The claims of infants, that is, of children under five or six years of age, have been little heeded until of late; and even yet a very small proportion of such children are under religious instruction. The difficulty of providing suitable teachers, and sufficient accommodation for them, may account, in part, for this neglect; but the chief reason is our tendency to slight an evil which is not forced upon our attention. We see and hear the wickedness of older children; but the less obtrusive, but no less real, depravity of infants, is forgotten. Yet a very little consideration will convince us that they have equal claims on our Christian benevolence.
1. While young children have the same sins and evil nature as when they grow older, the longer they are untaught they become the worse. There is a great difference between an uninstructed child at the age of four, and of six. Sin cannot hold empire over a spirit for two years, without leaving dark traces of his desolating power. It is usual to speak of "the passions sleeping in infancy's breast," but the saying must be taken with great reserve; —indeed, the passions are the first portions of our nature that come into action ; hope and fear, joy and sorrow, love and hatred, soon display their power. If these passions, for the first six years of life, have been unchecked and uninstructed, they have acquired prodigious strength. During all that time,
"The souls whom God is calling
Live on blindly in the dark."
We once saw a little boy, about three years of age, go up to a stand of sweetmeats on the street, watch his opportunity while the owner's head was turned, and snatch away some lozenges; his countenance shewed all the while that he knew he was sinning. What would that boy be at six if left to himself?
2. Christianity can be taught to children at a very early age. Whatever a person can hate, he can love; and whatever he can love, he can hate. The morality, then, of the Bible, can be taught to the youngest child; its truthfulness, its humility, its purity, and its meek and quiet spirit. The benefit of early instruction we once saw exemplified in a girl about four years of age. She had been amusing herself with some books from a bookcase, and left them lying on the floor. I said to her, "You had better put these books into the case." She looked at them very reluctantly, and then at the comfortable seat she occupied. At length a bright smile glanced over her face, and jumping down, she said, "I know I ought, and so I will."
But the peculiar doctrines of Christianity can be taught as easily as its morality. What is there in the doctrines of the power, wisdom, holiness, and goodness of God, that would prevent an infant from catching at least a ray of their excellence? That heaven is a place of sinless happiness, and hell a region of unspeakable woe, and that out of love to us Jesus Christ died, are doctrines very easily taught; and they are as potent to repress an evil, and animate a good spirit in a child, as at a later period of life.
The following illustration of our need of the help of God would, we think, be appreciated by a very young child:—
"A father, accompanied by twin sons, was going along a road, which was narrow and slippery, strewed with stones, overrun with briers, and lying between two precipices. The parent walked a few steps in advance of his boys, and encouraged them by words and gestures to follow his steps; but they were so frightened at the sight of the danger, that they entreated him to lead them by the hand. He stopped for that purpose. One of them then took hold of his father's hand, while the other let his father take hold of his. The first twined his young fingers around the large, brawny fingers of his guide, while the second directed his grateful eyes towards his parent, who took a firm grasp of him, and both walked in this manner for a while with considerable confidence.
"Ere long, however, the road became narrower—the stones became more numerous and sharp — the briers more luxuriant and prickly—the precipices were so steep, that the eye was frightened to look down, and turned away with terror: and so the steps of the travellers were more and more staggering, and the danger imminent. The road they had to travel was still long; one false step might hurl them into the abyss below, while they had to take thousands of them ere they could reach the end of their journey.
"In this alarming position, one of the two children felt the necessity of clinging more firmly to the hand of his father. His weak and little fingers grasped it with vigour and tenacity. His brother, on the other hand, recollecting that it was not he who had taken hold of this powerful hand, but this powerful hand which had taken hold of his, walked along with perfect confidence, knowing well that he could not fall, or that, if he should stumble, a strength superior to his would raise him up again. In this manner the two boys, of exactly the same age and condition, walked along; the one at the right, the other at the left, of their common father; the one trembling, the other full of confidence; the one dreading every moment that his foot might slide, or his hand slip the hold; the other watching his steps—looking to his hand, but assured of the correctness and stability of both, because the power that supported was independent of and superior to his own weakness. Now let us follow them in their journey, without remarking any further distinctions between the boys.
"The slippery and dangerous path along which they had to travel continued diminishing its breadth into a narrow ledge, until the children, already worn out with fatigue, knew not where to plant their footsteps; when, dreadful to relate, both of them at once stumbled, and hung over the steep abyss. Both were in a moment paralysed with horror at the sight, and with terror at the thought of their perilous situation. But, alas! their fate was very different; the one fell into the bottomless gulf beneath him, the other was suspended in the hand, and raised immediately by the manly strength, of his father."—United Secession Magazine.
3. Many children die in infancy. Infancy is death's harvest. If we neglect all children below six years of age, a large number of the young will never be instructed, and will pass out of a Christian country into eternity, without once naming the name of God, or hearing the Saviour's voice.
We consider infant classes adapted chiefly for children who are neglected at home. The natural place for children in their tender years, is beside their parents. Unfortunately, parental neglect is so .common, that there remains a large number of children, who, if they are to be taught at all, must be instructed in the infant classes. We shall, in the remainder of this chapter, give some directions for conducting infant classes.
1. They should meet in a room by themselves. The kind of teaching and discipline they require renders this imperative.
A few of the infant school exercises may be adopted, as rising up and sitting down, and marching round the room. They should be resorted to sparingly, and noise should be forbidden.
3. The lessons should consist chiefly of narratives. We think parents are often happier in the way of teaching their children in infancy, than when they are able to read. The Bible lesson which a child receives on his father's knee is relished as much as anything he hears. The delightful stories of the Bible have an unfailing attraction for them. It is when an artificial system of teaching is introduced, and the religious lesson becomes a task, that it is disliked.
4. The importance of narrative lessons to young children does not consist in the inferences which they draw from them, but in the moral feelings which the narrative excites. For example, if you describe the creation to children, it is sufficient if it has been so described as to make them feel the power and wisdom of God; and it is of little consequence though, on being asked, What does it teach? they should be unable to say, that it teaches us his power, or his wisdom. In our early years our moral education is chiefly carried on by sympathy. If we wish a child to be holy, we must set before him objects and examples fitted to awaken his moral sensibilities. How admirably is the gospel suited to this state of mind! "The love of Christ constraineth us," is the language of children, as much as of adults.
5. The lessons of infant classes should be taught in a conversational manner. A box of movable letters has been much recommended for such children. It is used in this way: When a sentence is to be taught, such as "God is love," the letters are put into a frame one by one, GOD IS LOVE, the children naming the letters and words as they are put in, and then reading the whole sentence simultaneously. This teaches them to read, places the text of the lesson distinctly before their eyes, and helps them to remember it better. Of course it can only be used in very short sentences; and as narrative teaching forms the principal part of infant-class teaching, its use is limited. The teacher, in telling his Bible story, should talk in the easiest tone, intermix his narrative with a great many questions, to keep the children attentive, and go back repeatedly over the names of people, and what they did, to carry their minds along with him. He may calculate on a great amount of inattention.
6. The same lessons may be repeated very often. On first hearing a story, a child exhausts a very small portion of its interest: he will ask for it almost twenty times, and hear it every time with increasing relish. We have an analogy to this in our relish for tunes. A first hearing merely enables us to determine whether it will please or not; and not till it is familiar do we entirely love it.
7. The children may be allowed to answer simultaneously—a mode improper when they grow older. This ought not to exclude a great deal of individual catechising.
8. Religion should be taught to them authoritatively. It is not necessary to prove everything to infants. Let us give them the truth, and leave it to its own natural influence. Children are of a confiding disposition, and we shall best cultivate this natural faith by exercise. They must be told that the Bible is the Word of God; that God punishes sinners; and that the good only are saved, without a suspicion being whispered to them that any one doubts the truth of these statements, or even attempting to shew that they are true. This implicit confidence of children, so natural and graceful, must not be confounded and condemned with the blind faith of an ignorant adult. When children have grown a little older, it will be time enough to shew how strong are the evidences, and how impregnable the bulwarks, of religion.
9. Short sentences may be committed to memory—as, God is light—God is a spirit—Love one another; and hymns, such as "The happy land."
10. We think an hour long enough for one meeting. As much will be learned in one hour as in two.
11. Allowance must be made for the volatility of young children. Their transitions from one mood to another are far more rapid than those of adults. This is true of them up to the age of manhood. The younger the child, he is the more volatile; tears and smiles chase each other on his face; he yields himself without restraint to the feeling of the moment; his mind is like an AEolian harp, the strings of which sound independent of each other; he cares nothing for consistency; a merry tale will turn his crying into laughter. The staidness of maturity must, therefore, neither be expected nor desired. When we see the children of a Sabbath-school on dismission running home with light hearts, and perhaps with some unseemly mirth, it is unreasonable to conclude that our instructions have been utterly lost: let us recollect they are children, and not men and women.