By Allison Kieselowsky
No matter how you slice, dice, or parse it, the words, “I asked Jesus into my heart,” do not express the same thing as, “Jesus Christ . . . has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person.”
Last fall, Stanford researchers published their findings after a study of 18-month-old children in families of both low and high socioeconomic status (SES). They found that children’s language processing speeds in low SES families begin slower than children in higher SES and that this gap grows as the children age, which impacts academic achievement throughout the children’s school years. Read the article HERE.
At the end of the article, the head researcher, Anne Fernald, a Stanford associate professor of psychology, concludes, “The good news is that regardless of economic circumstances, parents who use more and richer language with their infants can help their child to learn more quickly.” It’s no surprise that the issue here is less about family income and more about familial stability (or lack thereof) and language interactions between adults and children. Children who hear supportive, rich language throughout the day will comprehend language more fully and will process language more quickly.
I know many families who conscientiously speak complete sentences to infants and toddlers, who read books to their children, and who strive to temper discipline or correction of children with words of love and encouragement. I wonder, though, if even in families with rich language experiences, a dearth of rich biblical conversation and instruction has created a similar language gap in terms of understanding God’s Word. If our children do not regularly hear rich theological language that forces them to struggle with their souls, we are creating ears that are slow to learn and process the teaching of Holy Scripture.
Consider what I was taught as a four-year-old growing up in a non-denominational church. I learned that I did bad things which made me a sinner; Jesus died in my place and took the punishment I deserved; I needed to accept Jesus into my heart to be forgiven for my sins. On the surface, that may seem like an age-appropriate explanation of some basic Christian teachings. It seemed satisfactory until I began to memorize Luther’s Small Catechism with my daughters. In contrast to what I learned, Luther recommended this explanation for small children: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.”
Luther packed a lot of punch; he filled his catechism with rich teaching into relatively short statements. Do we believe that even the youngest children should hear the richest expression of our faith as found in the catechism and creeds? Yes. Emphatically, yes.
The Church has given us a wonderful gift in Luther’s catechism as it provides children and adults alike the structure and language of redemption as taught in the Holy Scriptures, just as it offers beautiful language of prayer. My parents did instruct me to pray before heading to school, before meals, and before bed, but the spontaneous prayers of my childhood invariably fell into the same simplistic pattern: thank you for [the food] and pray for [so-and-so]. Again, does this formula require our children to think and to develop depth in their understanding of prayer? Does it express our faith in the richest and fullest language?
Our guide should be the Lord’s Prayer, which in turn framed Luther’s evening prayer: “I thank you, my heavenly Father, that You have graciously kept me this day. And I pray that You would forgive me all of my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul. Let Your holy angel be with me that the evil foe may have no power over me. AMEN.” Instead of simplistic prayers that children will discard as they mature, we have prayers that will allow the children to develop in their understanding over time, prayers that give them language to deal with the temptations, sins, and sorrows of this life.
Since the Stanford study was released, I have read other articles about teachers, pediatricians, social workers, and parents across the country reacting to this most recent research by encouraging low-SES families to create language-rich environments for the children in the community by using electronic devices to count words spoken to a child during the course of the day. The data is used to teach caregivers how to incorporate songs and conversation into common events such as baths and diaper changes.
I admit that I’ve been tempted to strap a recording device to my 10-month-old baby so I could chart out the number of words I speak or sing to her and then break that number down into secular and sacred words, but that’s probably a little extreme. I do know without recordings and charts that I’ve gotten much more comfortable with engaging my daughters in theologically rich conversation as I practice.
When my oldest daughter was born, I stared at her with no small amount of trepidation. I had no idea what to do with a baby except the basic feeding, cleaning, and dressing. So I started reading books to her and praying the Lord’s Prayer and Luther’s Evening Prayer with her every day. That’s it—nothing novel or innovative. But it turns out that my unimaginative beginning was precisely the nurturing my girls needed. According to research, they will have heard millions of words fall from my lips by the time they are three years old. That’s a lot of words.
I wonder if Luther minds that I stole many of those words from him.
Allison Kieselowsky lives in Springfield, PA, with her husband Rob and their four daughters. She has been a daughter and sister for nearly forty years, a wife for nearly fourteen years, an English teacher and reading specialist for nearly ten years, and a mother for nearly seven years. She currently works at home as the general manager of household affairs, short-order cook, laundress, and teacher.
Image: "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" by John Singer Sargent, 1882