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 in low SES families begins slower than that of children in higher SES, and this gap grows as the children age, which influences academic achievement throughout the children’s school years.
At the end of the article, 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 all language more fully and process language more quickly.
I know many families who conscientiously speak complete sentences to infants and toddlers, read books to their children, and strive to temper correction with words of love and encouragement. I wonder, though, if even in families with rich language experiences a dearth of rich theological conversation and instruction has created a similar language gap in terms of processing faith and religion. If our children do not regularly hear rich religious language that forces them to struggle with their souls, we are creating ears that are slow to learn and process.
Americans limit religious instruction through at least four approaches, creating what might be called a diminished capacity for processing theological content.
This approach includes the general malaise, complacency, and disinclination of parents to discuss theology with their young children. Evidently, parents assume that children magically, “poof,” one day will be able to process philosophical or religious language in order to decide for themselves its merit.
Dump Truck Approach
Fill ‘em up! In this approach, sometimes called open-mindedness, parents fill their children with all sorts of facts and information about religions and philosophies, treating each one with equal consideration. In this situation, parents hope children will one day dump all the information into a pile, sort it out with discernment, and figure out their own path.
Temper Tantrum Approach
Few parents will admit to embracing this approach, but people from every socio-economic strata and political affiliation angrily and daily expound upon how they are right and the others are wrong (and stupid or hateful), hoping they can shout more loudly than the others. In this case, the children’s diminished capacity for processing might be due in part to deafness from the all the noise.
Sugar Water Approach
Mary Poppins taught us that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but left out the part about rotten teeth. Or, in this case, how watering down religion to make it palpable to young ears actually makes it disintegrate and rots neurological processing centers.
Christians for generations have been working to perfect the Sugar Water Approach: Jesus loves you. Don’t make Jesus sad by being bad. As a toddler in a non-denominational church I learned I did bad things which made me a sinner; Jesus died in my place and took the punishment I deserved; and 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, Dr. Martin 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 in relatively short statements. Do we believe that even the youngest children should hear the richest expression of the faith? Yes. Emphatically, yes.
Dump The Sugar Water
These four approaches to religious instruction appear to exemplify parents living on a wing and prayer that somehow children will figure it out. The Stanford study uses this example to explain why that’s not adequate: If a child is not exposed to the noun “ball,” his capacity to comprehend the sentence, “Put the ball on the couch,” is stunted from the beginning. By the time he figures out “ball,” most other children have placed it on the appropriate piece of furniture. There is an element to language development that requires caregivers to provide vocabulary, structure, and context for children to process what they hear and eventually read. It is not enough that children comprehend picture books and can formulate complete sentences. They should also be given a framework which provides the structure to their thoughts.
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. They use data to teach caregivers how to incorporate songs and conversation into common events such as baths and diaper changes.
I’ve been tempted to strap a recording device to my one-year-old so I could chart out the number of words I speak or sing to her, 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 the more I practice. We memorize the words of Holy Scripture, Luther’s Small Catechism, and the rich, poetic hymnody of the Church , then use the language therein to make sense of what we hear and read.
Young children, even toddlers, can think in nuance and can absorb difficult concepts. True, it is not nearly as sophisticated as I hope it will become, but if I give them too little, lump everything together, shout that I’m right, or water it down, I’ve stunted their development already.
So before we put those cute little mortarboard hats on our preschool graduates, let us make sure they are fully equipped to process not just academic language but the language of faith ,as well.
Allison, a seasoned teacher and reading specialist, resides outside Philadelphia with her husband and four daughters.