Identity & Shame: Reflections on the Bible and Childhood Development, Part 2

I often need reminding how much I can benefit from another person's perspective. We're all a bit egocentric. But have you ever played hide and seek with a toddler? 

You announce, "Go hide!" Then a 2 year-old quickly shuts his eyes and throws his hands over his face. He really thinks that because he can't see himself, you can't see him either. Two weeks ago, I introduced a new series where I'm recording my reflections on the Bible and early child development. The first stage was the infancy stage (from birth to 24 months). Today, I'm going to think through the (slightly overlapping) toddler stage (from 18 months to age 3).

At this age, children are really coming into their own. By 18 months, typically developing toddlers use words, numbers, and even toys to communicate. They'll demonstrate that a picture of a dog,  the printed word “DOG,” and saying the word “dog” all represent a dog. But toddlers aren't just learning how different symbols can "stand for" the same concept. They also manipulate symbols through creative play. An older infant / early toddler might pick up a block and pretend it's a telephone. A three year-old may pretend a set of checkers is a tray of cookies. This is because toddlers are growing in their personal understanding of themselves and their place in the world. By naming things ("This checker is a cookie"), a toddler is saying, "I know what's up. I can make my way." 

Toddlers are so focused on growing as individuals they have trouble "walking in someone else's shoes." That's why playing hide and seek can be so funny. Toddlers are egocentric. They'll often play near other children but not with them in a cooperative way. This is not selfishness necessarily. It's called parallel play, and it's just a matter of developmental perspective. They aren't quite ready to see things from another person's point of view. 

Erickson's "Autonomy vs. Shame" Stage

Erik Erikson called this “Autonomy vs. Shame." When a child starts to use symbols and play creatively, he is saying: “I'm an individual apart from mom and dad. I'm autonomous.” When toddlers are developing appropriately, they are learning many new skills for themselves—walking, talking, and toilet training. They're forming a sense of individual efficacy and a sense of right and wrong. Henley observes, “Two and three year olds want to do things for themselves. To help a child this age develop a sense of autonomy, adults can look for things the child can do on her own. Show the child what she can do: brush her teeth, wash her face, pick up toys, put on Velcro-fastened shoes, and many other things." As a child learns to be independent in these small ways, she feels a sense of pride: “Look what I can do!”

Of course, a sense of autonomy comes with difficulties. Children at this age begin to exert their will. Toddlers quickly learn to say, “No.” This means parents sometimes have to walk the difficult road between affirming their toddler's new skills and teaching him his limitations. After all, there are many things a young child is not capable of doing, and there are many things he is not allowed to do. We must learn to let our kids express their will (and even their anger) but in a respectful way. This is allows them to grow in independence, but within the care and protection of parents.

If a child is not allowed to begin doing things for herself, she will develop an exaggerated sense of shame and self-doubt. The same can happen if she’s constantly critiqued and put down. But, according to Erikson, the child who is able to master new skills and navigate the dialectic of shame and autonomy will acquire the virtue of a confident will.

The Test of Identity: Will I Try to Make Myself or Root MY Identity in God's Story?

When Satan slithered into the garden, he didn't just call God's trustworthiness into question. He tempted Eve to think life apart from God is better than life lived with him. “You will be like God,” he said (Genesis 3:5). Satan wanted the woman to believe that if she took what God prohibited her eyes would be opened. He promised a new awareness about life--“You will be like God, knowing good and evil." He promised her a self-determining will and autonomy. She'd decide for herself what was good and evil. That second temptation is what I call the "identity test." We're all confronted with it. It begins very early. Will I try to make myself? Will I construct my identity by my own self-determination? Or will I root my self-understanding in God's story? 

Eve took Satan's bait. In evaluating the fruit as “good” (compare the refrain, “God saw that it was good” in Genesis 1), she usurped God’s role in determining what is best. “Desirable” is the same word used in the prohibition against covetousness in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:17). Eve supposed the tree’s fruit would get her wisdom, insight, and success without God's help. That's the height of pride. 

But Eve's confidence and self-assertion didn't get her what she wanted. It didn't set her free. When they ate the fruit, our first parents immediately fell into deep shame. Shame is what we feel when we refuse to root our identity in what God says. We feel exposed, because our independence from God always results in emptiness. And it can't be remedied by merely affirming ourselves. That's because real shame isn't just about what we've done. As Christian counselor Mike Wilkerson points out, it's about who we are in relation to God. We must own our our sinful independence and admit that God's point of view is better than our own. The identity he gives us is more true than the identities we try to create for ourselves. Unless we submit to his story, we're hiding behind fig leaves... or maybe just closing our eyes and pretending we can't be seen. 

How Do We Help Toddlers Root Their Identity in God?

Now those who are trained in psychology or education probably think I'm confusing my categories. Erikson made a distinction between a sense of autonomy, which is first experienced during the toddler years, and an understanding of identity, which one discovers in the teenage years.

But my choice is intentional. I want to point out that our identity isn't something we achieve by hitting a new developmental marker. It's discovered and received as a gift. We can help both toddlers and teenagers resolve their shame by helping them root their individuality and identity in the story of God. You see, the only way to deal with our shame is to see Jesus was exposed for it and turn from our selfish autonomy to him. So how can we help toddlers have an identity rooted in God when it's so developmentally difficult for them to see the world from another's perspective? Is there a way? Here are some thoughts:

  • Cultivate joy in learning new skills. There is joy for a toddler in learning a new skill and showing off. Don't squash it. We need to cheer when they go in the potty and dress themselves. Enjoy their skill and uniqueness as God’s creation (Psalm 139:13-18). Laugh with them. But go beyond just praising them. Praise God for them. "I'm so glad God gave you to our family!"
  • Cultivate a sense of wonder. Children are naturally curious. As one pastor says, “Children are created to be dazzled. Our desire as Christians is to bring up a generation of children that are dazzled by God." I would add, "...and by the things he's made." We want our toddlers to be captured by the beauty of God's world. Unplug from your iPhone and pull the plug on PBS Kids and Netflix. Get outside and wonder in the world God made you to enjoy. Play with your kids and receive them as a gift from him.
  • Read them the story. According to child psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, a "narrative" function emerges in children by age 3. Toddlers start making up stories about daily events. Then, as they grow, kids begin to make up stories about themselves. Hearing and telling stories gives kids a sense of rooted identity.  We want their identity to be rooted in the story of the gospel (Psalm 78). So pick up the Jesus Storybook Bible and Ella K. Lindvall's Read Aloud Story Bible and start reading stories to your kids today. 

And one more thing...

Perseverance and Vulnerability: Brokenness is the pathway to wholeness

We can rejoice when our kids learn new skills. We can enjoy playing and reading with them. But seeing them grow to have an identity rooted in Jesus involves more than putting on a happy face. It's one thing to write about how toddlers are "coming into their own," but it's another to live with it. Parents must give their children consistent boundaries. But how do you stay consistent without giving in to infuriating anger--especially when your two year-old keeps pushing the limits again and again?

The devil offered Jesus comfort in the place of suffering endurance: “All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me” (Matthew 4:8-11; Luke 4:5-8). To give in to this temptation would have entailed a redefinition of Jesus' identity. Satan wanted Jesus to take up his sovereign authority while sidestepping the cross. But Jesus knew who he was. He accepted the identity given to him by the Father (Luke 3:22). If he'd avoided the cross, he may have been honored as king, but we could not be saved.

We can remember who we are when we're at our wits end with the "terrible twos." We are God's beloved ones. That's our identity. Jesus loves you--the real, broken you. So press in with perseverance. And when you do give in to anger, be open and confess your sins to your toddler. Our children need to see that it’s possible to be fully known and still fully loved.