What’s the difference between SpongeBob and St. Peter? Or between two famous travelers: St. Paul and Dora? Or between Judas and Darth Vader? Or between those two grouches: Oscar and Jonah? And what’s the difference between those beloved miracle workers: the boy with the lightning stripe on his forehead and Jesus?
Of course, the answer to all these questions is that one is real and the other is imaginary. But children, particularly young ones, don’t automatically know the difference. They receive each of these characters as simply people in stories that make them think, laugh, or cry.
It’s a familiar problem for Sunday-school teachers and parents alike. How do we distinguish between the brilliantly told, often hilarious, and gripping stories our children love to read night after night, and the stories we encounter in God’s Word—which can sometimes have the same elements as many of the fairy stories they’re familiar with? The Bible, too, features miracles and strange happenings and danger and heroes and villains.
Children Engage Stories
To begin, we need to understand our children’s experience of stories. In addition to the bedtime books, children’s television is an endless procession of animated adventures and fictional characters. When kids get to the age where they can watch full-length movies, we take them to the latest Disney or Dreamworks blockbuster. And then we buy the books, action figures, T-shirts, lunchboxes, costumes, and pajamas. Our children are soaked in stories.
Such imaginative play and engagement with stories is an important—many psychologists would say vital—part of childhood development. Stories are the way children learn social, emotional, language, and thinking skills.
What’s more, young children are developmentally incapable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Their night-time fear of monsters is real, even if the monsters are not. Beginning around age 4, children learn to distinguish fantasy from reality, though many can’t consistently tell the difference until they’re much older—even 11 or 12 years old.
Parents often complicate things by deliberately maintaining fantasies as a playful game, or as a means of manipulation. Santa Claus may come in the first category; the Bogey Man who will get you if you leave your bedroom at night is firmly in the second.
But when it comes to the Bible, Christians know it’s vitally important to develop the foundations, from the start, for the crucial difference between reality and fantasy. Here are four ways that you can remind children the Bible is true.
1. Tell Them
Sometimes the obvious solution is the best one. I frequently employ a magic phrase I learned while teaching small children in church. And my magic word is not expelliarmus; I just say, “Today’s true story from the Bible . . .”
Simple as that. Before reading or retelling any story from the Bible, I always preface it with the word “true.” Sometimes you can emphasize the difference as you segue from one story to the next, such as when you’re reading at bedtime: “I love the Gruffalo story, but you know that the Gruffalo is a made-up creature (and mice don’t really talk)! But now let’s read a true story from the Bible.”
You can even use it as part of bedtime negotiation tactics: “Pick one fun made-up story that we can read together, and then I’ll pick a wonderful, true story from the Bible we can enjoy.”
2. Get Physical (and Geographical)
Children are concrete thinkers, so it’s also helpful to surround the “trueness” of Bible stories by locating it within the real world. Early on, I put a map on the wall of the room in which we teach children at church. I also had a globe handy.
When children start to understand that we live on the earth and that there are other countries besides our own, it’s easy to point to where things happened in the Bible story. Show them where Israel is on a map or a globe: “We live here. And here is where Jesus lived and walked and where this true story from the Bible happened a long time ago.”
3. Engage the Senses
One important storytelling technique every Christian communicator—parents, this includes you—needs to learn is how to make stories more vivid and engaging. All great storytellers evoke senses beyond the ears. They appeal to the sense of smell, or touch, or taste.
If you’re able to make links with other objects—bread, water, sand, coins, terracotta lamps, pearls, seeds—things children can actually hold in their hands, it emphasizes the reality of the stories. Remember, children are concrete thinkers. So give them something concrete to hold, feel, smell, or taste. It’ll reinforce the reality of the story.
4. Connect to Curriculum
As children grow, their awareness of the world grows outward, backward, and forward. They start to grasp a sense of history and the size of the world. They start to ponder the future, and what will happen next. This is all reflected in the way children are taught in school.
Older children, for example, often learn about ancient Rome at school, so it’s a good marker for Bible history: “Jesus died just a few years before the emperor Claudius invaded Britain and the Romans took over.” You can also connect biblical history to other famous civilizations: “During in the Mayan civilization in South America” or “during the Han Dynasty in China.”
Teaching the truth of the Bible is especially important this time of year. Our children often see a dramatized version of the Christmas story that clings rather loosely to the facts.
As a result, it’s important to underline that this—the opening scene of the most important story of all—is thoroughly and wonderfully true.