What’s the difference between SpongeBob and St. Peter? Or between two famous travelers: St. Paul and Dora? Or between Judas and Darth Vader? Or between those two grouches: Oscar and Jonah? And what’s the difference between those beloved miracle workers: the boy with the lightning stripe on his forehead and Jesus?
Of course, the answer to all these questions is that one is real and the other is imaginary. But children, particularly young ones, don’t automatically know the difference. They receive each of these characters as simply people in stories that make them think, laugh, or cry.
It’s a familiar problem for Sunday-school teachers and parents alike. How do we distinguish between the brilliantly told, often hilarious, and gripping stories our children love to read night after night, and the stories we encounter in God’s Word—which can sometimes have the same elements as many of the fairy stories they’re familiar with? The Bible, too, features miracles and strange happenings and danger and heroes and villains.
Children Engage Stories
To begin, we need to understand our children’s experience of stories. In addition to the bedtime books, children’s television is an endless procession of animated adventures and fictional characters. When kids get to the age where they can watch full-length movies, we take them to the latest Disney or Dreamworks blockbuster. And then we buy the books, action figures, T-shirts, lunchboxes, costumes, and pajamas. Our children are soaked in stories.
Such imaginative play and engagement with stories is an important—many psychologists would say vital—part of childhood development. Stories are the way children learn social, emotional, language, and thinking skills.
What’s more, young children are developmentally incapable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Their night-time fear of monsters is real, even if the monsters are not. Beginning around age 4, children learn to distinguish fantasy from reality, though many can’t consistently tell the difference until they’re much older—even 11 or 12 years old.
Parents often complicate things by deliberately maintaining fantasies as a playful game, or as a means of manipulation. Santa Claus may come in the first category; the Bogey Man who will get you if you leave your bedroom at night is firmly in the second.
But when it comes to the Bible, Christians know it’s vitally important to develop…