The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Dangers of Catechizing Your Children Wrongly

I remember having sword drills in elementary school. This is where you are given chapter and verse of a book in the Bible, and then on cue, you search for it. Whoever finds it first gets a point. It was fun, and it might have helped me flip to particular passages more quickly, but it didn't really teach me what the verses actually said. Sometimes we may have read the verses we looked up, I do not remember, but even if we did, the point wasn't really to elaborate on the verse and what it meant, the point was simply to find it.

Then I remember going to AWANA'S, or whatever it was called, like twice as a kid. You got points which I think could be redeemed for prizes for quoting verses that you memorized. Of course, we did that in school too. So I still remember the little jingle for, say, Ephesians 4:32. "And be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ's sake, hath forgiven you you you, Ephesians 4 and 32."

I think we learned that one in fifth grade. It was cutesy, I learned the words, but I didn't really know what they meant. In fact, verses that I did memorize as a child, with a little jingle, or even without one, I find very hard to understand. Why? Because my mind is set in a pattern not to focus on the meaning of the words, but instead to focus on knowing the correct words, apart from their meaning. Sure, I guess I realized the verse meant to forgive others because God has forgiven us, but the nuances, and the reasons why we do that, and what it took for Christ to save us, and why He came to save us, none of that was discussed or pondered by my little brain. To this day I have to struggle over Ephesians 4:32, to actually just think about what the words mean. That's scary.  

I wasn't catechized as a child. I guess I had to be to get baptized because, though I was Presbyterian, I didn't get baptized as an infant. I think I was eleven or so, and had to make a credible profession of faith, so I remember reading over the catechism. I don't remember a single question though, to be honest. So it really didn't help me any. I understand we retain some information without recalling where we gathered it, and I am sure that happened during my being catechized, but really, I do not believe it did me all that much good, or that that much was absorbed. Why? Not because catechizing is bad or wrong or a waste of time, but because of the structure in which the teaching is usually given. A Q&A format, especially for a young child, but for anyone really, is going to produce a memorizing of words, not a retaining of the meaning of those words.

That's my problem. Teaching your children isn't giving them a sheet of paper and asking them to memorize answers to the questions. What is man's chief end? "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Good little Bobby, now what does THAT mean? And little Bobby has no idea, because he just learned to parrot words.

I remember asking some guys I went to high school with how Christ dying on a cross saved them. They literally didn't know, it was like asking such a question was unheard of. That's probably because it was. If I asked them how they knew they were saved, they would say because Christ died for them. That sounds good, if they actually knew what it meant for Christ to die for them. So that's what I asked, and they didn't really know. They had a vague notion, after I jogged their memory, that Christ paid for their sins, but they didn't really know how. It was sort of like some mystical thing for them, that somehow, some way, Christ dying on a cross counted as Christ paying for our sins. God pouring out His wrath on Christ instead of us was not something they were familiar with. It was more like magic voodoo. And these guys went to church their whole lives.

When I look at the Westminster shorter catechism, I see a lot of answers that need unpacking. Even for me, at 22 years of age, in Bible college. I can't imagine a child actually knowing a whole lot from being catechized if all that occurs is the parent giving them the catechism and whenever the child gets the wrong answer, the parent tries to correct them by teaching them to say the right words. That's kind of like Pavlov's dogs. When you here this question, your brain responds with these words, because that's what you have been trained, conditioned, to do. But this is not an exercise in actually learning anything. It's largely an exercise of wasting your time and damaging your kids, putting their brains in a rut that actually diminishes their ability to understand Scripture!

Instead, if you are going to use the catechism at all, you have to know what it means yourself, then teach your kids, in words they can understand, what the catechism is saying. Forget about them memorizing it, what good does that do? In high school we would memorize the study sheet for tests and we would make okay grades, but how much did we actually learn? Not so much. And when it comes to God, knowing Him is what you will be graded on. As in, actually knowing Him, logically, rationally, and in your heart. Doug Wilson, in his book Wordsmithy, points out a very important truth:

If you can remember everything about a word, it means you don't really know it all that well. The example I like to use is that if you were to ask me what the Greek word kai meant, I would promptly tell you that it means "and, even, also." And what that prompt reply should tell you right off is that I don't really know Greek. Let me illustrate: take one of the English words in the definition, even. What does that mean? Well, I know the word, but I can't rattle off a tidy set of lexical definitions. I don't even know how many entries are in the dictionary for that one....Why could I rattle off the lexical definition for kai and not for even? The answer is that I am not a fluent speaker of Greek, and I am a native speaker of English. The way you get to this point is by constant immersion and exposure, most of which you will not recall.


I know for a fact that kids can be reared in a good Christian home, even a reformed home, where they have been catechized by good, godly parents, and still wind up knowing very little of their Lord and Savior. And I am convinced this is, in large part, why. Memorization doesn't necessarily mean learning. It means memorizing. Memorizing is not actually catechizing, is not actually teaching and learning, yet that is exactly what I fear a lot of parents, and pastors, confuse it with. To rattle off the correct answer to a question in the shorter catechism may in fact indicate that you don't know the answer very well, as Doug Wilson points out in the quote above.

Sometimes in class, when my brain isn't working so well, likely because I've stayed up way too late, I just write down important stuff the professor says. I hear what is being said, and am able to write it down. But I probably, at that time, couldn't really tell you what I had written down actually means. I go back later, when my brain is working right, and try and figure out what I have scribbled down actually means. Sometimes, that's where I have to learn, not in class, but after class, taking the words of the professor and then actually thinking on what the words actually mean.

We must teach ourselves, each other, and our children. A Q&A format, in my opinion, isn't the best way to actually learn, to actually know God. It is, at best, supplemental. And I would be willing to go toe to toe with anyone who was raised and catechized from their youth, and I think I would hold my own. In fact I'd be willing to bet I'd do better than most. That's not to be boastful, it's just to say that catechism (understood as a Q&A format where the child is essentially quizzed on memorizing the right answers) isn't the way. It could be done in a beneficial way, but my fear is that it is often not.

Just something to think about.

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