Years ago Leonard Coppes wrote an essay in the OPC magazine, New Horizons, on catechizing children. He called it “candychism.” In it he advocated rewarding children who memorize a catechism question and answer. To anticipate a frequent objection: No this isn’t crass bribery. The candy isn’t the point. The intent is to say to our children, “We recognize that you made an effort to do something important and here’s a small token of recognition.” Kids love it. We rewarded our children with candychism. I’ve tossed candy to college students for answering a question correctly in class. They loved it.
What does it mean? It means that small children are apt to memorize. This is how they are wired. Our stupid contemporary education program seems to be systematically making us all ignorant by refusing to teach children that they can memorize or to encourage them to do it. As Dorothy Sayers pointed out decades ago, the ancient educational pattern in the West was “parrot, pert, and poet.” We can and should apply this pattern to the religious education of our children.
All things being equal, children are able to memorize a good deal of material at a very early age. As an experiment, I taught my children the first line of the Vulgate (“in principio creavit Deus, caelum et terram.”) when they were 2 and 3. They can still recite it at will. Imagine if our children knew the Heidelberg or Westminster Shorter Catechism by age 9? It’s quite possible. Simply have your child memorize a part of a q/a each Lord’s Day and before long your child will have the stuff of the Reformed faith in his head.
As he grows he will begin to ask immature, smart-aleck questions. This is why Sayers speaks of the “pert” stage of development. Children aren’t asking so much whether it’s all really true (though they may) but, however the question is formed, what they’re really asking is “Do you really believe this stuff or are you kidding?” Put on your kevlar and take the heat. It will be worth it.
Finally, your child will reach the “poet” stage where he will begin to see that there are transcendent realities that are true but cannot be easily quantified. Now they are ready to come to the table, because they see bread and wine but they understand that through them the Spirit is feeding us on the body and blood of Christ.
As J. W. Nevin noted in the 19th century, ours is not the system of the anxious bench (i.e., the invitation system) but the system of the catechism. In obedience to our Lord’s command, we initiate our children into the visible covenant community (Gen 17; Acts 2:39) and we do so with the hope and expectation that the Spirit will operate in them through the “due use of ordinary means.” We take them with us to Lord’s Day worship, where they can learn to sing the songs of Zion (God’s Word!) and where they can see for themselves the community of the redeemed gathered around Word and sacrament, where they can see and hear the sermon, where they can see their parents going forward not for an altar call but to the table of the Lord to be fed by Christ, where they can see that they are part of God’s people.
To do this, of course, congregations must stop sending children to another country during the service where they are trained to become Pentecostals and revivalists. What a rude shock it is to children when, after years of preparation to become contemporary evangelicals, they are tricked with a “bait and switch.” Having been trained to sing “Shine, Jesus Shine” they are then asked to sing Psalm 23. Wouldn’t it be better to teach them to sing the songs of Zion with God’s people from the beginning?
We can, if we will, break the cycle of theological poverty. Our children are quite capable of learning a great deal at an early age. The real questions are whether we are willing to teach them, do we love them that much? Let me encourage you with this: I’ve catechized young saints and I’ve buried older saints. It’s wonderful to see those facing death reciting Heidelberg 1, which they learned in their youth.
Parents, you can build a foundation for the rest of your child’s life and it can start with a piece of candy.
Thanks again to Michael Spotts for providing us with terrific pics of the life of the church.