AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

The Early Religious Training of Children

by Rev. Professor H. C. Beeching
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 646-654

"A child's prayers should never lack thanksgivings, and at the risk of doing violence to their own sensitive feelings, parents should themselves insist on being thanked. The expression of gratitude will help to create the feeling."

Friday, May 17th At 10.30 a.m. there was a Local Secretaries' Meeting.

At 11.30 a.m., Mrs. Rickman in the chair, the Rev. Professor H. C. Beeching read his paper on The Early Religious Training of Children.

A friend of mine was told the other day by a young mother that she refrained on principle from teaching her children religion; she only taught them to say their prayers. I refer to this, not because of any value that attaches to the young mother's principle, if principle it can be called, but because it suggests at once the chief point I wish to impress in this paper, namely—that the early religious training of children should, before all things, be a training in prayer. Prayer is the characteristic action of religion, and to teach prayer is to teach religion. For what does religion mean? Religion to us implies the belief that this world is directed in its course by an All-wise and Almighty Ruler, Who made us and Who cares for us; made us in His own image, so that from the best we know we can conjecture His perfection, and be secure that every instinct we admire in our fellows is a breath of His inspiring; made us, as He makes everything, not complete and flawless at a stroke, but by creating a living principle with capacities for growth; and not only has so made us, but cares so much for what He has made, that it should prosper and become by growth what He intended, that the whole lavish beauty of the material universe, the long course of history, the multiplied incidents of every-day life, are simply so much food and exercise for these living souls, to strengthen and train them, that they may grow in accordance with the true idea of their natures. Religion implies some such belief in God and in His purposes; but the characteristic action of religion, in consequence of this belief, is an act of prayer, by which we seek communion with this Father of our spirits. No religious training, therefore, is really religious which does not teach our children to pray.

On the other hand, to teach prayer is implicitly to teach the elementary facts of religious belief. Those great truths of which I spoke, which we wish to implant in our children as axioms for the conduct of life—(1) that there is a great Creator of the world and Father of men, Who, though they cannot see Him, yet sees them, and reads their hearts and takes an interest in all they think and do; and (2) that there is, in consequence, a right and a wrong way of life, a way of living that pleases Him and a way that displeases—are, as matter of experience, most practically taught by teaching them to pray. For, as the Apostle says, "he that cometh to God must believe that He is"; his coming ensures that: and the words he is taught to say in prayer imply the Divine attributes; e.g., the prayer for God's will to be done and the prayer for forgiveness teach in the most effective manner the doctrine of the two ways, the broad and the narrow. Many mothers show their instinctive sense of the importance of the children's prayers by being present when they are said, and giving any word of caution or advice that the day's occurrences suggest to them, when it can be translated at once into a prayer for help and pardon.

In this matter of teaching prayer, the thing of first importance is to teach the children to pray naturally. They must be encouraged to pray for want that they really feel, to seek their Heavenly Father in their real troubles, and to thank Him for the real joys of their life. Hence, it is important that they should use a form of prayer that admits of expansion and variation. It is, of course, absolutely necessary that some form should by used, because prayer can only be taught at all by teaching a form of prayer; and also because it is important that all the elements of prayer—adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving—should be represented from the first. But it is very important that all these sections, except perhaps the first, should be as elastic as possible, so as to take account of special circumstances as they arise. In teaching children to pray there is no difficulty in the general idea. At the start they take you at your word, and pray as you bid them, nothing doubting, and are very ready to suggest new subjects for prayer and for thanksgiving. One difficulty, however, may arise in the matter of petitions. How far should these be regulated? On the one hand the parent may feel that it is better to let the child pray for what it really wants, only explaining that God will not give what is not good for the child to have; on the other he may feel that it is wiser from the first to mark a distinction between prayers and selfish desires—such as for a new toy or a fine day for a holiday; and this seems the wiser course. If the mother will hear the child say his prayers, but it will act as a check upon prayers that are merely selfish; or if such are expressed, she has the opportunity to point out their selfishness. There is also, of course, the danger that if such prayers are allowed to be made and yet are not answered, the child's faith may be rudely shaken. A boy once confessed to me that when he wanted something very badly, he used to pray that he might not have it, as, after many disappointments, he thought this the best way of securing it. If, however, a prayer, is not selfish, but only seems trivial to us, we should be chary how we interfere with it; since, if the absolute importance of our requests to the order of the universe were the condition of being heard, which of us could dare to pray? The one thing needful in prayer is sincerity.

The other day a small boy was staying in my house who was in the habit, when at home, of saying prayers only at night. But he discovered that my children said prayers also in the morning. He told us that he didn't see the use of saying the same prayers twice a day, so he would do this: in the evenings he would pray as usual for his own people, but in the mornings, as long as he stayed in the house, he would pray for us. I felt that since saying his prayers was felt by that small boy to be such a reality that it must not be trifled with, we might be grateful for his intercessions even for the few days of his lodging with us. Here is another story. It was noticed not long ago in our household that the name of the new nurse was dropped from the children's prayers with one consent—I suppose by arrangement—after she had been weighed in the balances and found wanting, and the name of her predecessor was substituted. I don't adduce this as an example of Christian behaviour, but as a proof that prayer was felt to be so real a thing that it was indecent to pretend to pray for a person who had, by acts of cruelty, put herself beyond the reach of natural affection. I believe, then, most firmly, that the half of religion, which is indeed the whole, lies in the habit of natural prayer. The child's prayers will alter and become less selfish and more Christian as his idea of the Heavenly Father shapes itself more and more after the likeness of the Eternal Son; but he will not need to become more religious. As a part of this teaching of prayer, I would include the teaching of reverence—which is a constant act of faith in the presence of God. Before the child can have any clear idea of who God is, or what His attributes are, he can be taught to behave himself reverently at prayer, at grace, at church. Example here as always is far more than precept. Parents are sometimes culpably heedless in the liberties they allow themselves in these respects. They know their own inward reverence, and so are too careless of their outward conduct. But such liberty is a stumbling-block to these weak brethren. It is work remembering, too, that an early habit of reverence is not soon lost: it tides the child over the miserable stage of self-consciousness; and sometimes over the later and more desperate stage of doubt.

Alongside, however, of this practice of religion, there must, of course, go, even with the youngest children, a certain amount of instruction in religious ideas—in which term I include both faith and morals. For faith and morals should be taught together. The doctrine of what God is, implies the doctrine of what He wishes us to be; and both will be taught from the Bible. If the question is asked, what parts of the Bible are best fitted for instructing the children in righteousness? the answer clearly must be its stories; and among these, first and pre-eminent, the story of the life of Christ, interpreted as the love of God incarnate. There is inexhaustible fascination for children in the details of His works of mercy and in certain of the parables, such as the "Prodigal Son" and the "Good Samaritan," which teach their lessons to twentieth century English children almost as vividly as they did to their first hearers. But we must not forget that these stories of God's love were told to people who had already, through centuries of tutelage, learned the lesson of His righteousness. And this for children is the more important lesson to be taught; not as more important in itself, but because it is harder for them to learn. The Old Testament, therefore, for them, as for the Jews, must play the schoolmaster. And how admirably full the early books of the Old Testament are of stories which teach the elementary but all-necessary virtues of truth, obedience, moral courage, self-control, fairness, brotherly affection. Think, for instance, how many lessons for children are contained in the story of Jacob and Esau, or Joseph and his brethren, or David and Jonathan, or Samuel, or Daniel. Or again, how emphatically the double truth of God's mercy and righteousness is taught in the stories of Elijah and Jonah. These ancient tales are well-springs of inspiration for the good life. To very young children, they will be told by the living voice; only let them have books with reasonably good pictures, which arouse their curiosity, and fix the stories in the memory when they are once known. Older children should read these stories for themselves in the authorised version. There is inspiration in its majestic cadences which is lost in the best epitome. There are selections like Mr. [Michael George?] Glazebrook's in the words of the Bible which can be used if they are thought necessary. Perhaps I might be allowed to add here that it is not wisdom or policy to be always teaching from the same great stories. That way lies satiety. There are plenty of other parts of the Bible which the child will find interesting.

I said just now, and I should like to emphasise the point, because it is important, that children should be trained in the morality of the Old Testament before they are instructed in that of the New. The great lesson of the Old Testament is justice; that of the New, self-sacrifice; and justice must be learned first, as by the race, so by the individual. I think parents sometimes make the mistake of trying to teach the higher before a solid groundwork has been laid of the lower. Perhaps I can make my meaning clear by an illustration. In a house where I was once staying, two small boys were visiting. A dispute had arisen between them about the possession of a ball (I think), and the younger came to the hostess to settle the point. She was a good Christian woman, and I don't doubt at once thought of the two brothers in the Gospel who disputed over their inheritance; and so, instead of getting at the facts of the case and settling the point in strict justice, she gave the young urchin a little homily on covetousness, and clinched it with the text, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Off went the boy, and presently he was heard shouting in the garden, "Tom, Mrs. Blank says the Bible says it's 'more blessed to give than to receive,' so give me that ball." You see the lesson she was trying to teach made no impressing, and she lost the chance of trying to enforce the elementary rule of justice. I should be inclined to rank justice very high among the virtues that we should teach children from their earliest years. English children have that in them which responds to such teaching; fairness appeals to them; and to strengthen the instinct for fairness and upright dealing, is to do a good work for the future of England.

But then I must go on to say that all these virtues which we exhibit to children in the Bible stories and inculcate upon their own practice, must also be displayed in our own conduct to them, or our labour will be in vain. It is of no use for parents to say, "Do as I say, not as I do." Parents must say in effect with the Apostle, "Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ." The child in any case will imitate them—

Their whole vocation
Is endless imitation.
[loosely taken from Wordsworth's Ode]

—only it rests with the parents what the copy shall be like. And it is worth much to set a habit of inflexible justice; to have it felt in the family, not only that there can be no appeal from any decision, but that there need be none. Froebel, I am told, traces the common obstinacy of children to their perpetual revolt against the injustice of parents: and I fear we are often unjust—from want of thought, more than from want of will. We are busy, or in a hurry, and the point at issue is of such ludicrously trifling importance that we cannot be bothered with it; or we blame first, and investigate afterwards; or we overwhelm innocent and guilty alike in a common condemnation, and then we prose to them on Sunday about the justice of the Father in heaven.

Akin to the love of justice is the love of truth, and this also we have carefully to plant and train: by story and precept, and still more by example. A carefulness of exact statement tells; and it should be required. I was shocked the other day by hearing a mother say before her children, in quite a free-and-easy way, "Of course, I had to tell a lie about it." I knew that what she meant wasn't a lie at all; but the children couldn't know it; and one grieved for the effect the supposed acknowledgement must have. May I hint also that truth-telling will come easier to children in families where the parents take pains to be just; for where they allow themselves in bursts of ill temper, children are chary of running the risk of a storm by confessing a fault. We all instinctively avoid thunder.

Another virtue necessary to be taught is gratitude. I doubt if parents at the present day are sufficiently alive to the importance of teaching it. I don't mean that they would not enforce the lesson if they were reading the story of the "Ten Lepers"; but that they are chary of exacting it themselves from their children. For one thing they are apt to be too lavish in their attentions and in their presents. To see a child in some well-to-do families go through the cargo of birthday or Christmas presents with less and less appetite, is a sight that makes the onlooker reflect. How much wiser to give a few things, and let them arouse gratitude instead of nausea. It is possible, then, to choke gratitude. Sometimes its absence is simply due to want of reflection, and then it can be taught. A child's prayers should never lack thanksgivings, and at the risk of doing violence to their own sensitive feelings, parents should themselves insist on being thanked. The expression of gratitude will help to create the feeling.

And then, last, which is also first and midst and without end, we must teach obedience. Some good people nowadays seem to think that to be made to obey cramps the natural development of the child's individuality and free will. This, of course, is nonsense. To learn obedience is the only way to learn self-control. Just as in things intellectual there can be no scholarship unless the pupil has been trained to attend, because his wits are all over the place; so in morals, there can be no character till the pupil has been trained to obey, because the impulses will be all over the place. I do not find that our Lord rescinded the fifth commandment; and, indeed, though it belongs to the second table, it comes in practice before those of the first. For if a child does not obey his father whom he has seen, how can he obey God whom he has not seen? In teaching obedience, I imagine, we should go to work as in other cases. There should be the illustration from stories in the Bible—there should especially be great stress laid upon the Kingship of Jesus, and His admission of children among the subjects of His kingdom, with the obligation of obedience which this implies. You will remember how popular this idea, of Jesus as the King, became under the teaching of Savonarola among the children of Florence; but when the idea is assimilated, there is endless hard work to be done, as every parent knows. The only rule for parents to observe is, first, to take care that their orders are just, and then to let them be inflexible. The modern cant about always giving children reasons for your orders is really not modern, but as old as Aristotle, who exposes its folly. Reasons come as the children grow older; for a child to want a reason is only an excuse for postponing a duty. "Why must I do it?" means, "How I hate doing it."

Let me conclude with a few remarks on learning by heart. I think the only safe rule here is to give nothing to be learnt that is beyond the child's understanding, because it is of the highest importance that religion should be a real thing in the child's experience. In mere matters of literature, it is often wise policy to let the children learn good things which are above their comprehension. They get pleasure out of the words and the rhythm, and in a dim way their imagination is fed. Also they bear the words in memory ever after, and they become luminous by degrees. But in religion, I should not run the risk. I should not at all mind letting a child say in a public office things above its comprehension, because it would explain to itself that it would understand when it grew up; and all that the child picked up in memory this way—the Psalms, for example, by saying them daily in matins or evensong—is so much clear gain; but I am quite sure that nothing should be given the child to learn that is above its comprehension at the time. Hymns which describe the awful facts of Redemption which, to the child, cannot convey truth because they cannot convey meaning, should never be given. And even psalms and hymns that convey the truths which the little child can appreciate should not be metaphorical in expression. People are fond of giving children the 23rd Psalm to learn; I suppose because it is short. And the thought of God's care is certainly one that you wish to impress. But the metaphor of the sheep and the shepherd comes between the child and the sense. "The Lord is my Shepherd" means to the child just nothing; and it is not made clearer by telling the child that it is the sheep. I knew a case where this was the method adopted, with the result that when the lesson came on for rehearsal, it was given in this form: "The Lord is my Shepherd. Baa! baa!" I know I was set to learn the Epistles much too young, and some of them I still feel a disgust at. The things a child should learn are the things it can understand and use—things like the "Duty to my Neighbour"—expressions in which, like "To do to all men as I would they should do to me," are almost startling in their vividness and reality. And reality, let me repeat once more, is the thing to aim at beyond everything else.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Mar 2009