Reflections on the Bible and Childhood Development, An Introduction

Over a half-century ago, Erik Erikson (1902-1994), the German-born psychologist and neo-Freudian psychoanalyst proposed eight major psychosocial stages - The Eight Ages of Man - through which he understood every person to pass as they grow. 

Unless you have a degree in education, you might be surprised to discover that Erikson's observations about human growth and development (along with those of his Swiss counterpart Jean Piaget) still shape the basic age divisions and learning expectations for most preschool curricula today. That most likely includes the toddler and preschool curriculum you use in children's ministry at your church. 

That's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm thankful for the work of psychologists like Erikson and Piaget. They've made a lot of true observations about children and how they develop. We should humbly accept many of their observations and accommodate them into our understanding of childhood.  At the same time, I acknowledge that these men didn't begin with a biblical worldview, so we can expect that their presuppositions have led to some false and even sinful conclusions. Over the next several weeks, I'm going to look at the first three of Erikson's eight stages of human development - the three stages that cover birth to age 5 - and provide some biblical reflections on his observations.

But before we jump into the first stage, it's important to understand a bit of Erikson's approach. Each of Erikson's eight stages is marked by a conflict between two extremes - for example his first stage is Trust vs. Mistrust and the second Autonomy vs. Shame. Each of these crisis periods, if navigated successfully, resolves around an important event (Autonomy vs. Shame resolves around potty training) and results in the attainment of new skills and virtues. Erikson's research suggests that every growing human must learn how to hold both extremes of their current life-stage challenge in tension. Both Trust and Mis-trust must be understood and accepted in order for realistic Hope to emerge as a virtue at the first stage. Only when both are understood and accepted as required and useful can the optimal virtue for that stage surface.

In my view, as children grow and develop, they do encounter crises as Erikson envisioned. But I understand these “crises” to be Satanic in nature. Yes, Satan is after our kids at every stage of development. In fact, I believe Erikson's first three stages are parallel to three tests/temptations that Adam and Eve encountered in the garden (Genesis 3:1-8) and that Jesus encountered in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)—challenges to:

  • Intimacy (a child's relationship with God and others)
  • Identity (a child's self-understanding before God and others)
  • Imitation (a child's willful actions toward God and others)

On Wednesday, we'll jump into the first stage. Come back and share your reflections as we consider what's going on in the early spiritual development of children and how we can be intentional about loving and growing with our kids.