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For children (and for many of the rest of us), God is like a magical being or super hero, diving in to save us or able to change from a baby to an old man at will. The fact is that when children ask questions about God, they typically have very different views of who/what they are talking about than we might. So how do we talk about God with children? Well that depends on many variables, but let’s look at some of the images and questions you may expect in each age group.
These questions are a combination of simple and philosophically complex. Thus often, for questions that we want to give nuance and to puzzle together with them, they will check out and feel that their question didn’t get the answer they wanted, as they are expecting short clear answers (compare to “where is the cat?”). God needs to be literal and understood in physical terms at this age, thus the best plan is to answer with a simple (correct) answer and then ask if the answer was helpful and if they want to know more. This is also a great age to talk about God as mystery, something so big and complex, none of us can fully understand.
These questions are usually born out of an immediate experience and come when what they’ve experienced is in stark contrast to what they’ve believed or been taught. Love all of God’s creatures followed by setting out roach hotels in the house is an example of this conflict. These questions require personal touches, “What made you think about _______?” is a useful question. It both affirms that we want to answer their question and encourages them to tell their experiences regardless of the issue, just be ready for the day you have to ask something like: “What happened that caused you to ask about the Devil reaching out from the ground and grabbing you?” We must be aware of the curiosity behind the questions and give it space to develop. Always encourage children to comment on your answers and listen carefully without correcting or defending. Sometimes skepticism comes with discomfort, other times you may need to spend more time helping them understand in their own words and thoughts.
These questions don’t replace the earlier ones but are built on top of them as children reevaluate their understanding of things. Children of this age are looking not just for answers but for evidence. Most the time children of this age will accept “Sunday school answers” but are truly looking for more. This is the age where skepticism of the church first takes hold if they feel pressured to just accept the answer rather than having space to question, doubt, present their own thoughts, and to find a balance between the unknowable about God, and the assurance of that personal love and care that they first heard about in Pre-K. Make sure you answer honestly at this age and remember “I don’t know” and “I have never thought about it” are perfectly acceptable answers. Some children at this age are ready to dialogue about opinions, but more often than not, they would rather be told by an adult that the adult isn’t sure than to feel like they weren’t heard, or weren’t told the truth as they form their own understanding. You can test this by saying “I don’t know, but my opinion is ______, what do you think?” and see if they take your answer at face value or have their own thoughts. Make sure to listen to them, and encourage the questions if you have the answers or not: “What else do you want to know about God?” and “Is there anything else on this subject you want to talk about?” are good starting points. Also encourage story sharing, provide examples from your life, your own questions, where and when you struggle and ask them to share too. The point here is to lovingly explore the mystery of God and our life together.
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