Family meal times are a priority in our home as is prayer before each meals. I must admit that the actual experience of family mealtime at our house isn’t all Norman Rockwell and Leave it to Beaver like. In reality, it sometimes seems like I am raising rabid animals who require a crash course in manners EVERY. SINGLE. NIGHT.
When my children were very small, I got into the habit of dishing out their food before prayer mainly so I could enjoy my own meal after we prayed instead of spending ten minutes serving them and fetching them the 45 things that I somehow managed to forget bringing to the table, but also to give the food a few minutes to cool down so no little tongues would get burned.
I would tell my over-eager children that I was putting the food on their plates so it could cool down and by the time we prayed it would be just right for them to eat. This would detur them (a bit) from shoveling the food in their mouths before everyone was at the table and we had settled down enough to pray.
As my youngest daughter became more verbal, we began to notice that when she tried her food and found that it was still to0 hot she would stop and pray–even if we had already prayed as a family. Somehow she had connected in her head that prayer would cool down her food.
And so she would close her little eyes, scrunch up her little nose and thank God for our food and our family and then shove another bite into her little mouth. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time the food would still be too hot and she would get super frustrated that her prayer didn’t keep her food from burning her mouth. It was cute and funny and I’m still not sure she doesn’t believe deep down that she needs to pray if her food it steamy and burning.
I never would have guessed that she would make a connection between prayer and food cooling down in her head. I have three children and the other two did not develop this same misunderstanding, but I am sure they have other misunderstandings that perhaps aren’t as easy to recognize.
Because children are literal thinkers, these misunderstandings are natural and even delightful. It is pretty insightful for a three year old to make this type of connection in the first place. And the faith she displayed was remarkable–she truly believed her prayer would cool down the food!
In the example with my daughter, we didn’t catch on right away, but because it is our routine to pray together as a family, we were able to observe the thinking behind her second prayer and realize that we needed to help her through the frustration of food that was still hot even after she had talked to God about it.
Gentle correction in a safe environment is sufficient when there is regular dialogue that allows you and your children to talk about spiritual things.
For us, the hardest part was keeping our older children from being critical of our youngest and demanding that she realize her “wrongness” immediately. I wanted her to come to the realization on her own over time instead of her feeling made fun of because she didn’t understand something that was obvious to everyone else at the table.
I also don’t want her to feel patronized–sometimes as adults we do that with kids. They do something cute and we are entertained and we never take the time to take them seriously or think about what we can learn about faith from them.
I don’t think faith misunderstandings in children are something that should make us feel panicked. They cannot be totally avoided and as teachers and parents, we won’t catch all of them or even correct them if we do.
God is bigger than our understaning of Him and He can handle it when we get it wrong—and by the way children aren’t the only ones who do.
When we don’t totally understand something and then in our own time come to a deeper or fuller understanding—the learning that takes place stays with us. It’s ours and something to be cherished. So be careful not to steal learning from our children.
Guide them, talk with them, wonder with them, but don’t rush through their childish faith.
There is something about childish faith that Jesus valued. I wonder how our faith might be deepened if we studied the faith of children more intentionally. How about you? How have you handled faith misunderstandings with your children?