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Ah, play dates with young children.

The children are happily playing upstairs or outside or in the playroom, and you can finally have an uninterrupted adult conversation. Then you hear a loud crash, a plaintive “Stop it!,” wails and many tiny footsteps coming toward you.

It is now your job to help these young children sort through and talk about their feelings and ultimately learn to play cooperatively and kindly – to treat one another as they want to be treated.

In all of the challenges of parenting, this can be one of the hardest. (It certainly has been for me.) After all, it is many years before young children are even ready to acknowledge that other people have feelings, desires and agendas apart from their own.

Maria Montessori observed that beginning around age 6 children changed, developing a sense of right and wrong, deeply interested in understanding social order and questioning how he or others should act.

And yet the foundation for moral development begins during the stage when children are having those tattling-filled play dates.

At St. Philip’s, this foundation is laid in the Level I atrium.

The foundation is love – the love found in Jesus the Good Shepherd who loves us, calls us by name and searches for us when we are lost. When we experience that love and joy, it changes how we think about ourselves and how we treat others.

In the Level II and III atriums, we observe the children to see when they have begun to make the transition Montessori saw. When they have, we introduce moral parables, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan, and maxims, the great truths Jesus said to help us remain in Him.

These materials are available all year to the children, but we pay particular attention to them during Lent.

The maxims are written on tablets and stored in a wooden cabinet. When we introduce them to the children, we start with a few. The children are then free to explore them independently – or even write their own.

I recently presented these maxims to four children:

Love your enemies.

Do good to those who hate you.

I give you a new commandment: Love others as I have loved you.

We took each one in turn, reflecting on the words we heard.

Love your enemies. ”What is an enemy?” The children were quick to answer. People who hate you. People who are mean. Sometimes they were specific. The boy I used to be friends with but who hurt my feelings. “How do we normally treat our enemies?” We ignore them, or hurt them.

Do good to those who hate you. “What does it mean to ‘do good’?” Be kind. Listen. Share. And my personal favorite last Sunday: Bake someone cookies. “Is this how we normally treat people who hate us?” No.

I give you a new commandment: Love others as I have loved you. ”How did Jesus show love?” He fed people. He healed people. He died on the cross. “What would happen if we loved people the way Jesus loved us?” They might not be enemies anymore.

These tablets are a gift to the children, who passionately talk about these great truths and how they relate to their own lives. They also are a gift to us as catechists and parents, a way to tap into the challenges children face in navigating social pressures and norms.

These great truths teach us that to love is not just to feel, but to act.

How might you use the maxims with your children?

Visit the Level II or III atriums, and pull them out. See whether one speaks to you, or reminds you of a conversation you’ve been having at home.

With your children, then, you can light a candle and consider the key words, what they mean and what Jesus is asking of us. Or you can all draw pictures of what the maxims make you think about and feel, and talk about your art.

As for how children treat others? Well, that takes time – our whole lifetimes, right?