I’m a big advocate of using big words with little kids. Our tendency, of course, is to use very simple terminology with children. It seems to me like we do this out of two desires. One is compassionate. We just want them to understand, so we want to serve them by making things as clear as possible. Good motivation. The other might be laziness (or exhaustion!). We don’t want to have a longer conversation than we have to. We don’t want to explain “agriculture” when we can just say “farmer work” and be done. But I want to suggest that the whole family is better served if we just go ahead and use the big words. We can do this, I believe, without exasperating our children.
Amanda Morgan writes:
“Don’t shy away from the big words. It is very common for adults to simplify their language when talking to young children. Instead of referring to the veterinarian, we talk about the ‘animal doctor.’ While a sentence full of new words would be a bit overwhelming for anyone, throwing in a new word now and then is a great opportunity to build vocabulary! If we are referring to the veterinarian, we should use that word, offering ‘animal doctor’ as an explanation, and then referring to ‘veterinarian’ a few more times in the conversation. If you’re explaining what something is, you might as well use the right word the first time. Children may not always pick up on those big words, but they certainly won’t if they don’t ever hear them. There isn’t much opportunity for growth if we’re always using words they already know. So go ahead, use words like ‘identical’ instead of ‘same’ and ‘metamorphosis’ instead of ‘change’. You’ll be surprised at what your children will pick up on when you give them the chance!”
I call that very good advice. My own experience is that kids enjoy learning new words and the meanings of things. They like the idea of seeing life as a bit of a puzzle and learning as playing the game of solving. But like everything else, they pick up on our enthusiasm, or lack thereof. They learn more about how to feel about something by our attitude than our information. Love is contagious, but so is drudgery.
I think this goes for Theological/Biblical language as well. I believe even small children can learn to reach up and begin to understand the actual Bible. I’m all for good storybook Bibles (especially those that are constant with –and not antagonistic toward– the flow and aim of Scripture). But when it comes to Bibles, I believe we need a path to the real thing, not a barrier against the real thing.
I advocate the method of Explain Up, Don’t Dumb Down. I understand the need for clarity. Do that too! But we need a clarity that serves people for life, not only for the moment. We are aiming to build up understanding, not reduce the deeply meaningful, mysterious, magical wonder of Holy Scripture to something like a mildly sanctified version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And this goes for all of life, not only Bible reading.
What are we doing when we opt for Explaining Up, instead of Dumbing Down?
1. We’re taking the fear out of learning new words and new things. If your family’s ordinary habit of life is to be explaining, learning, and expanding understanding as you go, then life-long learning feels like a field to play in and not a barrier to be traversed.
2. We are enlarging our capacity for imagination and, therefore, faith. Clay Clarkson wrote a wonderful post about this which included the following:
“Vocabulary is critical to an active imagination. A child’s ability to imagine things beyond their own senses is directly related to the depth and breadth of their vocabulary. It takes little imagination to realize the limitations of limited vocabulary on creativity, or on believing spiritual truths for that matter. However, the more words your child has with which to express himself, the greater will be the scope and intensity of what he can imagine. The stronger your child’s grasp of language, the richer will be her own creativity and ability to wonder about things beyond her five senses.”
3. Explanation trains a child to understand that their own interpretation of a story, a word, situation, or set of facts, is not supreme. We live in an era where autonomy and personal truth are valued above conformity to objective reality. When children are never given the gift of explanation, but are forever encouraged to find their own meanings, they are being treated as orphans. They are estranged from the loving shelter of wisdom, experience, and virtue. We all need to understand that we fit in, or belong to an existing entity, and we need to learn how to navigate that real world with real people in it whom we are called to love, and respect. Being continually encouraged to interpret everything with oneself as the center is counterproductive to virtue and intellectual honesty. (See The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis.)
Note: I am all for preserving the magic of a story by refraining from explaining every detail and making an insinuated application at every subject/verb interval. That being said, when a child says, “What does it mean?” –and real children are regularly curious about such things– I believe it’s an opportunity to deepen wonder by answering them in love. Of course this can be done like a figure-skater, or a steam-roller. But explanation does not have to be the enemy of wonder.
Big words are big opportunities for learning and for learning about learning. Dumbing Down hands kids an anvil with the word “gravity” engraved on the side. Explaining Up shows them the skies and hands them a magic rope by which to reach them.
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