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Catholic Activity: Using the Right Words

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Using the right words to teach children is essential, as is teaching them to use accurate language when they are trying to express their own ideas.

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Children are always amazed to discover that Adam named the animals, and they love reading about it in Genesis.

And the Lord . . . brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name. And Adam called all the beasts by their names, and all the fowls of the air, and all the cattle of the field. . . ."

It was, I imagine, the world's first parade (the second one was that great embarkation into the ark). So after a trip to the zoo or the circus, or an afternoon with a pile of old National Geographics, it is fun to ponder Adam sounding out names for the beasts. Hippopotamus is so right for the hippo — because, of course, she is so hippy. Then to discover that his word for her was nowhere near what it is in our language, it certainly shows the concern of Divine Providence about even names for animals that make sense. No one who was not inspired could have chosen hyena for the hyena. Then when you remind them that St. Paul sent greetings in one of his Epistles to "Phoebe," there is nothing to conclude but that the first girl named Phoebe was really named after a bird.

Geology is another means to help children develop a sense of wonder over God's way with the universe — and it is as close by as the stones in the back yard, a hammer and chisel, and a book from the library. The slates in garden paths, or on the roofs of buildings, are dried flakes of what was once mud, baked for thousands of years in the hot sun. The colored streaks inside stones all have names and stories, and the stones themselves are the shape they are for thousands of tons of water running over them and smoothing them, or being chipped off giant cliffs, or, once hot molten fluid, having cooled and hardened. How marvelous it is to begin to understand that the earth, the mountains, the islands, the seas are all guardians of His mysteries, and yet that we are more precious to Him than all of these.

Small children can anticipate one whole lesson in the catechism, long before they are old enough to go to school, by playing a game called "Finding the things God made." On a walk, or hanging out the window looking down into the street, they pick out things that come to us straight from His hand, like sky and trees and clouds and sun, birds and dogs and cats, and contrast them to things man has made with the gifts God has given him, like cars and baseballs and clotheslines and street lights. We can help them form their first understanding about the right use of these gifts by considering (when they are a little older) how wrong it is, for instance, to cut down forests of trees to make into paper, then use the paper to print comic books which not only frighten children with their horrors, but teach them how to commit crimes and disobey God.

Considering God as the source of all things, it is easier to learn how to use words right, and reserve the superlatives for the things that are superlative. I was startled to hear one small boy patiently explaining to a visitor who said she "loved hamburgers," that "You can't love hamburgers. You can only love God, and people, animals too — but not hamburgers." Nor should one "adore" movie stars, or think new hats are "divine."

I have heard people demur at this sort of thing, because it leaves nothing to be enjoyed for the sake of itself, they say. Everything has a moral attached to it, they say, and this is dull. This is not dull. And it is particularly not dull for children. If we have grown world-weary and bored and are beyond the point of wonder, then more's the pity, because the world is full of wonder and it all makes sense when you understand that first there is God. Children are secure and at home, in fact very comfortable, in a world that is furnished by their Father in Heaven. The bad things in it are bad for a reason. The good things are good for a reason, and only people who do not have the right conception of God think that to connect Him with everything is to be utterly boring.

Somewhere in Chesterton (Orthodoxy, perhaps?) he remarks that only people who believe in God could believe in fairies. Because, of course, God could make fairies. St. John the Baptist said that He could raise up children of Abraham out of the stones, if He wished. Perhaps to write all these things down makes them sound dull, but when you are communicating them to children you do not do it by writing them down. You do not create artificial situations for the preaching of sermons. You simply live with them and they present the opportunities to you, and because they are so quick to learn and love and wonder, you could also write much more — about the things they say, and these would sound entirely hopeless on paper because what children say is almost untranslatable on paper. It is more than their words. It is the face on them, and the excitement of them, the great triumph of having discovered for themselves the meaning of things you have taught them. Call it what you want — a form of security, gathering knowledge, helping them acquire a diversity of interests, little by little it is the knitting of the fabric of detachment, seeing all things against a background of God.

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961

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