The secret to creating spiritual growth is understanding the ABCs of developmental issues…
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Over the past century, several notable minds have constructed theories that impact spiritual development.
Jean Piaget developed ideas on cognitive growth. His well-tested theory suggests our minds grow and change in stages. For children, these stages are: sensorimotor (0-2), preoperational (2-7), concrete operations (7-11), and formal operations (11 and up).
Erik Erikson helped us understand personality development. His theory suggests who we “are” is the result of resolving “crises” at various ages. For children, these crises are: trust vs. mistrust (ages 0-1.5), autonomy vs. shame/doubt (1.5-3), initiative vs. guilt (3-6), and industry vs. inferiority (7-12).
Lawrence Kohlberg outlined how morals develop. His theory suggests, among other things, that age has no impact on moral growth (Translation: You can be an adult and have the morality of a child). For children, his suggested moral levels are: rules obeyed by reward or punishment (4-7), rules obeyed by agreement with self (7-10), and rules obeyed if others agree (10 and above).
James Fowler helped us understand faith stages. Working from basic assumptions of cognitive and personality development, he suggested four primary stages for children: primal or “pre faith” (0-3), intuitive/projective or “fantasy” (3-7), mythic/literal or “formation” (7-11), and synthetic/convention or “patchwork” (12 to adult).
What The Experts Say About Children’s Spiritual Development
Daniel is a bubbly 2-year-old. He eagerly and fearlessly topples and tumbles, runs and rumbles through the room. Every corner is a cave to explore, every object a new treasure. Occasionally, his curiosity causes a crash, but the bumps and bruises serve as testimony to growth. Faith is feeling.
Rachel is a tender and quiet 7-year-old. Slightly mischievous, she enjoys laughter. She’s learned to push buttons and find limits…sometimes. Gregarious and goofy, Rachel loves making friends—especially with her teachers. Faith is mimicking adult mentors.
Sarah is a dramatic and dynamic 10-year-old who stands on the edge of adolescence. Her body will soon forever change. Sarah is discovering her strengths and eagerly explores new interests. She’s also found friends who influence her decisions. Sarah’s faith is guided by new cognitive abilities that allow her to better understand her beliefs. Faith is now more personal.
All three are learning. Each child is growing.
Faith doesn’t develop within a vacuum. It isn’t microwaveable.
It isn’t a quick fix or simple solution. In fact, faith more resembles a crockpot or a long trip. It’s not a momentary decision, but a lifelong journey. It’s imperative to note that no two children are alike. The faith journey—dependent upon home, cognitive/personality/moral development, and outside experiences—will mark each child differently. Consequently, spiritual programming and curricula must reflect a basic assumption that we can guide and guard, but we can’t control and coerce, how a child’s faith evolves.
How does faith develop? How do children learn to love and follow Jesus?
Ultimately, faith is rooted in attitudes and feelings that mature into special relationships where commitments are created and decisions are later made. The process is similar to fitting shoes. Different ages have different sizes and shapes. The secret to creating lifelong faith is understanding the ABCs of developmental issues.
A Is for Attitudes (Birth to 3)
Babies are cool. They burp and poop, drool and scream. Their entire existence is rooted in self-preservation and a complete reliance upon another individual. Comfort is job one.
Learning is a close second. Infants and toddlers are learning machines. Practically every day presents a new problem, and every obstacle creates a new opportunity. Roll over. Crawl. Stand. Walk. Babies listen and learn. First they mimic, but in time they’ll understand and dialogue. Da-da. Daddy. Daddy hold? Daddy want a cracker?
Piaget called this the sensorimotor period because it’s primarily physical in nature. Infants touch everything (and nearly everything they handle is seen, heard, smelled, or tasted). Babies experience their world and, due to primitive memory, rely more upon emotions than facts. Erikson suggested that infants experience the crisis of trust vs. mistrust. In other words, they fight to find faith in primary caregivers. This explains why some nursery babies cry for their mothers. It’s a positive sign. Infants cry for consolation, and unless they trust the environment, their screams will intensify.
For babies and toddlers, faith is a feeling. Consequently, faith development is forged through powerful, positive, and personal spiritual experiences. Learning is through the senses. When my son Ryan was a baby, a nursery teacher impressed me. She sang to the infants as they patted a big Bible: “I love to pat the Bible, the Bible…it’s God’s Word to me.” As a parent, that became a prayer for my boy.
Parental involvement is crucial at this age. In fact, churches miss a family ministry opportunity by resisting or preventing parents from participating in the nursery. What if parents were encouraged to serve one Sunday a month (or more) as a volunteer (while their child was in the nursery)? Faith development requires a home connection.
The primary venue for babies’ faith development is the church nursery. It’s the breeding ground for future spiritual attitudes. Consequently, it should be a safe, secure place that elicits a baby’s trust. How does it look? Babies love large, colorful visuals and toys. Is it a loud place (crying babies set off other babies)? Is it staffed with volunteers who view nursery duty as ministry more than baby-sitting? Is there a basic baby curriculum? Are infants viewed as spiritual learners?
B Is for Bonds (Ages 3-6)
Preschoolers love life, and they have healthy self-concepts. Ask them about their intelligence, and nearly all will rank themselves as geniuses. Ask them about their futures, and you’ll find dreams of doctor or firefighter mingled with Superman and Spy Kids. Invite them to use their talents, and preschoolers will happily draw, sculpt, construct, dance, dialogue, sing, or mimic. Preschoolers also seek connection—in the family, at Sunday school, and with God.
Cognitively, Piaget outlined the preschool years as preoperational. Simply, their minds now use symbols, classifications, numbers, and cause/effect. A preschooler no longer needs to touch (like an infant) to understand. But his mental abilities remain rather primitive. Consequently, preschool teachers can easily and unintentionally invoke faith commitments young children don’t understand.
Because preschoolers can converse, they enjoy stories and religious traditions. Fowler calls this the intuitive/projective stage of faith. It’s perception and production—and it’s easily manipulated. Preschoolers will perceive story (even myth) to be fact. And they will “intuitively project” their faith (for example, to Santa Claus or the tooth fairy). It’s the fantasy stage of faith, and it’s formed by trusting older models (whether parent, pastor, or teacher). My wife entered kindergarten believing a horse was a cow (because her father, in a humorous moment, taught this silly idea). She later learned otherwise, but it created a new problem. Who should she trust—parent or teacher?
Morality is parent-based. Mom and/or Dad reflect God. Consequently, this period is one of relationship and bonding. Many preschoolers can form insipid, faulty God-views if their dads are aloof, absent, or abusive. Preschool teachers can correct negative views and connect positive relational models.
Erikson labeled the preschool years as a crisis of initiative vs. guilt. In these can-do years, preschoolers are excited and enticed to do everything. Consequently, church preschool teachers must model kingdom values such as grace, community, love, service, and worship. The preschool years are ripe to teach prayer and mission. It’s the opportunity to communicate connection to the church—not as a building, but as a body; not as a facility, but as a face.
Erikson further theorized that preschoolers who learn they can’t, will sense guilt. Guilty children are easily manipulated and managed. Hungering for belonging, they’ll pray for salvation or be baptized long before they’re ready or truly understand. Fear and guilt can follow children throughout life (causing many adults to live as emotional cripples).
Ultimately, a preschool faith is “fitting in” or belonging. The home-church connection is important. Unfortunately, preschool teachers must also minister in spite of family dysfunctions at times. Consequently, do your preschool workers model Christ? church values? kingdom principles? Do they teach preschoolers faith commitments (prayer, service, sacrifice) or fear and guilt (using bribes, intimidation, or manipulation)?
Developmental experts believe the first six years mark a child for life. By age 7, the “personality” mold has been cast. And faith—while still premature—has formed enough to guide future