When I had my own children, I found the repeated clearing up of messes to be draining. “What? You’ve spilt your cup of milk again?” My husband, on the other hand, seemed to take it all in his stride, with a calm: “What? Spilt milk? It could happen to anyone. Let’s get a cloth and wipe it up.”
Then it all changed. It happened in Mozambique. I was working in an orphanage for nine months covering annual leave for the long-term staff. The lady who ran the baby unit for the under-3s went on leave and I was suddenly plunged into the world of early years. And I was never the same again.
I didn’t come home and immediately become an advocate, but my fear of non-speaking, non-walking humans was gone, and I started on a journey into realising how essentially part of the Church the youngest ones are. So often crèche is a babysitting service rather than being a place where young children’s natural spirituality is nurtured. And this can also be true of faith at home. I feel so sad when I hear parents say: “She’ll be 3 this Christmas, so we thought we’d start teaching her about the Jesus story.” Really? You’ve not told her that story yet?
Faith at home with under-5s is one of the hardest, and one of the easiest things to do. It’s hard because, quite honestly, a lot of being at home with under-5s is hard. It’s tiring, it’s continuous, it’s sometimes lonely and it’s not always possible to see the impact of what we’re doing.
However, in some ways, faith at home with under-5s is as easy as being a parent and being a Christian. Children learn what they see, and they become what they know. I’ll never forget the first time I packed my own supermarket shopping bags as a student. The checkout lady looked at me as if I was bonkers while I carefully placed tinned tomatoes in one bag and flour in another. “But they go in different cupboards!” I replied, suddenly realising that this was exactly how my mum packs shopping bags: putting all the fridge, freezer, cupboard and veg basket items in their own bags for easy unpacking at home.
I think faith is a lot like this. We absorb what our parents do, along with their values and priorities, and it’s not until later that we choose to either continue or adopt new ways. I think faith can be one of those things; we can create a culture of faith at home that becomes part of the foundations of how our children do life. Children may choose to express their faith differently from their parents later on, but the values and the relationship with Jesus they’ve developed over many years will be embedded in who they are.
“There’s a richness we miss out on if we don’t look for what God is doing in young children’s lives and let their faith journey impact ours”
I heard that we learn more before the age of 2 than we do for the rest of our lives. Compare a newborn and a 2-year-old, and you’ll see what I mean! I see no reason to suspect that this excludes spiritual development. Some of our most basic norms are set when we are tiny children.
We know that the process of myelination is terrific in our early years. This is a process by which an insulating sheath grows around nerve fibres to increase their conductivity. Myelination is impacted by the experiences we have, so pathways that are used more become better insulated, and therefore more easily used. This means that all the faith activities children are seeing and taking part in are setting them up for a life of faith.
I believe, as I’m sure you do, that children are born persons; that they are spiritual beings; that childhood isn’t the warm up, but real life. I think at home we can create a culture in which young children’s innate spirituality can thrive, giving them accessible involvement in the faith life of the household and church family. I believe there are huge benefits to them and us when we do this, as there’s something about the way young children relate to God that’s not the same in older children. There’s something we will miss out on if we exclude them from our lives of faith.
So how to do we do this? Here are three ideas:
Live authentic and accessible Christian lives
This means creating ‘windows’ in our times with God, taking children with us to church (and maybe keeping them with us in the service rather than in crèche), as well as including them in grace before meals. When our children came along, we adapted our Friday night Shabbat meal so the talkie bit was much, much shorter, and put three sets of words into song form. When they were tiny they listened, and slowly they joined in, singing words and then sentences, adding their own voices to the joint prayers. Now, aged 4 and 6, they often lead parts of the meal. I think having accessible rituals in our faith at home provides an easy access point.
Look for ways to include faith in their world
By this I mostly mean play, as that is a child’s native language. I love telling stories with my children’s toys (like the time I told them about Jesus going to Peppa Pig’s house. Google ‘GodVenture and Peppa’ and you’ll find it!), and I love giving them open-ended ways to respond to stories of faith, rather than a themed craft activity.
Expect more and train ourselves to see clearer glimpses of their faith
It’s so easy to underestimate how much is going on under the surface of a young child; to not recognise their noise as a desire to be involved, or their gentle touch as an act of prayer or worship. However, I think there’s a richness we miss out on if we don’t look for what God is doing in their lives and let their faith journey impact ours.
Before I had children, I co-authored a series of biblical books for young children on sickness and death. When my children were 2 and 3, I felt it was time to do what I’d encouraged many people to do: introduce the concepts of sickness and death before we needed to in order to have time to start developing a good theology of death before we were grieving for someone.
I read the books to them, and they just took them in their stride like we were reading The Gruffalo. I thought, “Oh well, maybe they didn’t really get it. I’ll read them again when they’re a bit older.” Six months later, my 3-year-old said: “Mummy, there’s no pain in heaven, is there?” Surprised, but glad that the books had being useful, I said: “No, darling, there isn’t.” And my 2-year-old piped up from the other side of the room: “Yeah, Jesus, he take all the pain away like wiping up milk.”