Repeat After Me
“Why are there three purple candles and one pink candle?”
I gave a quizzical look to my then-five-year-old – it was the third evening in a row she'd come to ask me the same question while setting the table in the dining room, where our Advent wreath was. Had she forgotten my previous answers? Not likely, considering that this was a kid who frequently came out with things like, "Last weekend you said we might get ice cream instead of going to the pool if it rained on Friday."
So, why did she want to hear an answer she'd already heard at least twice before?
That was a dozen years ago, and since then I've observed this habit in many children, not just my own. It seems that hearing the same information repeatedly–especially information related to a topic they find intriguing or complicated–helps children process new ideas.
The explanation for that one pink candle might seem rather straightforward in our adult brains, but the abstract concepts it involves might take some time and thinking for a child to sort out.
They’ll take turns teaching, too.
Over the years I noticed that children will first ask the question, then repeat the question a few times, and then eventually they might ask the question in a way that contains the answer – “The pink candle is for joy because it's almost Jesus's birthday, right Mommy?” Finally, we get to hear them explain the idea to someone else – friend, grandparent, or younger sibling. Their turn to teach!
Repetition has a role in the way kids play, too. When a four- or five-year-old finally masters the art of pumping her legs on a swing, will she ever get off? “Need we find ways to deliver hydration and nutrition to the swinging child lest she starve?” I have wondered. And if you need to be somewhere in 20 minutes, don't start playing This Little Piggy with a toddler. "Again!" "Again!" "Again!" After seven or eight rounds you’re hankering for roast beef and wondering how long it is until bedtime.
The comfort of repetition.
In a more serious scenario, play therapy allows children to act out stressful events in their lives over and over, until one day, they no longer need to do it. The issue has been resolved through repeated processing.
We can leverage this developmental reality as we seek ways to pass on the faith to our children. My husband has a little bedtime tradition with our toddlers. He asks them "Who loves you?" They answer; he asks again. He asks over and over as they list various family members, sometimes with a surprise or two thrown in (my two-year-old recently included "guy" – her name for the person who'd mowed the lawn that day). Finally, the ritual ends when he says "Who loves you most?" And the little one says "Jesus!" They never weary of this game.
Repetition works to teach faith, too.
Over the last several years I've added more memorization to our educational routine. I was a little trepidatious at first – how would my young ones take to being asked the same catechism questions or having to recite the same poem day after day?
I needn't have worried. The repetition has not been a stumbling block in the least. On the contrary, they're proud to repeat what they've already learned. As for me, I can never tire of asking my little ones, "Who made you?" and hearing them reply with a grin, "God made me!"
So go ahead, read them that favorite Bible story for the ninety-ninth time. Tell them again why Jesus died on the cross. Ask them again Who the Trinity is. Plant those seeds deep, deep in their hearts, water them with your love, and watch them grow!
Suzan Sammons is Mom to 6 daughters (toddler to college-age) and 1 teenage son. She is a homeschooling mother and a writer and editor with The Saragossa Group.
Our Lil’ Prayer Buddies teach prayer to children age 0-3 through comforting ritual and repetition.