In his Monday homily last week, Pope Francis urged us to “encounter Christ” during Advent and to allow Christ to encounter us as well. I’ve been thinking about how I can help my children to this end. I have to accept my role as a servant in facilitating this encounter, especially if it includes allowing Christ to encounter my children in their uniqueness — in their personal reality. They are each so very different, and each developmental stage brings new opportunities for cultivating in our children a personal experience of the authentic and living Christ. Especially for my very young children, I may get off on the wrong foot if I assume they will encounter Christ like I do, by the same means.
How can we create the kind of emotional, spiritual, and physical environment that best allows that encounter to unfold naturally? Here are a few tips for helping your young children encounter Christ this Advent season:
Children Encounter Christ Through LOVE
It’s not that doctrinal truths are unimportant or irrelevant for young kids, but they must experience these truths through love if we want them to come alive — if we want them to factor in our kids choices and lives long term. This means we must love our children unconditionally, because we are the models of the kind of love they will internalize. Children who are ignored or mistreated can never internalize the mercy and tenderness Jesus feels for them. Even when they stumble and fail, Christ adores them. Can our own love reflect this Christ-love better, even while we try to steer them on the right path?
This also means that we should announce to our child God’s love for her and make that love as concrete and inviting as possible. So when we set up our nativity set this Advent, we can emphasize how much God must love her that he sent this precious little baby to come into the world just for her – so that she could know him and love him. We can emphasize the reality of Christ’s early life with his family – how he lived with Mary and Joseph in a family just like she lives in her own family; that he did chores, learned to read, said prayers, fed his animals, just like she does; that he understands what makes her sad and angry because he felt all those things when he was a child.
Children Encounter Christ Through PLAY
Children experience God in a private, emotional way and they also experience God through the descriptions they hear about God in catechetical instruction and Bible stories. Play is where those two very real experiences come together for children. Play helps them make sense of what they’ve experienced emotionally and intellectually. Playing with Christ during Advent can include stories and hands-on play. Read engaging, beautifully illustrated stories about the nativity and early life of Jesus during Advent. Allow your child freedom to explore these stories through art, drama, or just good ol’ table talk.
Include lots of hands-on experiences – a Jesse Tree, Advent wreath, Advent Calendar, and nativity set. Permit your child to engage with these religious objects, especially your nativity set, because this is where the story of Christmas really comes to life for kids. Some families have heirloom nativities which are too precious for little hands to bonk around, but consider having a second “play nativity.” My family found a very affordable felted nativity set and my children spend all of Advent moving the pieces around our house as Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem!
Children Encounter Christ Through PRAYER
We want our children to develop a personal relationship with Christ in which Christ understands her and cares for her in specific, unique circumstances. Little children are open to developing a friendship with Jesus, and this includes chatting with him in prayer. If your child doesn’t pray much, try starting during Advent. You can start with communal prayer. Create a prayer plan for your family, but recognize that children don’t pray like grown-ups. When we impose our own prayer styles on our kids, we risk extinguishing their authentic experience of God. I’m not suggesting that we don’t teach them the great prayers of our Faith. We do. But sometimes we get out of their way, we listen, and we learn from them. When you give your child emotional space to pray, he will tend to pray in short bursts, sometimes incoherently. This is okay. You will also notice a collapsing of the transcendent and nearness of God in your child’s language. (“You are the most beautiful thing in the world! Look, I think you are like Harold my goldfish!”) This is also okay. Just listen and affirm your child in his experience.
So, let’s bring our children to Jesus this Advent and let them sit a while on his lap. Have a blessed Advent!