Ever played peek-a-boo with a young child? Ever wondered why they are so delighted to find that you are still there when you uncover your face? This back-and-forth game produces smiles of delight and belly laughs because at this age, they have to “see it to believe it”. In child development classes, they call this object permanence. When toddlers close their eyes and can’t see you, then for those seconds, you are not there. So it feels almost like magic when you reappear!
It reminds me of a conversation I had with my son during those first couple years of elementary school. I was tucking him in bed one night when he suddenly kicked off the covers declaring he was hot because (to my great surprise) of Jesus. What?! He told me Jesus must be “taking up too much room in there” thumping his hand over his heart. But then he froze in panic, pounding some more with his eyes wide, “Oh no, He’s not answering—Jesus must be gone!”
You can just imagine the time it took to try and explain that Jesus living in his heart was just an expression—that it was hard to explain, but it wasn’t like a man was curled up in there. That Jesus is always with us, but He doesn’t always answer in ways we can hear or feel. (Or as far as I know- cause hot flashes!)
The tricky thing to remember when you’re working with kids is that up until about the age 10, they are more concrete than abstract thinkers—even with spiritual things. Some people compare children to sponges, soaking up everything around them. But they’re more like young scientists, taking an active role with the information they collect, hypothesizing how the world works, connecting what they just learned and comparing it to what they already know.
If you picture a huge iceberg with just the small pointy tip jutting out of the water, and so much more of it beneath the surface, that’s about how much we usually get to see of a kid’s thoughts and how they’re processing everything going on.
So as small group leaders (even parents) there are a few important things to remember—as you lead discussions and share with kids, keep it simple. Tell personal, age-appropriate stories to make a point instead of analogies, science experiments, or playing a movie clip. Those things often require an extra step or more explaining to connect the dots, but your stories, life and facial expressions are concrete—right there in front of them. Then, follow up by asking questions. Encourage kids to tell you more about what they just said and really listen with a goal of understanding where they’re coming from. Say back to them what you think you heard to see if you’re close or to give them a chance to clarify. It’s amazing what you can learn by focusing your attention on what they really mean!