A Simple Curriculum for Parrots, Perts, and Poets

Dorothy SayersI get occasional questions about a curriculum for Christian education programs. It’s probably more complicated than it seems—things usually are. Typically I agree to a project on the premise that, “Well, this seems straightforward” and then, of course, it isn’t. Nevertheless, I press on.

Most of the Christian education programs that I’ve seen do not account for Dorothy Sayers’ magnificent explanation of how childhood development occurs and how we to acknowledge that in the way we educate them. Children typically grow through three stages: parrot, pert, and poet. The church would do well to learn from Sayers.

Here’s a rough sketch of how a parrot, pert, poet plan might look:

Age 4-10: Bible Stories, memorize Scripture and catechism
Age 10: instruction through the catechism
Age 11: instruction through the history of redemption

Given the enormous capacity of children to memorize and assimilate new information, most children should be able to memorize a good bit of Scripture and certainly all of the Heidelberg or Westminster Shorter Catechism by age 10 or 11. That memorization provides the building blocks for the instruction that follows.

age: 12: instruction through church history and practice
Age 13: Apologetics

The “pert” stage is the “smart aleck” phrase. It seems to be occurring earlier these days so perhaps age 12 is too late? Children are “pert” because they are emotionally immature at the same time they are beginning to analyze the stuff they’ve memorized. So the questions come out badly sometimes (frequently?) but they are important and it’s necessary for parents and teachers to put on the flame-retardant suit and answer them well and without flinching. The unstated question behind the questions is: do you really believe this stuff or are you pretending? Because it is in this phase that children become more analytical, it’s now that we need to be prepared to meet the objections and problems.

Profession of faith
Age 14: Christian literature (e.g., great Christian writers)
Age 15: Christian ethics

About here seems desirable that covenant children should make profession of faith, just as they enter into the last phase of childhood development: the poet, when they begin to see that there are transcendent truths and eternal realities. At this point they’ve been the subject of Christian education for nearly a decade. They’ve been introduced to God’s Word, to the language, history, and practice of the church. It’s also in this period that we want to begin to introduce them to some of the great books of the Christian tradition.

Age 16: Adult class

From this point, I’m don’t see why most teens cannot simply join the adult class. They’ve been received as communicants. I’m not saying that they cannot continue to receive additional instruction and enjoy ongoing fellowship with teens but it might be a good idea to move beyond the segregation of our young people from the adults. Perhaps one reason that young people have trouble making profession, in some instances, is that they’ve not been expected and prepared to make profession until later. We’ve delayed their spiritual maturity and extended their adolescence. Experience suggests that we might want to re-think that pattern and consider embracing the older pattern.

This is just a sketch. If this had been an actual curriculum you would have been instructed where to tune in your broadcast area. This ends this test of the emergency Christian education network. Keep calm and carry on.

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  1. Salutary, sage, and mooost (I hear Granddad’s Canadian and Scots accent) necessary counsel. Many thanks. Psalms 71, the lament of an old man speaking to the next generation. God help us all, we beseech Thee, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen.

  2. Dr. Clark, would you care to comment on the use of simplified catechisms like the children’s catechism (WSC) or Rev. Bouwers (Heidelberg)?

    • Hi Paul,

      I’m ambivalent. If the choice is between a compendium/children’s catechism v none, the choice is clear.

      I don’t want to make that choice, however. I’m probably in the minority, since the Compendium of the Heidelberg appeared about 1609 and was adapted by a committee appointed by the Synod of Dort. I can’t see the advantage of learning one catechism and then learning another, slightly longer catechism. I suppose that the children’s will replace the catechism itself. Worse yet, I would be concerned that it’s a step away from the catechism.

      If we start with our children at a young age and divide the longer questions into sections, young children can easily learn part or half a question each week. After two years a child has learned most of the Heidelberg’s 129 questions. In less than three years a child can easily have memorized the entire catechism. The HC was written for dual use but they certainly had children in mind.

      I understand that children resist memorizing but if we start with youngsters there is less resistance. I guarantee that children will benefit not only from having memorized the catechism but also from having learned to memorize. This is a largely lost skill and those children who learn to memorize will have a distinct advantage in learning languages, math etc.

  3. This is a fabulous article. I am always blessed when our (wife and my) practice of catechizing our children is encouraged. I was in high school when I discovered the WSC and felt quite robbed, being a church kid. I am grateful that God has provided a way for my children to grow up knowing the doctrines of Scripture from their youth and not have to spend decades playing catch-up like their father. Thank you so much for posting this.

  4. Hi
    Thanks for this. It is very useful and I shall save it to use as reference. We used My First Book of Questions & Answers from Christian Focus for our first daughter and have started it for our second. Our oldest, now 8, is finishing the Q&A off with the 10 commandments, but has also gained an interest in the WSC and is working through Christian Focus’s workbook on the WSC. What we liked about this route was it quickly gave our first parrot some terms she could use in conversations, even in school where she would report how she responded to a question from one of her classmates concerning God with an answer from Q&A. This route also got her used to memory work early on. That being said I think moving onto the greater depth and coverage of the WSC is a must and I’m very thankful she is keen to continue learning.

    Two observations
    1. I’m not sure we teach out children apologetics well
    2. I think pert starts much, much earlier 🙂

  5. Scott –

    Thanks for this. Very helpful. You (and Sayers) are right to encourage massive amounts of memorization in the early years. People would be shocked at the amount of stuff young kids can memorize.

    The one comment you make that I find very interesting is in your section on Poet. Where you say that “about here seems desirable that covenant children should make profession of faith.” If you take this stage – the teen years – to be “desirable” for profession, what do you make of professions in the earlier stages? Do you view them with more skepticism?

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