GOD TALK WITH YOUNG CHILDREN:
NOTES FOR PARENTS AND TEACHERS
Derby, UK CEM 1991, 56PP
This little book sets out 33 conversations with young children, mostly about God. The conversations are interpreted and suggestions are made about the art of theological conversation with children.
American edition: Philadelphia, Trinity Press International, 1991, 77pp, with a foreword by Maria Harris.
German translation: Wie Kinder über Gott Reden: Ein Ratgeber fur Eltern und Etziehende, Gutersloh, Gutersloher Verlaghaus, 1997.
Example 1 - pp. 11-12
CHILD (aged 3 1/2 years): Was that man's name Mr. Bird? PARENT: Yes.
CHILD: Was he a bird? (Laughs) PARENT: Was he like a bird? CHILD: No.
PARENT: Why not?
CHILD: Birds have feathers. (Laughs)
PARENT: And the man didn't have feathers did he? He had clothes. (Both laugh)
CHILD: And birds have wings.
CHILD: Birds die.
PARENT: So do people. CHILD: (Silence)
PARENT: What does "die" mean?"
CHILD: You go to be with God.
PARENT: Where is God?
CHILD: Up in the sky.
PARENT: But up in the sky there are clouds.
CHILD: (Laughs) No, but I mean when you go up and up and up past the clouds and you go (speaking in a little high thin voice) up and up and up and then you come (whispering) to a teeny cottage and in that cottage there’s God.
This young child knew perfectly well that there was something odd about the literal location of God in a place in the sky, but could not express that oddity in the form of a structure of sentences, arranged so as to reason from one sentence to the next. In other words, the child could not say "when I say ‘sky’ I am referring to a symbol for that which stands over against this earth and our lives. I am trying to say that God is transcendent, and that the dead are likewise translated somehow into this other plane of reality."
No, the child cannot say that or think in those terms, but the child laughs at the question about clouds. Why? The child knows that in asking the question the parent has playfully and perhaps deliberately misunderstood. The child responds not by moving from concrete to abstract thinking, but by using concrete pictures in literal ways. Moreover, the child dramatises the situation by speaking in a higher, smaller voice, suggesting that this is something beyond the ordinary plane which is half comical and yet very serious and important, like a shared secret.
The child, being a concrete thinker, cannot respond by drawing attention to the abstract features of the word "up." He can only deal with the problem by pushing the literal meaning of the word further and further. Hence you have to go up and up and up . . . the fact that God’s cottage is tiny is the child’s concrete way of depicting something which is far away. Cottages seen in the distance do appear tiny. God, as it were, is found in a disappearing point of remoteness. Nevertheless, there is a cottage. The child returns to the homely, the familiar. God is (somehow) an actual person in an actual place but this is not a place like our ordinary places, and his person is not like other people. There are abstract aspects of the word "up" but the child deals with these in a concrete way. He simply repeats the word again and again.