Religious development can be understood not only in terms of the affective domain, the emotional side of belief that we spoke about last time, but cognitively as well. That is to say, how do young children think about God? What can they truly understand? Given that their ability to think in the abstract is limited, does that mean their belief is limited too? Not necessarily.
In general, the younger the child, the more concrete their thinking may be. Hence the image of God as the old man in the sky with the long white beard. And so their conversations with God can be pretty concrete as well. Witness the following selections from letters purportedly written by young children to God:
“I bet it is very hard for you to love everybody in the whole world. There are only 4 people in our family and I can never do it.” – Nan
“Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother.” – Larry
“We read Thomas Edison made light. But in Sunday school they said you did it. So I bet he stoled your idea.” – Sincerely, Donna
“I do not think anybody could be a better God. Well, I just want you to know but I am not just saying that because you are God.” – Charles
“I didn’t think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset you made on Tuesday. That was cool.” – Eugene
“I don’t ever feel alone since I found out about you.” – Nora
What this means is that kids understand God in their own way and on their own terms and we adults do them a disservice if we try to force them into understanding religious life on our terms.
Similarly, studies have been done on how young children understand the word kavanah, or the proper intent for prayer. For younger children, say in kindergarten or pre-school, covering your eyes for Shema qualifies for effective prayer, and if you fail to do so, then your prayer will not be efficacious. An older boy will say that prayer will be effective if you make sure to wear a kippah and tzitzit whereas an older child will say that only if you daven really really hard will your prayers be answered. It’s only later, say in fourth grade, when children begin to understand that prayer works according to a more complex constellation of factors. In short, davening with kavanah can mean different things to different kids at different stages of their cognitive development. I have seen too many educators not appreciate this fact (in fairness no one really spoke in these terms in years past) and so they end up speaking over kids’ heads, thinking that they are getting through when in fact they and the children are speaking different languages.
But kids are capable of believing with an intensity that we adults sometimes wish we never lost. That is one reason why we glow at the sweetness, innocence and sincerity with which they can sing aloud or daven or say berakhot with such (childlike) kavanah. They feel the presence of the Divine in ways that we can sometimes envy. That is one reason why we do them a disservice by trying to disabuse them of what we deem childish notions or behaviors. In trying to explain our reactions to them in overly rational or philosophical terms we potentially rob them of their spirituality. Having such debates or discussions with fellow adults in the presence of younger children can also be disconnecting for these kids. (There is a school of thought which says that you can actually teach philosophy to younger children, but most of us are simply not trained for that task.) When we snicker or reject something that doesn’t fit our own spiritual frame of reference we mistakenly think our kids will understand (e.g. singing during davening, keeping the rules of lashon hara especially at the Shabbat table, scoffing at the guy who comes to our door professing to collect money for his child’s wedding). Unable to understand our skepticism or cynicism or philosophical rejection, yet not quite old enough to come up with a substitute that they can understand and absorb, they are left only with what their parents think does not make sense. Telling a child too early that God doesn’t answer prayers or that a midrash isn’t really true, is to potentially rob them of a normal pattern of development and a healthy approach to belief.
As kids grow older, their brains change and so too can their hearts. They are able to understand for themselves that things are not as obvious as they once were (e.g. if you pray with enough kavanah, your prayer will be answered) or as clear-cut (God can seem as cruel as He can be kind and loving) or as understandable (God is not a person “up there.”) In short, there is plenty of time for them to become skeptical. But the more entrenched is their belief at a young age, the more familiar and comforting is their relationship with God, then the less jarring those intellectual and emotional changes will eventually be to their faith. Until then, we should be celebrating their relationship with and understanding of mitzvot and God. We should be helping them, supporting them, nudging them, mimicking them, more for their sake than for our own. But who knows? Maybe by helping to nurture their faith we will ultimately nurture our own as well.
I welcome your stories, comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than thirty five years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.