Comprehending the concept of heaven is seriously challenging for Catholic adults. Explaining heaven to our children can be even more difficult.
Catholic parents and grandparents must first understand the developmental stages of their children, their capacity to understand, and their desire for information, advises the Diocese of Orange’s Katie Dawson, director of Parish Faith Formation.
“Young children intuitively know there’s more to life than the material world,” Dawson explains. “They know they come from somewhere. They understand God as a mysterious presence who loves them.
“Explaining heaven can begin, then, even with the youngest children.”
Of course, Dawson notes, conversations about heaven should be guided by the child’s questions. “Children under age 9 cannot grasp the idea of death, to understand that the people they know or that they themselves can die,” she says. “After that they have a sense of death and that’s the point at which they will ask questions about heaven.”
When someone they love dies, she adds, parents want to offer comfort. Sharing information about the afterlife can provide solace.
“It’s important that we don’t give them more information than they need,” Dawson warns. “They need a thimbleful of information – not a firehose. If a child starts to ask about what happens after death, that’s a great opportunity to talk about heaven.
“We should give them the truth [about what happens to our bodies when we die] and then share the idea that we are more than just a body. As people with souls, when we die our souls return to God. We call that heaven.”
Often, scriptures or picture books can plant lasting images in children’s minds. Dawson remembers when her 11-year-old son came home from sixth grade complaining that he didn’t want to go to heaven when he died because it sounded boring. “He was in that transition from concrete to abstract thinking,” she recalls. “Heaven as a bunch of clouds in the sky sounded dull to him.”
His declaration offered the opportunity for a discussion about what heaven means, she notes.
Catholic parents can keep conversations about God, the things of God, and heaven going among family members, she recommends. “The best thing is if there’s an ongoing conversation about life with God in the family,” she says. “This is where it’s important to build the practice of praying together, reading good books that provide spiritual input and creating a strong foundation.”
As parents we must set strong and lasting examples of faith for our children. Then, she notes, “If we turn to the Holy Spirit to see what kind of conversations our children need, how to address and anticipate their needs, then we lay the foundation for our children to share their feelings with us.”
From the earliest ages, cuddling up with our toddlers to share picture books about Jesus, heaven, and the saints means our children will long associate warm and cozy feelings with their Catholic faith.
In Dawson’s case, “My Little Golden Book About God,” is where she got her first impressions of God.
“I was probably 4 years old when it was first read to me, and I think my whole life I’ve thought that’s exactly who God is,” she says. “God is to be trusted even when bad things happen. We build on that foundation and then we pray like crazy that we can keep the conversations going with our children.”