Why do we teach little ones? Morality, spiritual growth and conversion can all be misguided goals for preschoolers. In Creative Bible Teaching, Larry Richards and Gary Bredfelt have a very helpful chapter about preschoolers. They argue that we should not aim for spiritual growth or Christian character.
We’ve emphasized the idea that the Bible teacher teaches for response. Response to God is the big must when it comes to spiritual growth. But how about twos and threes and fours and fives? Spiritual growth presupposes spiritual birth. And most children in the preschool department aren’t born again. . . So our first task is to answer this question: What is the purpose of teaching preschoolers? It’s not primarily to convert. It’s not to produce spiritual growth in those who have no spiritual life. It’s certainly not to help tots who aren’t Christians act like Christians. (Richards and Bredfelt, Creative Bible Teaching, 1998, P.288)Their perspective is not reflected in the bulk of children’s Sunday school curriculum. Many Bible stories are told with an aim of moral application. Is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery really about being “nice” to your siblings? A Gospel-centered understanding of Christian Education will avoid such moralistic teaching. Presenting Christianity as a moral system apart from a robust understanding of Grace is a distortion of the Bible. The story of Joseph is about God’s providence and sovereignty in keeping all his promises. The Bible is first about God – then from his character we learn to walk in godliness.
Richards and Bredfelt continue:
Many times classes are taught with the conscious or unconscious philosophy that through guided “Christian” experiences, preschool children will develop Christian personalities. But it’s in truth about God that we contact God. . . There is no scriptural justification for the idea that “Christian personalities” can be developed naturally though training in Christian moral principles. A Christian personality is produced supernaturally. (Richards and Bredfelt, Creative Bible Teaching, 1998, P.289)Ted Tripp makes this same point. In Shepherding a Child’s Heart, he argues that the gospel affects how we teach our children right and wrong. He emphasizes the power of the gospel to meet our human situation. As sinners we need God’s work of transformation and forgiveness. Raising good-little-children is never the goal. He writes:
The central focus of parenting is the gospel. You need to direct not simply the behavior of your children, but the attitudes of their hearts. You need to show them not just the “what” of their sin and failure, but the “why.” Your children desperately need to understand not only the external “what” they did wrong, but also the internal “why” they did it. You must help them see that God works from the inside out. Therefore, your parenting goal cannot be well behaved children. Your children must also understand why they sin and how to recognize internal change.” (Ted Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, 2005, xxii)