than that of America's state schools. And there is nothing the children's parents can do, for in Clavell's imaginary tale the children are casualties of war. America is a conquered land.
Of course, Clavell's primary interest is not what war does to children. He is concerned with forms emptied of meaning, precious words parroted but never defined, and why it is "so easy to divert thoughts and implant others."2 He is talking about issues that affect us all most of the time. And yet the specifics of his imaginary scenario are not that fantastic. Godly parents have before now lost their children to godless bureaucrats, and those children have had to endure a pagan captivity with only the foundations their parents managed to lay in their children's earliest years.
Scripture, in fact, tells us of several young people who were torn away from their families and translated into pagan cultures. Joseph was seventeen when he became a slave in pagan Egypt. Daniel and his companions were perhaps a bit younger when they entered Babylon's leadership training program. But teenagers are young adults, and we might reasonably hope that their faith and values could survive such a violent transplanting. What about younger children? Remember that Clavell's imaginary children are only seven.
The Little Maid
One of the most remarkable saints in the Old Testament narratives is a little girl, "a little maid," who appears in 2 Kings 5:2-3. She had lived in northern Israel, but the Syrians had invaded and carried her away. Now she worked in the household of Naaman, a Syrian general, one of them. Naaman was a leper. The little girl might easily have thought that he was under the direct judgment of God; many lepers were. In spite of all this, the little girl said to her mistress, "Would God my lord were with the prophet that is in Samaria! for he would recover him of his leprosy."
What a blessed child! She harbored no bitterness, no hatred. She wished Naaman well. She wished for his healing. Furthermore, she was certain that Elisha the prophet could heal him, even though no prophet had ever healed a leper before. She was certain that Elisha would heal him, even though Naaman was a Gentile and one of the enemy. She believed this even though "many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed" (Lk. 4:27). This little girl's faith was exceptional. So was her understanding. Have you ever wondered how God prepared her for all of this?
The Child Moses
The same question confronts us in the history of Moses. After the episode with the ark in the Nile, Moses' mother received him back for a few short years. She was his nurse until he was weaned. Then she had to surrender him up to Pharaoh's daughter so he could begin his formal training beside the other Egyptian princelings. Egyptian culture and education were drenched in superstition and magic. Moses' mother — her name was Jochebed — had perhaps three years alone with her son (2 Macc. 7:27; cf. 2 Chron. 31:16). What did she do to prepare her child for his stint in the pagan schools of Egypt? The Bible does not say. But she obviously did a great deal more than the parents of the children in Clavell's story.
The Covenantal Context
A warning is in order here. Education, even Christian education, is not salvific. God alone saves sinners. Our hope must be in His promises, in His grace and Spirit. But God uses means to save His elect. We and our children are bound up in a bundle of life with the Lord, a bundle called covenant. If we are to see our children trust in Christ and remain faithful to that covenant, we cannot safely ignore any of its provisions.
And so we pray. We pray for our children and with our children. We pray for ourselves, for wisdom, love, and consistency; and we confess our own failures and sins, both to God and, when necessary, to our children.
We present our children for baptism. We place them under the preaching of the Word. We teach them how to worship with God's people. We make sure that they have an active part in the life of Christ's church — that is, of our own congregation. We live out lives of faith before them and with them. And, of course, we teach them God's Word for all of life.3
Some Teaching Strategies
Here, then, are some practical suggestions for teaching a Biblical worldview to very small children (2 to 4 years old):
- Teach your child the forms of the faith as soon as possible. Don't wait on their understanding. Understanding can catch up to memory. Have your child learn the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer.4 The danger is not in learning the forms, but in never learning what they mean.
- Sing psalms and psalm-like hymns in family worship and around the house (Col. 3:16). This can include the better Christmas carols and praise songs that are taken directly from Scripture. Sing children's songs only where they serve some purpose — reinforcing a story, for instance. Choose songs that celebrate all of God's attributes. Sing about His great acts in both Testaments. Sing songs that take God seriously. Avoid overly sentimental hymns and praise choruses and anything that's silly. We are preparing our children for an adult faith.
- Read the Bible with your child. Read the actual text of Scripture.5 Begin in Genesis. Read as much or as little as your child can take in at a sitting. Explain, comment, and question as you go along. Don't shy away from the details of Passover or the Levitical sacrifices or the Nazarite vow. Expect your child to remember what you've read in the past. Review key persons and events over and over again. But be careful not to reduce the Biblical histories to a collection of adventure stories or moral tales, a sort of inspired Arabian Nights or Aesop's Fables. Relate every passage to Jesus Christ (Rev. 19:10d).6 It is the gospel that implants faith (1 Pet. 1:23-25), and it is faith that endures the darkness of Egypt and Babylon.
- Have your child memorize Scripture. Choose some verses that describe the Biblical doctrines of creation, sin, and redemption. Choose others that will speak to his present needs, verses about trusting God, obeying parents, being cheerful, working hard, and so on. Scripture must be in the memory before it can be in the heart. Explain each verse as your child learns it. Come back a few weeks later and explain it again.
- Explain the difficult words and phrases that appear in the creeds, catechisms, and songs of the faith.7 This will take time. Explain redemption and salvation and resurrection. Explain faith and repentance. Then see if your child understands the explanation. Review the definitions until they stick.
- Answer your child's questions seriously and at length.8 "Daddy, if we're going to live again, will we have to die again?" "Mommy, why does God give people different colors of skin?" Children's questions can be penetrating and thought provoking. Never brush them off. A question is a teaching opportunity.
- Everything can be a teaching opportunity — a thunderstorm, a death in the family, a news report, or a walk through a garden. "Look at this beautiful rose that God put here for us to enjoy." The goal here is not to contrive openings, but rather to be honest and open about the grace of God in our lives. God did put the rose there, and He did put it there, at least in part, for us to enjoy. This kind of conversation is exactly what Deuteronomy 6:4-9 has in mind.
We are at war. We don't know how long we have to prepare our children for their part in the conflict. But even if we were sure that we would have years and years, why would we want to waste any of them? Teaching our children the faith is a great responsibility; it is also an incredible privilege.
1. James Clavell, The Children's Story (New York: Delacorte Press/Eleanor Friede, 1981).
3. What follows assumes that parents are making Biblical use of the "rod of correction" (Pr. 22:15).
4. Catechism questions and answers probably belong here as well. The words of the older catechisms, as precious as they are, usually require more explanation that the doctrines they teach.
5. Bible storybooks, good ones, can be supplementary reading.
6. For help along these lines, see S. G. De Graaf's 4 volume Promise and Deliverance (St. Catherine's, Ontario: Paideia Press, 1977) that is, if you can actually find a set.
7. What a child finds difficult may be surprising. One of our greatest challenges was explaining "died" as in "Jesus died for us." We had to begin from squashed spiders; it was the only experience our children had of death.
8. My favorite question so far has been, "Daddy, why does everyone try to kill princesses?" It was sparked in part by the Disney princess movies, but it led to a twenty-minute discussion of the kingship of believers, the true nature of nobility and virtue, and the antithesis between the Serpent and the Woman.
- Greg Uttinger
Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.