How Old is Old Enough?

Among the many phrases I promised myself I’d never use as a parent, and that has escaped my lips nonetheless: “I’ll tell you when you’re old enough to understand.” (And if anyone has a suggestion for a better answer to a very detail-oriented 3-year-old’s query about precisely how the doctor helped her brother to be born, then please do pass it along. And soon. She can tell when I’m bluffing.)

But apart from using the phrase to fend off obstetrics questions, I’ve been wondering lately if that phrase – or some more diplomatically worded version – is ever appropriate when answering a child’s theological question, or explaining Scripture or liturgical practice to our children.

My initial hunch is of course not, because that response shuts down conversation and my bias is always for dialogue and nurturing a sense of wonder. ┬áBut the fact of the matter is, there are just some things that are really, really hard to explain for a very small child: the resurrection of the dead, for one (which has already come up in conversations about dead great-grandparents); what the phrase “dead in our sin” means; or, for the sacramentally-minded, what we believe happens when we baptize a younger sibling. My own temptation is to give some sort of answer-lite, just enough to satisfy my daughter’s curiosity, while making a mental note to myself to explain it in greater depth when I think she’s ready to understand it.

But, like I said: she can always tell when I’m bluffing. And – I’m going to put this as ecumenically as I can – I’m afraid there’s also a bit of hubris in arrogating to myself the authority to decide when she is ready to receive certain theological teachings, as though the Word needs to be mediated to her though me.

And so the spirit of the question still remains: how old is old enough for inviting our children to engage with the bloody, messy, complex world of sin and redemption? And if – like the old Puritans, who I love – we don’t shy away from telling them the whole truth (God’s wrath, dead Canaanites and all) from the start, how do we do it in an honest, effective way?

Let me give an example. Every picture Bible we own has the following stories: the Egyptian plagues; the taking of Jericho; David and Goliath; and of course, the crucifixion. And I love how each Bible frames the stories in the larger light of God’s love: each is an act of deliverance for God’s people, where God makes good on promises he’s made. True. Fantastic. But.

But: I always feel vaguely dishonest glossing over the blood in favor of the faithfulness. There were dead Egyptian kids. The Canaanites were all supposed to be slaughtered – and it makes a big difference to the whole Biblical story that they aren’t. David killed Goliath; he didn’t just knock him down. And Jesus was tortured to death.

The Biblical witness, moreover, is insistent on these details. The blood matters: these are stories of judgment upon evil, of God taking (and bearing) violent action to redeem his world from an enemy, and they are unflinching in their assertion that the human response to God has consequences. It matters that this is how God delivers his people, and I wonder if a child whose imagination is formed by the Biblical narrative of God’s conquest of evil will inhabit her faith differently than a child who isn’t confronted with the bloody parts of the story until her teenage years.

I’m certainly not advocating scaring our kids, or giving some sort of masochistic account of Biblical suffering by laying on a guilt trip about the crucifixion. (I remember being told at one point – I have no idea by who, because it definitely wasn’t my parents or pastor – to imagine that every time I sinned, another lash was tearing Jesus’ back. This made it very hard to imagine that God was happy with me.) But I do wonder how we can bear witness to the awful magnitude of what our sin has done to the world, and the lengths to which God has had to go to wrest it back, without waiting until we believe our children are “old enough” to deal with it. After all, that’s the truth. And what’s a more important parental duty than telling our kids the truth?

So, a question: how do you decide what’s appropriate as you try to tell your kids the truth about the world, its fall and redemption? Are there any books that do an especially good job? How do you respond to questions that seem “too old” to answer well?

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