There is a phrase in the Address to the Parents, in our Form for the Baptism of Infants, that we may have overlooked a bit, even though we hear it every time when a child is being baptized. That are the words ‘as soon as he (she) is able to understand‘. What does that mean?
Over the last couple of centuries we have seen the age at which children make public profession of faith creeping up, to 18, 19, 20 years old. In many reformed and Presbyterian churches from non-Dutch background this age is quite a bit lower: some at around 10, others a few years later.
In the time of the Reformation, this age was also lower than it is now in our churches. In those days, children were supposed to grow up more quickly than now. They had to go to work as soon as possible. That forced them to take responsibility at an earlier age as well.
Even if we look at the Jewish community, throughout the centuries, then we notice that there a boy became a Bar Mitzwah and a girl a Bat Mizwah (son or daughter of the law) at around the age of 12 or 13, as mentioned in Talmud and Mishna. That is the time that they have to take responsibility for their own life and are obliged to adhere to the commandments.
Since the time of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, our society has moved away more and more from children taking responsibility at such a young age. You have to be young and enjoy the years of your youth. Wait as long as possible with taking up the burden of being an adult. We invented words like ‘teenagers’ and ‘adolescents’.
However, God is waiting for our children to respond to His promises. As parents we must not give in to the temptations of this society, to let our children be children, at a time that they are supposed to grow up and take responsibility. We promise to instruct our children in the Christian doctrine, as soon as they are able to understand. Not: as soon as they feel ready for it.
Start teaching our children at a young age. Take them to church at a young age, the younger the better, as long as they don’t distract the attention of others. As soon as they are able to write, let them make notes, instead of being bored during the worship service and waiting for the minister to say ‘Amen’. Reformed Perspective published an article that may be helpful for parents with children in that age group. And when they grow older, keep increasing the level of instruction. Every time, ‘as soon as they are able to understand’. And also for the parents ‘to the utmost of their power’. When they are very young, they love the Bible Stories. Those concrete Bible Stories is for them the way to learn who God is: through His deeds for His people. When they get a bit older, they will grow in their ability to understand more abstract parts of the Christian doctrine. When they are still in primary school, they should already be able to learn from the Heidelberg Catechism. And parents, take time at home, around the dinner table, or any other occasion, to talk about it: about the Bible, about their love for God, about the Catechism, the sermon, and much more that pertains to the Bible, to serving and loving God, and to faith.
4. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
In the time of the Reformation in Germany, the children in school had three main components in their curriculum: reading, writing, and… catechism! Why do we wait with teaching our children catechism to an age that the children have left primary school? The catechism was written with children in mind. We should not let our children wait with learning the Christian doctrine; our children should not let God wait for them to show their obedience in professing their faith. ‘As soon as they are able to understand’!