Word Magazine October 1989 Page 15
OUR CHURCH SCHOOL CHILDREN –
AGES ELEVEN TO TWELVE
By Father Peter Rizos
From nine or ten years of age there begins to appear in the child a dualistic view of life. This tendency becomes more pronounced in pre-adolescents. They consciously separate their knowledge into two different realms the world of science, technology, cause and effect, and the world of the Bible, Sunday School, and the Church. While older children tend to hold on to infantile ideas about God and His supposedly capricious intervention in the world, they continue to grow in the scientific view of the world based upon the study of things that can be observed, analyzed, and tested. It seems that unless older children are helped to do otherwise, the only way that they can resolve their inner tensions between the supernatural world of religion and the natural world of science is to keep them each in separate compartments of their minds.
The eleven and twelve year old feels a sense of awe in his relationship with the God of the supernatural world. The thought of God may create guilt feelings in him for sins he believes he has committed. The idea of God’s holiness is interpreted by the child to mean physical power. As a junior child, he felt that God was vengeful and vindictive. As an older child, he has difficulty in believing that God loves people who are bad, and questions why God lets people do evil.
These students still take the Bible as an absolute authority containing words to be taken literally. Stories about God or Jesus are taken on face value with little or no understanding of the use of metaphor and other figures of speech. Unless the children are helped to do otherwise, they will retain this conception of the Bible well into senior high school and beyond. The students are now beginning to recognize the multiple authorship of Scriptures. They still have difficulty relating the events described in the Bible to the present, however.
Concepts That Can Be Taught
Students of this age group love to collect things, e.g., stamps, pictures, coins, etc. This is reflective of their approach to knowledge, i.e., their practice of amassing factual data to be stored and related to each other. The intensive accumulation of information serves as a bridge to reflective thinking in adolescence when opinion is shifted away from real fact. While pre-teens are concrete-minded, they are becoming dissatisfied with the limitations that this intellectual stage imposes. Twelve year olds are actually in an intermediate stage between concrete and adult logical thinking. A more critical approach to thinking develops by the age of twelve to thirteen. Brighter students feel dissatisfaction with concrete ideas and enter upon more abstract relational thinking. They develop an intense curiosity, a thirst for knowledge and a desire to organize and correlate all the facts they collect. Their power of reasoning is fact developing.
Pre-adolescents enjoy learning other people’s views on various matters of social concern. Pre-teenagers are able to participate in simple discussions on social problems, racial issues, crime, and human relations. They demonstrate a fairly critical sense of justice and can make comparative judgments. Because they are beginning to think and reason intelligently, their sense of time and history is developing.
Hero worship assumes a dominant role in the lives of pre-teenagers. Boys may choose a professional athlete, the local parish priest, or a celebrity. Girls may choose a movie queen, a young teacher, or a prominent female figure in national affairs. An unconscious process is at work in older children to pattern themselves after a hero or series of heroes who capture their imagination. This is a response to a profound need of the youngsters who in this stage do not yet know themselves as persons nor have discovered their own individuality.
This is a most opportune time to present Christ the Lord to the youngsters as their hero. While a pre-teenager still has a vague awareness of God, he can more easily understand and appreciate Jesus as the Man of courage. He can also appreciate and relate to the saints and prophets of the Church, and modern Christian leaders. The self-identity and conscience formation of the older child are greatly influenced by persons he admires. The budding critical thinking of the students makes it imperative that their teacher be personally convinced of the importance of the life of Jesus and the lives of great men and women of the Faith. This way the students may find that the images and models of the Faith presented to them are important for their own spiritual lives.
Pre-teenagers hunger for a sense of the reality of Jesus Christ as a model, friend, and personal Savior. They need the sense of stability and inner mooring that faith in Christ can provide. They need to grow in the unshaken conviction that the Lord cares and understands their anxiety and unrest even when no one else seems to be able to. The reassurance of faith that the older child derives from prayer in times of crisis and doubt prepares his psychic world for the trials of adolescence.
Contents of Curriculum
The theme of God the Creator may be expounded in correlation with the students’ learning’s in natural science about the origin of the world. The biblical doctrine of creation should be taken up in a simplified manner vis-à-vis the Darwinian theory of evolution.
The history of salvation may be introduced to the children with an emphasis on the activity of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in the past, the present, and the future. Older children need to understand God’s gift of salvation as the relevant present reality that it is, and not merely as an event of the remote past. The students’ primitive sense of history dictates that chronological sequence and abstract ideas should be kept at a minimum.
Pre-adolescents are ready to understand in an introductory way the concept of God’s covenantal relationship with the members of His Church. The Lord through His supreme sacrifice and resurrection has a claim on our lives. This means that together with a simplified doctrinal study of the Person of Christ, pre-adolescents need to grow in their understanding of the meaning of Christ in their personal lives. They are ready to experience for themselves that the Son of God is the vital center of our inner world from whom our values in life spring and to whom they must be constantly referred. Personal faith in Jesus Christ means that one’s lifestyle is different because of Him.
Pre-adolescents need to understand the meaning of the sacraments relative to their personal development. They can be helped to see the whole area of man-woman relationships as a part of God’s purpose for their lives through a careful study of the sacrament of Matrimony. Church membership can be more meaningful to pre-teenagers by learning about the gifts of the Holy Spirit received through Chrism, and how these gifts or charismata relate to their natural talents. This would contribute significantly to their motivation for Christian service and witness both within the Church and in the world. It would also provide the young people with a spiritual context for their identity formation when they reach adolescence.
The years eleven and twelve are generally good teaching years when students are more willing to learn, eager to please, and have better relationships with teachers than they do in high school. The stress should be on teaching methods which actively engage the students own authentic experiences in dialogue within the classroom. These methods include researching information relevant to class discussion. Projects or planned activities may be undertaken to help improve the neighborhood or community by serving the needs of the oppressed, the poor, and the exploited. The point here is to assist older children serving along with their teachers to understand that the social dimensions of faith development are the normal outgrowth of sound Orthodox liturgical life and religious nurture.
Students need to be helped to apply Christian values and ideals to current events. Newspapers, radio, television, books, and periodicals should be an integral part of any religious class at this level. The Christian evaluation of local, national, and international news should begin at the ages of eleven and twelve. Older children need to be trained to think creatively in this area.
Frequent use ought to be made of maps and audio-visuals to help give the children a sense of the reality of biblical places and lands. Acquaintance with the student’s work in social studies equips the Church School teacher to help her students relate their religious instruction to secular learning. This also serves to raise the children’s estimation of the significance of Christian education and contributes to their need for a unified view of the world. Learning about the various customs, dress, and social conventions of people in the Bible and other religious literature, appeals to the pre-teenager’s quest for factual information. More importantly, it facilitates the children’s understanding of the similarities of the human condition then and now despite the differences between the cultures.
Whatever the lesson taken up in class and whatever the teaching method used, it is vital for the children’s faith development that they feel free to express their questions and honest doubts. A supportive, non-judgmental atmosphere in the classroom which permits open dialogue will go a long way in helping the older children to understand on an emotional level that faith in God and intellectual honesty are not only reconcilable, but necessary for personal integration. A teacher who has learned to accept and respect her students as persons candidly — despite occasional disagreement with their views — can make a significant contribution to her students’ commitment to Christ as they get older and become adults.
Father Peter is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America.