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Teaching Story Transitions 4: Early Tools For Truth

How do parents know when and how to teach children ways to discern? One possible answer is found in the trivium of the classical education system.

This summer is over. Children are back in home schools, Christian or private schools, or public schools. But their battle goes on to discern and enjoy stories Biblically. This is one of the most important lessons that you, your child’s first educator, must teach your children.

In this series we’ve overviewed why this matters. In part 1: Christians practice un-Biblical ways of story or media discernment: arbitrary legalistic boundaries, or no boundaries at all. In part 2: When and how to “shelter” children must take into account the truth that they are not innocent beings corrupted by the world, but little sinners! Finally, in part 3: Before we teach our children how to enjoy and discern man’s stories, we must begin with God’s Story.

All this sounds wonderful. Most of you would agree. But if you’re a parent, you may wonder how that works. How do parents know when and how to teach children ways to discern — from the 12-year-old who seems unfazed by written violence, and perhaps should be more worried about it, to the six-year-old who would have nightmares about simple cartoons?

We can’t claim this process will be alike for every family, and every growing and maturing child. We certainly can’t promise your children will be perfect or Christlike by following our advice! But we can say this this is a more-Biblical way of understanding human nature and how to fix it, and can suggest general guiding principles of teaching story transitions.

One possible answer is found in the trivium of the classical education system. The trivium is a three-part process used to train the mind:

  1. In early years, students are taught learning tools (such as facts and grammar).
  2. In middle years, students are taught how to think through arguments.
  3. In high school, students are taught how to express truths.

(More about the classic education model can be found in this essay by Susan Wise Bauer.)

Of course, these are not distinct stages — no more than if you were giving your children the keys to your car on his sixteenth birthday without first having taught them how to drive! Instead of a total separation between these three sets of principles, the trivium method includes a gradual blending from one principle to the next.

The trivium seeks to educate children based on their “natural” — that is, God-designed — development. Similarly, although every child is different, the trivium can be used by parents who seek to raise discerning Christ-like children. In each of the final three parts of this series, we’ll survey the three stages in the trivium, applied to stories and media.

First comes the earliest stage. In the trivium, this includes teaching memorization of facts — grammar and spelling rules, mathematical operations, and more. For stories, this means:

Stage 1: Early tools for truth. Protect children while teaching how to enjoy and discern stories.

In part 3 we delved into this crucial need before teaching story discernment: that to discern other stories, we must first discern, learn from, and apply the Story of Scripture.

To teach the Story of Scripture, you might consider catechism, teaching correct belief to children. When applied rightly, consistently, and intentionally, catechism is an essential part of instilling the tools of Christianity — the tools of discernment in your children.

My (Jared’s) family currently uses the Truth and Grace Memory Books from Founders Press. Each one matches a level of the trivium method: Book 1, Ages 2 – 4th Grade; Book 2, 5th Grade – 8th Grade; and Book 3, 9th Grade – 12th Grade. They include suggested songs, Scriptures, and Baptist Catechism questions. Their author, Tom Ascol, suggests:

The person who completes these three books will read (among other things) the New Testament twice, the 4 Gospels 3 times, Proverbs five times and the book of Psalms twice. He will memorize (among other texts) the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, 1 Corinthians 13, various psalms (including 119!), plus all the books of the Bible (iii Book 1).

For young children, building on that foundational knowledge of Scripture as the greatest Story will give them the tools of discernment. Teach these, not only about the truths of Christianity versus the contrasting falseness of other worldviews, but about how we seek to discern and enjoy the material found in man’s storytelling.

So, before about sixth grade and teaching about applications of discernment to stories:

1. Challenge your children to begin thinking through how to discern stories.

In other words, don’t wait until sixth grade to encourage children to apply such story-discernment. Instead, as your child approaches sixth grade, he or she should naturally think more about how one would discern stories in the future, with parental help.

2. Teach and engage in stories with your child, and beg for their questions.

Parents should never allow their children to watch, read, or listen to anything they haven’t participated in themselves (or that wasn’t recommended by someone with a consistent biblical worldview)! And contrary to perception, story-rating systems of unbelievers and even some Christians are often unhelpful. Scripture alone must be our “rating” standard.

That’s why you as a parent must help your children apply the truths they’re learning in catechism to the various stories they see and/or read, including Christian storybooks, Disney films, literary fiction, Looney Tunes, VeggieTales videos, anything. Then, as they near sixth grade and their story and media choices grow — and the media’s echoes of evil may grow as well — you may help them consistently apply Scripture to their story choices.

Children love to ask questions! The younger children are, the more they inquire of their surrounding world. So capitalize on this curiosity instead of silencing it. This will take some patience! You want your children to ask questions about everything — and you want them to ask you instead of other children. Get over being annoyed by the same questions, and answer your children for the purpose of training them to be discerning adults.

For example, when you watch a Disney movie with your young child, help him to see the clear good and the clear evil. Ask him or her: what is the source of evil in the story? What is the answer? The Disney movie will not say, “Sin is the problem, and Christ is the answer.” Thus you must add this truth, for He is the only Answer to the problem of sin.

What is sin? Remind your children of the two greatest commandments: First, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). Second, love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:39). If we’ve violated those, we have sinned. (And we know we have!)

Who is Christ? We’re back to the Story of Scripture again — the greatest Story ever told.

As children approach the sixth grade, ask them more about stories you see or read together, showing their pictures of sin, and pointing to our only Answer, Jesus Christ.

(Part 5: stage 2 of the trivium. How do we challenge children to discern stories on their own?)

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Kessie Carroll
Member

How did I miss this series?? This is a great series! Blogger doesn’t show updates at ALL on Sundays.
 
Anyway, I heartily agree! I’m starting my first year of homeschooling, and we have a wonderful Children’s Bible full of discussion questions after each story. We read the Old Testament and the New Testament every day, and talk about it. (My five year old told me that Jesus has magic inside him that heals people and chases away demons.)
 
Although, as much as they argue with me about everything, maybe we should work on the logic stuff earlier than sixth grade. 🙂 They aren’t allowed to watch much TV, and then only videos, but we’ll talk more about them now that I’m aware of this discernment training.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Interestingly, Kessie, this was the first time we published a feature on Sunday. (Your feature the following week was the second.) For our audience, it seems a good time.

Ah, I did not know you were a homeschooling mom. That’s fantastic. You’re just the sort of person this series hopes to reach. I’m a joyful product of homeschooling myself, and hope to do the same for my own future children.

My five year old told me that Jesus has magic inside him that heals people and chases away demons.

(Nods) Actually, yes, that’s about right! Real magic. Also known as supernatural power, owned and absolutely controlled for a reason by the ultimate Author.

Although, as much as they argue with me about everything, maybe we should work on the logic stuff earlier than sixth grade. :-) They aren’t allowed to watch much TV, and then only videos, but we’ll talk more about them now that I’m aware of this discernment training.

Unfortunately I am not as familiar with classical-education methods and motifs as others, but my guess is that some logic training begins early. As Jared and I said earlier in this series, surely there is some overlap between “stages.” Only a robotic approach would lead to something like, Oh no, my child wanted to discuss a topic in grade 3, but that’s not until grace 7 according to the textbook, so I’ll need to shut him/her down! From my own teaching experience, and from truthful propaganda heard during my homeschooling days, “grades” are highly arbitrary, really, and different children learn differently. It sounds like the “trivium” allows for that!

It also allows for the endorsement and training of imagination and the capacity to comprehend and delight in wonder that leads to the Artist, not simply train in the rote memorization and recitation of facts. But more on that in my comment below.

Joanna
Guest

I’m actually going to strongly disagree with the first step in the trivium. It assumes a five-year-old will have any care to learn the tools he won’t be shown how to use for five more years. Think about how we learn as adults — we only pay attention to instruction or help after we’ve already tried and failed. Why do we think children are somehow not that way?
 
The same with teaching them the Bible and Christianity. The first necessary step is to live it out the Christian walk before them — the ups and the downs. The second is to let them just experience the story of the Bible, in as many high quality retellings as possible. To read from the text to them. Let them meet the heroes and villains of the Bible. Let them see Jesus.
 
To turn the Bible from their earliest memories into a textbook they can expect to be quizzed about will turn them off to it — that’s not to say that God may draw them back to it — but they will have lost the wonder that is the domain of the smallest children.
 
When they start to ask questions, as they will inevitably do, then is the chance to interpret — not lecture — just answer the single question. One point at a time.
 
The one question that should be asked by parent and child is “why?” not “what?” “What” is a quiz on the text — a catechism. “Why” is where the magic lives.
 
As they become older, and they begin to think more on subjects — as they are assailed by conflicting ideas, now is not the time to answer with theology. Now that they will appreciate the tools, now is the time to teach them. For instance: I refused to read until I was taught to appreciate books, and I refused to learn to spell until I found the desire to write. And I never cared for grammar until I began to refine my writing craft.
 
I agree that we should start by teaching children the Bible, but lets start with the wonder and magic of it, and save the theology until the question is asked. Not the other way around. And really — God does a pretty good job speaking through his words on his own. It’s only when we are older that the simple, magical, understanding isn’t enough. But then, we are old enough to dig into his words and search out the truth of what we are being taught.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Greetings, Joanna! Thanks for your comments and critique. A few thoughts:

I’m actually going to strongly disagree with the first step in the trivium. It assumes a five-year-old will have any care to learn the tools he won’t be shown how to use for five more years.

From my perspective, and speaking as only half this series’ authors, this is more about emphasis rather than exclusive focus. Though I didn’t have a classical education, I can think back to what I did have and recall the times when I was taught “just because” truths. Learn these spelling rules? Why? Just because. Math really does matter, even if you can’t know it now, so learn it. Why? Just because.

Even in the faith department: you need to obey, you need to repent and be forgiven, you need to want a relationship with God. More specifics came later. And to be sure, this would involve copious, natural showing of this faith, not just telling.

A whole other series could be written about how parents show story enjoyment and discernment, not merely teaching it. We adults certainly haven’t “arrived”!

The same with teaching them the Bible and Christianity. The first necessary step is to live it out the Christian walk before them — the ups and the downs. The second is to let them just experience the story of the Bible, in as many high quality retellings as possible. To read from the text to them. Let them meet the heroes and villains of the Bible. Let them see Jesus.

I agree, and I’ve been blessed (well, it’s usually a blessing!) with my wife to help supplement parents’ efforts through teaching children at our church. Lately we’ve also been able to host reading groups through Christian fantasy classics — The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe last time, and at present, The Hobbit. It’s a blast, especially in showing how these wondrous stories echo the first and true Story.

To turn the Bible from their earliest memories into a textbook they can expect to be quizzed about will turn them off to it — that’s not to say that God may draw them back to it — but they will have lost the wonder that is the domain of the smallest children.

Hmm, that’s not how I see the concept of this process, though. Rather, it seems to stress simple learning and delight early on. Still, point taken about the need to show and tell about delight and imagination, not merely facts and memorization, in those formative early years. A future version of this series may include more on that.

The one question that should be asked by parent and child is “why?” not “what?” “What” is a quiz on the text — a catechism. “Why” is where the magic lives.

I’m curious: could you share more about how this has worked for you? Personal examples are always welcome as supporting “evidence” for this Biblical approach: teaching the Story early on, as it applies to thinking heads and delighting hearts.

I agree that we should start by teaching children the Bible, but lets start with the wonder and magic of it, and save the theology until the question is asked. Not the other way around. And really — God does a pretty good job speaking through his words on his own. It’s only when we are older that the simple, magical, understanding isn’t enough. But then, we are old enough to dig into his words and search out the truth of what we are being taught.

Amen.