During Lent this year, my husband and I tried to talk with our 3-year-old daughter frequently about what Lent is, and what Easter is. Death, penitence, discipleship, resurrection–not exactly easy topics to cover in a toddler-friendly way. But we figured the alternative was to not talk about them… so we persisted. A couple weeks before Easter, I decided to check in on how we were doing.
In the car one morning, she asked me, “is it springtime yet?” (I shared her sense of frustration and confusion with the cold snap that had returned after a week of unseasonably warm, sunny days.)
“Yes,” I answered. “Even though it’s cold today, it’s still spring.”
“So…is it Easter yet?” she asked. (Apparently she’d come to equate Easter and spring in her mind–making her farmer-turned-priest mother smile.)
“Well no, there’s still a little while until Easter,” I replied. And then I ventured, “Do you remember what happens at Easter?”
Her reply was swift: “The flowers come up!”
I confess, my immediate internal response was one of disappointment at the apparent failure of my catechesis. So I hastily launched into a “yes, and…” account of Jesus dying and then not being dead anymore. It was, as you might expect, merely puzzling to her.
Two weeks later, we had another conversation–this one a few days after Easter. We were reading the book Water, Come Down! by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (This is a beautiful book about the role of creation in baptism–I highly recommend it for parents, godparents, and children alike.) We got to the part about seeds:
“I am the seed that grows the wheat
that makes the bread the children eat;
but I, before I rise, before I grow, I go deep down:
I die, the dark earth underground.
Water gives me life again,
and I become the golden grain.”
I went to turn the page, but she stopped me. She pointed to the picture of the sprouting wheat seeds, and asked, “will we stay dead? Or will we come back alive again?”
This time I had no hasty response to launch into.
And this time, instead of feeling disappointed by the apparent impact of my teaching, I realized I was impressed by her ability to see and wonder about the bigger picture beyond our Easter proclamation that Christ is risen.
I have a tendency to get caught up in the details of right belief. I think it matters how we talk about Good Friday and Easter. The words we use and the implications we draw from those are powerful and far-reaching.
The shadow side of this tendency, though, is that it’s easy for me to assume that the most important way I can pass my faith onto my young children is by finding the exact right, age-appropriate words to explain it all to them.
My conversations with my daughter remind me why that’s wrong. When she sees flowers and senses Easter is near, when she speculates about the connections between the life cycles of humans and wheat, she’s seeing the world as God would have her see it. She’s developing her sense of the sacred through her experience of the mundane. Jesus was a big fan of such an approach–he was constantly using mundane things to teach people about faith and the kingdom of God–a mustard seed…yeast…a vineyard.
What our little ones need most from us is not deep theological explanation; what they need is someone to “tune into” and wonder together with them about the world around us.
Sensory experience precedes comprehension. And wonder precedes belief. Much more than my ability to explain resurrection to them, what’s most valuable to my young children right now is my ability to consider the lilies with them.
What have young children taught you about resurrection?