We humans are like concrete.
As adults, set in our ways, change is difficult. A reformation of character or faith takes a near death experience, relationship breakdown or some other personal crisis. Changing solid concrete is possible but it takes a jackhammer.
Children, on the other hand, are like wet concrete. They are being poured into and shaped with every conversation, relationship and example. They are open to ideas, practices and new realities – trusting that the adults in their world have it all together and know where they are heading.
In childhood, the spout is spewing wet ready-mix in any direction the adults around us care to direct it. Because children spend the majority of their time with Mum and Dad, faith and values formation primarily happens in the home. Until approximately age 10, children receive and replicate what they see and hear.
They, literally, become what they witness. Dad laughs at a joke, I laugh. Mum bakes a cake, I bake. They go to church, I go. The maxim, “Do what I say, not what I do” lives and breathes every day but never really works. I watch, I try, I become. This is discipleship in its purest form.
Children are disciples. Parents are disciple-makers. The four steps of discipleship – I do, you watch; we do, I teach; you do, I watch; you do, I go – is active in every home on the planet, intentional or not. The great news is that children are very malleable. If we change, they will too. If we become something new, so will they.
But, we don’t like change, do we? Jackhammers are scary.
Between the ages of 10 and 12 the concrete is setting. The core moral and spiritual identity of a child has been established but they are still open to detailing and shaping. The questions asked in this stage combine physical reality with heart stuff. What does honesty have to do with homework? When can I be baptised? Why do I have to wear a helmet?
As a child moves through upper primary school, they are ready for more responsibility and authority because they are starting to understand the why at the centre of most of life’s whats. Reasons are important. Friends are becoming barometers of other-worldly realities. My friends’ families are not like mine. He can do whatever he wants – nobody cares. She tells rude jokes – everybody laughs. His Dad is never home. Her Mum yells at her across the carpark. When I visit, they don’t eat together. My friend is scared of his Dad and says mine is weird. I think I know why. I’m different. I’m special. I’m valuable. I am loved.
Most of the faith and values integrated deep in my character and yours were formed in childhood. While emotional fine-tuning and experiential learning continues to shape our nature until the day we topple off the perch, most of the foundational structure of our moral and spiritual reality was established before the first bout of acne scarred our countenance.
Teenagers know it all. Why? Because, “We’re done being wet and we’re never gonna set.” They’ve got a strategy worked out. Be flexible. Roll with the punches. Be like Dad. Don’t be like Dad. “Life’s what happens while you’re waiting for the light to change.” Go a new route. Try an old one. Just don’t sit still! Then the world starts expecting them to be a slab – useful, functional and practical – ready to build on. They fight it for a while – chasing rainbows around the planet – only to return and realise responsibility is not so bad. And they set.
Then, they have children and it starts all over again!