Awakening to faith in young children

What to do when, between the ages of 3 and 7, children’s questions about God, life and death arise?

“How can we tell them about the love of God, whom we cannot see, hear or understand? How do we tell them that the one we cannot present to them is there in our lives?” In the past, faith did not raise as many questions… or at least not among the younger ones. “When my mother talked to me about God, I listened without flinching,” says Juliette. “Today, when my five-year-old daughter asks me questions about my faith, I think it’s great, but I don’t know how to share my feelings with her.”

Why are parents today so embarrassed or feel like they are so clumsy? The Italian catechist Sofia Cavaletti (author of Le Potentiel religieux de l’enfant), who has developed a method of spiritual awakening inspired by the educational principles of Maria Montessori, points out that the adult’s desire to transmit is often paralyzed by the idea that the child is incapable of grasping what is beyond him: “There is the conviction -although it is not usually clearly admitted- that the child is not capable of receiving such great things. However”, Sofía Cavaletti continues, “I am convinced that the reality is quite different: on the contrary, we are the ones who are incapable to transmit them with the necessary simplicity”.

Conveying the faith can be, indeed, and perhaps in the first place, transmitting the joy of living. This is what Father Christoph Théobald, a Jesuit theologian, thinks when he affirms that faith in life is primary and innate: “The general concern for transmission – he says – must not make us forget this fundamental element: the emergence of faith in life”. If we cannot dissociate belief and belief in life, parents return to their main function: to give life. “This law -he continues- puts an insurmountable barrier to any voluntary transmission strategy, but it also frees us for what is essential.” The essential thing is to live, to love, to let those vital experiences over which we have no control “breathe” through us and which will spiritually awaken the child, instead of wanting to transmit spiritual baggage to him absolutely. “Parents breathe, children breathe,” says Jesuit Father Jean-Luc Ragonneau.

The psychoanalyst Nicole Fabre (author of “L’enfant et sa spiritualité”, article published in the magazine The Chair and the Souffle) confirms this ability of the child to build himself spiritually, if the parents know how to give him “the stones of waiting”, such as the ability to welcome, to be amazed, to remain silent, to receive… For the child, experience comes first. “To such an extent,” says the psychoanalyst, “that the child builds an image of God based on his vital experience, the way in which he is treated and spoken to. His experience colors his image of God” . For these “waiting stones to become cornerstones”, the attentive and respectful presence of the adult at the child’s side is essential. Currently, intellectual knowledge has been greatly developed to satisfy children’s curiosity, but also to reassure parents. It is easier to explain to the child what the Bible says than to talk about the Resurrection, and thus contain the child’s questioning, instead of letting it develop. Because faith is not a sum of knowledge or learning.

For this reason, the adult should not freeze in a transmitting attitude, but “be with” the child and help him evolve in a world where God can find his place, avoiding rushing him, dragging him from activity to activity or constantly offering him distractions that clutter up his space. inside. “Instead of making them say words or adopt attitudes, let’s train them to experience joy, silence or sharing,” suggests Nicole Fabre. The most important thing for the child is that there is coherence between what the adult says and what the child lives. For this reason, when a parent takes the child to visit a sick person, this moment of shared life is a precious moment for the child. This experience of caring for the other will be more fruitful than a moral mandate. Similarly, a snuggle by the fire with his father… What does this have to do with spirituality? “An essential relationship”, explains Nicole Fabre, “the learning of calm that leads to interiority, to familiarity with the inner life, within which this work that induces spirituality can be developed”.

Worrying about awakening is also respecting the discoveries that the child will make in other places, accepting that they are not the only channel of transmission. If the parents are not prepared or are too dogmatized, the child will not feel empowered to think differently. Sofía Cavaletti thus warns of any pressure, even in good faith. “The help that the adult can give to the child is only preliminary and collateral and stops – must stop – at the threshold of the ‘place’ where God speaks to the creature about him”, she affirms.

Awakening to faith in young children