Children Can Memorize But Are The Adults Willing?

Parents and other catechists have sometimes said or implied to me that children just aren’t able to memorize in the modern age and therefore we shouldn’t insist that they memorize Scripture or catechism. This morning I had reason to doubt that.

I was telling Mrs Heidelblog about a Spencer Tracy movie that I watched last evening. Don Defore was one of the co-stars. He was one of the stars of the old sitcom “Hazel,” which was in daily re-runs during my childhood. As I thought of “Hazel” I remembered the name of the lead actress, Shirley Booth. Now that was a long time ago. How on earth can I possibly remember that and struggle to remember the names of people who are right in front of me? Okay, yes, age and decrepitude are reasonable answers for the latter but they don’t explain why I can remember names from a forgettable television show from the more than 40 years ago.

The answer is that the television was catechizing me. I saw the names several, perhaps many times, during the period of development when I was most apt to remember them. Dorothy Sayers called it the “parrot” stage of development. I can remember the names of the stars of the Batman TV show and others. I remember not understanding what “station ikenification” was. Back then, in between shows, the network announcer would come on and say, “We’ll be right back after station identification.” There’s a good lot of nonsense in my head from those years. It’s too bad it’s not Scripture or the catechism taking up that space and using those neurons.

The point, however, is that we should stop telling ourselves that somehow, in the late modern world, children are no longer able to memorize. That just isn’t true. Human nature hasn’t changed. The parrot stage is still the parrot stage. Young children are no less able to memorize than they were 45 years ago.

What has changed? Why do so many seem to feel that it’s impossible for children to memorize Scripture and catechism? Part of the answer is changes that have occurred in educational philosophy in the modern period. Educators seem to have given up on memorization. I wasn’t made to do much of it until university. The interesting thing is that advertisers haven’t given up on memorization. They hit us with messages daily and hourly and more that they hope and expect will become part of our memory.

Why educators have given up on memorization is a long discussion but the fact (if it is a fact) that some professional educators have or the educational establishment has given up on it does not mean that parents, elders, ministers, and other catechists must abandon memorization as an essential building block of Christian education and nurture.

The stuff in my head from 45 years ago did not get there by accident. It was put there by repetition. The jingles in my head from 1970s television commercials were put there by advertisers and broadcasters in hopes of training me to buy certain products. That’s the way we’re wired. Nothing has changed really. Parents, your children, even though they don’t realize it, are counting on you do fill their minds and memories with truly important, essential, life-changing, biblical and Christian truth.

Our little “parrots” are ready, willing, and waiting.

Here’s more on this topic.

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  1. “…children just aren’t able to memorize in the modern age and therefore we shouldn’t insist that they memorize Scripture or catechism”

    Perhaps if we change the environment a bit, quieting and slowing the kids’ lives down. Maybe the parents’ lives too. Significant things are to be treated significantly and maybe won’t be caught onto right away. Chip-chip-chip away and with the Lord’s blessing a work of art.

  2. Great post. Our almost 13 year old son is at 45 HC answers memorized. There’s a fine balance between pushing one’s covenant children to work diligently while being gracious. Having that much memorized helps, as you know, in discussing the faith. Blessings!

  3. Hi Dr. Clark,
    My 4.5 and 6.5 year old have memorized 30 of the unabridged WSC….with hand signs….Not only that they can explain to you what they mean. I on the other hand, having spent the exact amount of time memorizing with them, and have only memorized about half as much…..The Brain of Child is amazing….
    Just a little anecdote….I play a little “were you paying attention?” game with them after the worship service later on the Lord’s Day….I ask questions like:
    “Who preached today?”
    “What book of the Bible did Pastor Preach from today?”
    etc… if the get it correct….they get an M&M or something…If incorrect, I’ll tell them,and then give them the question again later…
    So for the second time around I ask my daughter ”
    “Who wrote the book of Galatians the Pastor preached from today?”
    She thinks for a really long time, and I almost interrupt her to give her the answer….Then she says…..

    “A chosen man carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (I was looking for Apostle Paul.)

    And that my friend is the brilliance of Catechism. It gave me a fresh re-dedication to Catechizing, because it’s hard work, and requires a lot of consistency….Only one I am actually good at…
    I aim for 6 days a week, and really only get 3 accomplished.
    I must add that my kids I think that a hard copy of the Bible and Catechisms are the only way to go with kids.

  4. First off, there are plenty of little booklets published for assisting the study of the SC (with scripture proofs and explanations), but strictly for the purpose of assisting the memorization of the SC, see whether this free resource is more helpful.

    To the point of the post, I sometimes wonder whether it isn’t an advantage to be 1st-generation Reformed (or at least 1st-generation catechized), because that helps to avoid the dynamic of “I had to memorize these stupid catechism questions when I was a kid, so now it’s your turn!”, in favor of “as a covenant family, we’re all learning this together.”

  5. I go back farther than you, Dr. Clark.. How could I ever forget (from the 1950’s) that Jay Silverheels played Tonto in The Lone Ranger. That was just the coolest name, ever.

    • This is why I’m not a ‘boomer. I think I saw Howdy Doody once but only in re-runs. A boomer has to have seen it live. Ditto with the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I was too young. I watch the Lone Ranger on Saturday re-runs. I prefer the radio version. No crime fighter could wear the LR’s outfit today. It would raise too many questions. I do remember watching the Green Hornet in the evening and Batman.

  6. “The jingles… were put there… in hopes of training me…”

    Very helpful analysis. Do you know if the WSC or other Catechisms have been put into musical format?

  7. Nate,
    Yes they have, by various artists see here I have a copy of the first volume I up to question 38 and they are good.

    But I don’t use it for the following reason:
    In teaching it is always best to teach one thing at a time, not two. Layering together is what greatly enhances memorization…..That is why singing is such a good tool to use to aid memorization, every child, even a 1.5 year old can learn tunes easily.
    Think about all the tunes you know as an adult….It’s almost too many to actually count, right?
    So, as far as Catechizing, every question that is fairly long, I hand pick, with the help of the kids, a tune that we already know (the kids love this part) and then I try to sing the Catechism to the tune.
    It may take several tune choices in order to find one that matches. I also tack on to the end of the answer, a scripture reference.
    Also we use the Classic Westminster Language, as it more lyrical or more rythmic in it’s grammatical sense….and quite frankly just more beautifully written than the newer modern translations.
    For example….Question 49 of the WSC is lengthy, and we sing it to Silver Bells (we learned it Christmas time last year.) and we tacked on “Exodus 32:4-6” to the end of the question. For Question 57 we used the tune for Holy Holy Holy from the Trinity hymnal and Exodus 16:27-30 Tacked on to the end.
    We have tunes like “pop goes the weazle” “Bob the Builder” etc…..I usually try to match the theme of the tune with the theme of the question to make sure that the sound is appropriate to the words. For instance Joy To The World for Question #43. What is the preface to the ten commandments? I imagine the people were filled with joy at being release from the house of bondage.
    A lot of the shorter questions we do hand signs, which children especially love, and when repeating the question I am able to help them by signing along (no I don’t know ASL, and we make up a lot of our own signs, which the kids have fun with.)
    As this has been a work in progress and has evolved over the last two years, we just recently realized that we needed to memorize what tune we used for each question as well, so that we would not be hindered in our recall.
    It forms a wonderful trellis of knowledge that is so woven together that memorization is not only easier it is more pleasant.
    Lastly, I think that as a family we have learned the Catechisms in a way that is very personal to our family, and that this is a good method that anyone can do and make it personal to their family by song choices and hand signs.
    I could go on and one about the need to catechise our convenant children, but I won’t. Maybe Dr. Clark will have me on for a guest post and I can write more about our method and encourage others.
    I I can do it, believe me, anyone can.

  8. Here’s a little anecdotal evidence of the ability of young children to memorize the catechism. This is our daughter reciting (most of) H.C. Q&A 66. She picked this up just from watching my wife and I recite this after dinner for the past month and she’s only 2!

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