One of the nicest things our baby received for his first birthday was a cloth book entitled Your Friend Jesus. Brightly illustrated, it was a welcome addition to his library, but more important, it started me thinking, Just how old did a child have to be before a parent introduced him to Jesus and the angels?
I hadn’t given the idea much thought until we received that book. If other habits could be launched at an early age, like teeth-brushing and sitting still at meals, wasn’t it just as important that his spiritual awareness be formed long before he was really aware of what it meant to be a Christian?
So every day, along with the ABC and Sesame Street books, we read about Jesus. I am sure our son received no scholarly education (and probably was most interested in the animals at the manger scene) but somewhere along the way, he also picked up the idea that Jesus was a nice baby (just like him) and grew into a very special man (just like Daddy). For a toddler, this was a start.
Since that time (and having cuddled several more children and now grandchildren), I believe that the primary goal in beginning religion is simply to make Jesus a natural part of a young child’s life, as predictable and pleasant as meals or hugs. No formal expertise is really necessary; instead, parents can utilize the many ordinary moments of life to enrich a toddler’s perception of Jesus, and what it means to pray to him. Such as:
• Since a baby learns through his senses, visual aids are a great beginning. Picture and coloring books including the life of Christ should be standard fare, but interspersed with other books, not set aside as a religion lesson. Make reading time a cuddly experience, and your baby will begin to associate Jesus with warmth and love.
• A picture of the Christ child and/or a guardian angel in a baby’s room can help establish a routine. Carried in your arms, your toddler will say goodnight to the moon, to bunny and to his angel, all a part of his ever-widening world.
• Add some awe. If the toddler stops to look at something “pretty,” you can add, “Yes, pretty. God made it.” (At this stage, “God” and “Jesus” can be used interchangeably to mean the same thing: “Jesus was God” is usually sufficient.)
• Baking a birthday cake for Jesus is a fun project if your child understands the ritual (and you have enough time in December).
As a child grows, parents can teach her simple prayers. As in other areas, a child will learn best by example. As her family bows their heads before a meal, Mom or Dad can casually reach over and fold their toddler’s hands. Some families hold hands as they pray before the children’s bedtimes.
And of course many little ones enjoy the church nursery where stories of Jesus are presented. Even though a child may not grasp the implications, she knows she’s part of a loving group and it all has something to do with God. Soon, when you least expect it, she’s lisping her way through the blessing.