We who nurture the life of children could be compared to gardeners, conscientiously serving the God-given stages of the growing plant. We seek to support its development as a seedling, a young plant, and a fruit-bearing or mature plant.
However, Christian educators of young children often begin to water, weed, and prune without first observing children to grasp the stages of their relationship with God. God has planned human and spiritual growth just as well as God has prepared plant growth.
Catholic scholar Sofia Cavalletti and her collaborators Gianna Gobbi and others around the world and in many denominations have carefully observed the stages of newborn to 12 year-old children’s relationship with God, and they have developed an approach to religious formation, called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, that serves those stages well. The encounter with God over the years includes coming to know God who is love, God who is personal, and God who is just and merciful, as these and other aspects of God match the developmental strengths of the growing child.
Here is that development and its implications in very broad strokes:
- Ages 0 to 6. Young children are in a relationship of love with God. This begins with life. This time is one of joy. For the young child, Christianity is not about doing good, but about being in love with Jesus. We serve this period with parables such as the good shepherd, the found sheep, the mustard seed, the pearl of great price, and the leaven, as well as the narratives of the birth of Christ, the Last Supper, and the women at the tomb. The signs of God’s presence through water, bread, and wine are also introduced according to the practice of each congregation.
The gift of these children to us is their focus on the heart of our faith—the love of God, God’s presence with us through Christ, the power of the kingdom of God, the mystery of death and resurrection.
- Ages 6 to 12. Elementary children are ready to connect their relationships with others to their relationship with God. This begins the great work of sorting out good from bad, right from wrong, and becoming part of the nonviolent work of God among us, transforming evil and death into life with patient love. These children seek to grasp the work of God in both time and space—throughout history and among all people.
We serve them with universal and inclusive images such as the true vine, the history of the kingdom of God, and the breaking of the bread, as well as moral parables and sayings of Jesus to support children’s moral formation. Their gift to us is their open-hearted sense of communion with God, with creation, and with all people. They are vegetarians, peacemakers, and steadfast visionaries of the shalom of the reign of God.
A final note. God acted and spoke in history, but rarely explained. God’s gifts were freely shared so that each generation could explore them for their meaning in our lives. Our work with children must be done as respectfully as God’s work with us. We put these stories and signs in the hands of children with materials that allow them to reflect on their meaning at their own pace, drawing their own conclusions. After a brief introduction we withdraw from their work, allowing the Holy Spirit to “teach.” To attempt to control children’s understanding of God is a bit like trying to tug on the plants in our care to make them grow.
Catherine Maresca has been a catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for 32 years at Christian Family Montessori School in Washington, D.C. She has been training catechists since 1985 throughout the United States. Maresca is the author of Double Close: The Young Child’s Knowledge of God and founder and director of the Center for Children and Theology, where she continues to research the spiritual life of young children.