We go out of our way to answer kids' questions, no matter how silly. Last year, a British journalist got experts to respond to children's questions like "Can a bee sting a bee?" and "Why do I get hiccups?" and "If a cow didn't fart for a whole year and then did one big fart, would it fly into space?" in her book, Big Questions from Little People: and Simple Answers from Great Minds.
One of the most frequently asked questions, even in increasingly secular Britain, was "Who is God?" Kids are curious, and they want to know about big theological truths just as much as they want to know why blood is red or whether there are aliens in space.
When our kids ask a spiritual question, they deserve a substantive, truthful answer. Too often, though, we insist on feeding them theology we have first cut into bite-sized pieces: a simplified Bible story, a single Scripture verse, a personal testimony of our own experience. But children can, and should, learn large concepts, too—salvation, atonement, sanctification—words they will hear throughout their lives, and the ones for which they may someday have to make a defense.
During Lent, Christians often discover or revisit spiritual disciplines to incorporate into family life. While Lent is drawing to an end, these disciplines are useful for every season of the Christian's life, and I'd like to suggest that we commit to systematically answering our kids' questions about faith. Our family does this through a practice called catechizing. Though many Protestants mistakenly think so, it's not merely for Roman Catholics. In reality, catechizing is simply teaching by using questions and answers; the set of questions is called a catechism.
Catechizing dates back at least as far as the Jewish synagogues of Jesus' time. The boy Jesus was found in the temple answering and asking questions—being catechized—in Luke 2:46. Later, Augustine, Anselm, Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox all wrote catechisms to be used in religious instruction.
New catechisms are being written for the church today, such as the First Catechism, which our family uses, and New City Catechism, published by Tim Keller and the Gospel Coalition. It's tech-friendly, available as an iPad app with videos and quizzing tools at your finger-tap.
In the real life of our 21st-century family (with kids aged four, almost five, and six) here's how it works: my husband and I spend a few minutes most days helping our kids to memorize, recite, and understand the answers to questions about the basics of faith. Over the years, we have taught them 150 questions that cover creation, fall, redemption, and new life in Christ.
"How does God justify you?" my husband asks, and my son replies, "God forgives all my sins and accepts me as righteous through Christ." In this way, children learn big theological truths almost as soon as they can say "mama" and "dada."
If you have a mental picture of my kids toeing a line in the hall while I bark rapid-fire religious questions, let me disillusion you. Our kids say the catechism while sitting in the recliner on their Daddy's lap, between bites at the family dinner table, and with one eye on a ticking timer—trying to beat their siblings for most questions answered in two minutes. (We also teach the catechism weekly to 40 children at a local daycare. There, we use catechism set to music.)
The blessings of catechizing are numerous. Catechizing is inherently relational, requiring the full attention of both parent and child. Checking text messages on the sly or playing Angry Birds is incompatible with keeping your place in the rhythm of the question and answer. Three days a week, for about fifteen minutes at a time, each of our children has an uninterrupted dialogue about spiritual things with his parents.
Deuteronomy 6:7 instructs us to "Talk of [spiritual truths] when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise," but theological conversation is not, sadly, natural in most of our homes. As much as we might like the atonement to come up over pancakes and syrup at the breakfast table, it rarely—if ever—will unless we are intentional.
Catechizing provides a regular opportunity for talking to our children about our faith. Ask my children "What does it mean to believe in Christ?" and they will answer "to trust in Christ alone for my salvation." It doesn't mean that they believe it, of course. It's not the catechism that is going to impart faith in their hearts. But knowing these answers gives them necessary tools which the Spirit can use to awaken faith.
Kids can memorize anything and will happily parrot even nonsense like "eenie, meenie, miney, mo." Infinitely more useful is memorization of truth that parents can connect to the biblical narrative, apply to the child's experiences, and store for future understanding.
"A child is like a fireplace," a woman once said to me. "The job of Christian parents is to fill that fireplace with wood, then pray for the Holy Spirit to set it on fire."
One of the chief benefits of catechisms is that the firewood of biblical knowledge has already been found, chopped, hauled, split, and stacked. No parent is a perfect theologian; we all have gaps in our understanding and can fail our children by explaining only those doctrines that are most precious to our own hearts. Teaching the catechism fills in our omissions, gives us structure, and supplies answers to those questions we are inadequate to answer.
It also allows us to move beyond constantly defining religious terms. Every time I mention "repentance" to my children, they already know what I mean: "to be sorry for my sin and hate and forsake it because it is displeasing to God." My husband and I can have conversations with our pre-school-aged children that include terms like "transgression" and "petition" and "sacrament." Because once they have memorized the material, our interactions with them can build on it, making vital application to their daily lives.
As they grow, our children will face increasingly complex questions about their faith. Some of them will come from their own hearts, some will be challenges from unbelievers. Christian parents can give our children answers to their spiritual questions and equip them "to make a defense to anyone who asks." (1 Peter 3:15) By catechizing we are imparting eternal truth to young minds one question and one answer at a time.