A Child’s (Mis)understanding

by

Like many, I have watched my fair share of films over the years, and the vast majority have been quite forgettable. There are a small number that I enjoyed enough to purchase in order to watch them again. But there are very, very few that were so powerful in one way or another that they have stayed with me years after seeing them. (I am still not sure I will ever forgive Walt Disney for the trauma inflicted by Old Yeller.)

When I think about the films I’ve seen as an adult that have really stayed with me, three come to mind. One is The Straight Story, a film based on the true story of seventy-three-year-old Alvin Straight, who drove his riding lawnmower 240 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his brother, who had recently suffered a stroke. The look on his brother’s face when he realizes what Alvin has done is deeply moving.

Two foreign-language films also fall into this category. The first, Sophie Scholl, is a German film based on the true story of a teenage girl who was arrested by the Gestapo for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets during WWII. Again, the final scene is powerful, but the questions this movie makes you ask about yourself and what you would have done in that situation are what stay with you long after the credits roll.

The second foreign-language film that I have never been able to forget is Ponette, a French film about a fouryear-old girl attempting to deal with the death of her mother. Ponette is not an easy film to watch. There are few things more heart-wrenching than the grief of a young child, and the performance of the young actress portraying Ponette is truly nothing short of amazing. The most fascinating aspect of the film for me, however, had to do with the questions it raised about the way young children interpret (and misinterpret) the words of adults.

In the film, Ponette’s father is an atheist, and he tells her very bluntly that her mother is gone. While dealing with his own grief, he leaves his child with her aunt and uncle, who are devout Roman Catholics. In an attempt to console Ponette, her aunt tells her the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In her four-year-old mind, Ponette takes this to mean that if she waits a few days, her mother will come back to her. Her aunt and uncle do not realize how Ponette has misunderstood them and, therefore, never really clarify things for her. Neither do they realize how devastated she is when her expectation fails to be realized. The advice Ponette’s four-year-old friends give her throughout the remainder of the film puts her through an emotional wringer, but misunderstanding them is far less serious than misunderstanding the relevance of Christ’s resurrection to her situation.

As Christians, we are called to teach our children. But how often do we simply take for granted that they have comprehended the meaning of our words? And do we consider the damage that can be done if they misinterpret us without our realizing it? Very young children are in the process of learning the basic rules of grammar through imitation and use. Their vocabulary is also growing—sometimes by inventing their own words. (My daughter came up with the word “foosies” for “flowers” when she was very young.) But young children often make mistakes in their use of the language as they learn it, and they do not always automatically grasp the proper denotations or connotations of every word and phrase they hear.

Confusing the meaning of the words restaurant and restroom as a child, while potentially embarrasing, is one thing. However, confusing the meaning of the words of Scripture or the basics of Christian theology is quite another. Anyone who teaches young children has to stop and think about the words he uses when communicating to them. We should not assume that the thoughts in our minds are effectively communicated without distortion to the minds of the children. It is vitally important to ask children what they have understood us to say.

What do they hear you, your pastors, or their Sunday school teachers saying about God when they hear talk about “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”? What do they hear us saying when we say we believe in Jesus Christ, God’s “only begotten Son”? What do they hear if we use the words “Holy Ghost”? Do they understand what is being said when we use words like heaven, faith, soul, or salvation? We can only find out by asking them.

If they do require further explanation, the next question is this: Are we equipped to do the explaining? Can we clarify the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, to a young child? It is a self-evident truth that we cannot teach what we do not know, and we cannot explain what we do not ourselves understand. The study of Scripture and theology is simply not a luxury for those entrusted with children. It is a necessity.

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