When my oldest daughter was very young, she was recounting the story of Eden and the Fall. When she came to God’s instructions, she told it this way: “... Then God said to Adam and Eve, ‘Stay here, be good, and I’ll be RIGHT BACK.’”
Okay, so it was more involved than that. But she had clearly picked up on the parent-child relationship between God and His creatures—and had noticed that, after all, what he was asking from them was really pretty simple.
It’s nice when kids soak up their catechism and translate it into their own language. But sometimes you have to do the simplifying for them. For instance, when we first start talking about being made in God’s image, the subject of free will always comes up. A young child who’s being cared for properly actually has very little personal freedom, so it can be hard to convey the value of free will.
So I tell them a parable, slightly modified to apply to our household. “Imagine,” I say, “that Mama tells you kids to throw away your banana peels. One kid does it cheerfully, and goes back to playing Lego. But another kid” (at this point they all roll their eyes and whisper the name of whoever’s the Main Troublemaker of the moment) “decides that he would rather hurl himself over a cliff a thousand times than pick up his banana peel and throw it away. So Mama gives him lots and lots of chances, but he just won’t do it! So Mama has to help him pick it up, and then they have to walk over to the garbage and throw it away together, and he’s crying and yelling, and everyone is mad.” (We’re not one of these super-rigid All Obedience All The Time families, but darnit, we do throw away our banana peels!)
Then I ask, “What’s the difference between the first kid and the second kid? After all, both banana peels got thrown away, right?” And of course they totally understand the difference: Not only is the first kid being a good kid, but it makes both kid and Mama happier when he’s good. When the second kid acts like a crumb, then everyone is unhappy—and the rest of the household can get pretty tense while the little drama plays out, too.
One little banana peel, but you can extrapolate all sorts of lessons about free will and obedience, the nature of sin, the effect of sin on the Body of Christ, and so on.
Another kid-friendly way we’ve approached free will is like this: I ask, “If being good makes us happy, then why didn’t God just make us so that it’s impossible to be bad? Why didn’t he just create us to be good-doing robots, who march around performing his will?” And they all know the answer: “Because God doesn’t want good robots.” He wants sons and daughters.
We’ve had enough innocent little family birthday parties for them to understand that giving makes us happy. Kids can easily understand that there’s nothing that God actually needs—nothing we can buy at the Dollar Tree or order from Amazon that we can wrap up and present to God. But they do understand that we’re all better off when one person tries hard to make another person happy.
So when the subject of doing the right thing comes up, they totally comprehend that it’s not just a matter of getting the deed performed, following the rules, checking off all the boxes—being good robots. They understand that it’s important to throw away that banana peel—but it’s just as important to do it because it’s what’s best for Mama and for the kid and for the entire household. Doing good for the right reason is giving a gift, and it makes everyone happy. They don’t have to be told this—they can see it happening.
Doing the right things, of course, gets harder when you get older. You have to tell yourself to be good; no one is going to march you around like a puppet to make you throw away your banana peel. Adults can find all sorts of ways to justify leaving it lying around, or forcing someone else to clean it up, or even denying that there is any such thing as bananas, or pretending to enjoy the smell of rotting fruit.
And, let’s face it, sometimes doing the right thing makes us all unhappy, at least in the short term.
In these situations, I try to remember something else my kids seem to understand clearly. I was upset about something, I forget what, and the toddler was old enough to be concerned. She looked at the icon of Christ that is taped to the computer, and said in a little voice, “Jesus help you, Mama.”