Talking Ashes with the Baby: Theoretically

I’m still going ahead with plans to take the kiddos to Ash Wednesday worship, even if it’s late, even if it’ll be a hassle (even though Erik realized, after my last post, that he’d committed to a professional engagement on Wednesday night, meaning I’ll be flying solo).

My friend Meika (who has three beautiful daughters) asked how I talk about things like Ash Wednesday and death and sin with my kids. Good question. This post is about the “theoretical” aspect of this. If you want a list of how I’m thinking about presenting this to my five year old this week, that’s in the next post.

I’m not always sure. It’s really hard. (And, I suppose, after 5 years as a pastor for children and youth and 2 years as a high school religion teacher, I say that it’s hard even if I am a “professional.”)

This is also not me speaking so much as a professional, but as a parent. (Given, I know, as a parent with an advanced degree in theology.) I’d do this a little differently if I was working with a group of children who were not my own.

Because this list is about theory rather than practice, it should be helpful even if you disagree with my theology. (I’m a huge Calvinist. But even if you are incredibly Baptist, these theoretical ways of thinking about how to to talk theology with kids ought to work for you in formulating your own ways of talking to your kids.)

I try to put any talk about those things through several filters.

1. Above all, I want to be honest. I don’t want to have to re-explain something later because I told it a different way when my kids were younger. The extreme example: glossing over the reality of death with kids.

2. I try to explain things so that they fit with what I believe. As a Christian parent, and as part of my baptismal vows to my babies, I feel called to guide them toward what I believe. I don’t feel that this call means I present them with choices, and then let them choose. Especially when they are young. As a theological nerd, I actually think about some of the intricacies of what I believe. Then I try to make sure what I say to a child fits with this. So, while I’m not going to explain all the details, I might want to make sure what I do explain isn’t contradictory.

As a caveat to this, I also try to teach my kids to respect what other people believe. Right now, this means I’m often explaining to Zora what I know about Judaism when she brings home questions about her Jewish classmates. As my kids get older, I also am committed to explaining to them that there are a variety of ways that Christians believe, but we’re still all Christians, even with those differences.

3. I try to find a way to talk about it that works with where my child is developmentally. This is a biggie, and I don’t claim to be an expert. I find James Fowler on faith development helpful, if a little academic (although, if you’re really motivated to learn about this for the sake of your own kids, it might be worth the work to read up on this!). I also, more simplistically, try to keep in mind that younger kids are concrete thinkers. (Example: when I say to my 5 year old, “Jump up on this stool so I can do your hair, she climbs up onto the stool and jumps up and down.) Abstract concepts don’t work for them unless they have a concrete illustration. So, if you want to talk about sin, you have to give them examples that they can get their heads around. And none of these parallel, analogous illustrations. It’ll be a while before they get to the “this is like that” stage.

Don’t forget, too, that part of development is experience. I don’t care that Zora doesn’t get all the intricacies of sacramental theology. I do care that, by age 3, she knew that communion bread dipped in juice or wine was sweet to her tongue. Taste and see that the Lord is good, right?

4. I try to explain things so that they are hopeful, so that there is a soft, grace-filled place to land. (I try to do that with adults, too. The gospel is good news. You can be honest with people about the hard stuff, but you don’t leave them in the darkness.)

Coming up: some examples of this put into practice.