Wednesday, November 4, 2015

How to Talk to Children about Demons, Hell and Death

By Nun Magdalene

It is a serious educational mistake to talk to young children in detail about demons, because if a child hears once how they are, it is impossible to not stop imagining them.

Adults may be warned of the danger they risk by allowing images of demons invade their minds, but a young child, even if they are warned, can't easily stop thinking about something that torments them, and this can result in a dangerous state of mind or, at least, to suffer from nightmares. When young children ask about the devil or the existence of evil spirits, it is preferable not to make a thorough analysis, but to say that you should not give them more attention than they have in dreams or something similar. Generally we should turn the minds of children to Christ, the saints and the angels.

It is better to teach children about the Christian struggle without direct reference to the battle against the demons. Children can learn quite naturally to make the sign of the cross before sleep (on themselves and onto the bed or the pillow) as a blessing for the night, to use the prayer of Jesus (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me), or to talk to the Lord and the saints in their own words, whenever they want. So when they experience a temptation (eg. a fear of nightmares), they will use completely naturally the right weapons. Children can sleep with a prayer rope in the hand underneath the pillow and say the prayer of Jesus (even only a few times in their daily prayers).

The idea of hell scares children. Of course it scares us also, but our fear is not pathological, rather it stems from our love for God and from our fear of being estranged from Him. What we need to cultivate in children is not the fear of hell but love for God. Children can seriously consider the metaphysical problem and God's love. When we talk about hell (not, of course, to young children) we must stress that hell is not a place God wants to send bad people, rather hell is the pain we impose on ourselves by rejecting God's love. Hell is the vision of God's light that burns those who do not become like Him. Or we can even say that if a sick person refuses to take the medicines prescribed by a doctor, they should not blame the doctor if they remain untreated.

As always, there are no recipes, I will only give a few examples. There are many cases of adults who rejected Christianity because they thought this was the best way to be liberated from the suffocating fear of hell into which they were raised. Even when we talk about the evil deeds people commit, it is important for the child to be assured that Christ is always ready to forgive any sin.

When children talk about heaven, they often express different ideas of what will be found there, ideas which theologically might seem incorrect. But we must be very careful not to destroy their desire to go to heaven. Can you imagine a child would want to go to a place where there is no food or toys or their favorite animals? We have to give the impression (and not a false impression) that heaven is incomparably better than anything we could imagine. Some children, when they hear this, will spontaneously ask: "Better than the night of Easter? Better than ice cream? Better than when mommy puts me to sleep?" The Bible teaches us that there is heavenly food, heavenly joy, etc.

In regards to animals, children want to know if their favorite animal will have a place in heaven. There is no reason to explain this theologically to a child, by explaining the difference between the soul of an animal and the soul of a human being. It is better to remind them that God cares for every little sparrow (Matt. 10:29).

When we speak theologically, we should never destroy an idea someone has within them, unless we replace it with a more mature idea which does not exceed the level of their comprehension. In the Gerontikon (Sayings of the Desert Fathers) there is a story about a monk who was an anthropomorphite (he interpreted literally the biblical expressions of God's hands, God's eyes, etc.). Orthodox monks corrected him. But he was visited by another monk who found him crying. The visitor asked him: "Why are you crying, Father? Are you not happy that you returned to the correct faith?" The monk replied: "I'm crying because they took my God away from me, and now I don't know who to worship."

We do not want our children fearing death. We must speak of it as a part of our life - the threshold of a heavenly life, a stepping stone to our eternal life with Christ, the saints and the angels. Sometimes there are children who so much want to go to heaven, that they express the desire to die or even put an end to their own lives. We must not put into these children a morbid fear of death in order to mitigate this desire, but we should explain that death is only a blessing if we leave from this world at the time God calls us, because He only knows when we are ready. We do not travel to heaven unless He first sends us the ticket. There are no recipes for what we should say to each individual child, but we must try to adapt our response to each case. This is a problem that often finds parents unprepared. It is regrettable that young children have even heard of suicide, but it is a reality which Christian catechists must face.

Questions about hell and heaven, evil and good, demons, death, suicide, etc. will come up many times during childhood. Our answers to these (as well as the question as to how children are born) should be proportionate to the child's level of development. Do not respond to a child of five in the same way that we would respond to a ten year old, even if they present the same question.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.