Sara Mwagura lives in Overland Park, Kansas with her husband Joseph, and daughter Liliana. She currently works part-time as an Early Childhood Education and Professional Development Specialist at The Family Conservancy. She has had a variety of roles in the field of early childhood care and education, from teaching in preschools to starting early childhood programs in Mozambique where she served with Mennonite Central Committee for four years.
“But do you think Jesus is still dead?”
I asked the three, four, and five-year-olds in my Sunday school class after telling the story of Jesus’ death.
“No” was the resounding answer.
“No, he’s here in our hearts!” proclaimed one little boy who had clearly been hearing this story for quite some time. Yes, I agreed, he rose from the dead and then went up to heaven, but his Spirit lives now in us, all the while wondering if that made any sense to their concrete way of thinking. Their eyes were intent on me though.
And to confirm her understanding, one little girl chimed in, “Just like Captain America.”
Um, sure? I know nothing about Captain America so I sort of stumbled over my response, somehow trying to encourage her without encouraging her too much, just in case Captain America is nothing like Jesus.
As an early childhood education professional and now as a parent, I’ve been intrigued by how we as adults can guide children in their development … and what that even means.
From the mundane but overwhelming moments of deciding which type of toothpaste to purchase, to discovering harsh realities of war and hatred, our children will grow into adults who think and act freely in this world. They’ll form opinions and take action when they read of a man standing up in a church and shooting people.
They’ll have to figure out what to think about different religions, cows being given extra hormones, abortion, and what to do about the woman holding a “hungry” sign on the street corner.
They’ll face moments of ethical dilemma: whether or not to report their colleague who forged the signature of a client, or what if they can just keep the damaged bag of Doritos while stocking shelves at Walmart. They’ll have to decide just how much sugar to consume in a day and they’ll have to face the horrid reality that slavery is still real in the world and that it’s closer than those history books ever told us. It’s actually so close, they’ll realize, that we’re all perpetuating it.
Are there ways to nurture a child’s spiritual development so they are prepared for the grit and gore of life, and for the holiness and beauty?
There are a lot of nitty-gritty details about literacy acquisition and study upon study about a child’s physical development; but not a whole lot of research has been done about their spiritual development. Not too many parents are walking around concerned that their child is spiritually delayed. I suppose it’s closely related in a lot of ways to social and emotional development, which is gaining more attention and emphasis, at least in some educational circles. And yet I wonder if there is not more to spiritual development than learning one’s emotions and how to interact with others appropriately.
What is that difference? What is spirituality? When and how does it develop? I don’t have the answers to my questions, just some hunches. But I want to enter into this conversation with intentionality. As I consider what I’d like to teach my own daughter, this is what I have come up with:
Love God, people, and yourself. This means choosing to live in a way that does not hurt others or yourself.
Give grace, even to people that hurt other people (because, guess what, that’s everyone). Connect compassionately, and empathize.
Grace, however, does not equal permissiveness. Work to keep others from hurting people too. Work for justice.
How do we nurture these concepts in our children? How do we build the foundation? I have a few ideas:
Like Jesus did, tell them stories. Let them express themselves through art. Slow down. Connect with them. Connect them with nature. Connect them with other people, especially people who may look or act quite different from them. Mostly, find what is alive in them and ways that nurture that.
And for me, I’ll also go figure out who Captain America is so that I can engage more meaningfully the next time he pops up when talking with a child.