Consistent Love & Discipline: Reflections on the Bible and Childhood Development, Part 3

In late Spring,  I introduced a series of posts where I began to record my reflections on the Bible and early childhood development. The first stage was the infancy stage (from birth to 24 months). A few weeks later, I wrote about the toddler stage (from 18 months to age 3). Today, I'm going to finish this series with some reflections on preschoolers (age 3-5)

Pushing Limits: Erickson's Initiative vs. Guilt Stage

Preschool children are “little scientists.” They are pushing limits. They experiment with life to see what will happen. As they do, children move from knowing basic truths to exploring how the world fits together. One healthy way preschool children explore the world is by using their imaginations. As a child grows from age two toward age seven, he moves from literal interpretations of objects to understanding symbols. By five, he’s exploring the difference between fantasy play—elaborate stories and imaginary friends—and reality. A preschool child's boundaries expand her relationships too. She moves from parallel play—playing near a friend but not with a friend— to associative play. A young two year-old may sit next to a friend while both color or play with blocks. By age four, that same little girl's relational horizons have expanded. She may say to a friend, “You be the mommy and I’ll be the baby,” or, “You be the store man and I’ll come buy some food.”

As preschoolers push their limits, they will sometimes do so in defiance of their parents. Kids experience guilt and frustration when their desire to explore new things or express their own initiative is unfulfilled. Sometimes—such as when a child is blatantly disobedient—the feeling of guilt is appropriate. But it's important that parents don't institute so many restrictions that a child's curiosity is discouraged. Erikson said that “guilting” a child might paralyze a child and keep them from appropriate action. If a child is immobilized by guilt, they will not feel the freedom to branch out on their own. 

Adults shouldn't let a child do anything he wants, but we should have an encouraging attitude toward the child’s God-given desire to know and explore. Parents need to learn encouraging ways to say, “No.” For example, “I’m glad you want to dig in the dirt. But now is not the time. We’ll plan another time that you can do that," or, “This is not a good place to dig. Here’s a better place.” Giving a young child chores is another helpful way to channel a child's initiative and help communicate that the child has a purpose in the world and in his family.

The Test of Imitation: Will I Fear God and Obey His Voice?

When God  gave Adam the creation mandate (Gen. 1:28-30), he gave his son an opportunity to explore and take initiative as the first scientist and under-shepherd over all creation. Adam classified every animal, and he named every one (Gen. 2:19-20). But God didn't let Adam explore without limits. He also gave the first man a warning to protect him: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

Adam and Eve were faced with a choice. Would they fear God and obey his voice? Satan tempted Eve to presume that God wouldn’t follow through on punishing her disobedience. “You will not surely die,” he hissed (Gen. 3:4). The snake wanted Eve to believe that sin had no consequences. It only spoke about what she would gain and avoided mentioning what she would lose in the process. When the man and woman rebelled, their eyes were indeed opened (Gen. 3:7), and they obtained knowledge belonging to God as the serpent had promised (Gen. 3:22). But, though the man and woman did not die immediately, they were assigned to death soon enough. The expulsion from the garden shows us they’d died spiritually. Although they became like God in one way, they were cut off from eternal life. They were burdened with guilt (Gen. 3:7). Adam couldn’t bear it so he shifted blame (Gen. 3:12). It put him in a straight-jacket so he could no longer move forward with God's original commission. 

This is the essence of the imitation test. Will we follow God's voice and imitate his purposes? Or will we presume that God will not follow-through with his warnings? Guilt is our controlling emotion and foolishness is our vice when we do not learn to fear God. 

The Primal Effects of Sin

of my situation or place

of who I am

over what I've done.

They hide (Gen. 3:8-10)

They make coverings (Gen. 3:7)

They shift blame (Gen. 3:12)

How Do We Help Preschoolers Grow in BOTH Initiative and Obedience?  

Here are three ways parents can imitate the Father's love and discipline with Adam as we seek to cultivate both initiative and obedience in our preschoolers.

  • Be consistent. Children need simple rules that are consistently enforced. The goal is that they will be held accountable appropriately when they are guilty of rebellion. In this way, parents represent the justice of God to their children, and they demonstrate the seriousness and weight of rebellion against a holy God.
  • Appeal to their conscience. Use phrases like, "“Jesus is sad when we disobey him.” Between ages 3-5, children develop an observable conscience. Preschoolers still depend on rules (and the enforcement of those rules) to guide them in knowing and choosing what’s right and what’s wrong. But by appealing to the child's conscience in these early years, we can help our kids form an internal sense of right and wrong that will stay with them when the rules are removed.  
  • Appeal to the joy found in exploring the world God's way. Jesus said, "If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love... I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete" (John 15:10-11). We need to help kids understand that life works best and we experience joy when we follow God's commands.  I've heard parents say, "Kids need to respect authority. They don't always need a reason." That may be true. Certainly I want my daughters to jump at my word if they are in immanent danger. However, regularly giving them the reasons helps them to own God’s loving purposes (and even their parents' loving purposes) for themselves.

Satan tempted Jesus a third time, saying, “Throw yourself down” (Matt. 4; Luke 4:9-12). Again, Jesus responds with Scripture.  Jesus fears God the Father and refuses to make his own way apart from God (Deut. 6:16-17). Demanding miraculous protection as proof of God’s care was wrong. The appropriate attitude is fearing God and stepping into mission and joy with him by keeping his commandments. 

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. 

Growing to Trust: Reflections on the Bible and Childhood Development, Part 1

If you've worked with kids for any time at all, you've probably had this experience--you walk into the nursery and see a familiar child, but she has changed since you last met. The words are out of your mouth almost before you think them: "Wow, you've grown!" It's a common experience because the changes come so rapidly in early childhood.

Yesterday, I introduced this new series where I'm recording my reflections on the Bible and early child development. The first stage we're going to consider is the infancy stage (from birth to 24 months). Tiny babies are changing at a rapid pace. Early in this stage, a baby will suck his thumb and recognize his mother but really nothing else in his environment. But after four months or so, the child begins to recognize that there is stuff outside of himself. So, a child will touch soft things or squeeze a toy. The more the child grows, the more he begins to be interested in things and explore his environment. By 18 months, children develop object permanence, beginning now to look around for hidden objects. They'll begin to imitate or make representations of things they have seen—like waving “Hi” or “Bye.” Before they've even reached age 2, these babes are able to work simple combinations in their mind: “I can put down the bucket to pick up the toy.” Pretend play begins. The child will rock a doll and tuck it into bed. And kids begin to see an object not only as what it is but also as what it could be--so for example, a toy block is used as a telephone. Piaget called this the young scientist stage; children begin to do little experiments as they explore their environments.

Erikson’s “Trust vs. Mistrust” stage

New parents are thrilled with seeing their babes soak up life and learn new skills. But it's easy to miss the way they learn. Infants perceive life through an emotional grid--not a logical one. So what a child most needs at this stage is his parent’s loving and attentive care. Karyn Henley reminds us, “When the infant is hungry, we feed him. When he’s cold, we wrap him in a blanket. When his diaper is wet, we put a clean diaper on him. He learns that he can trust us to take care of him." Eric Erikson called this the "Trust vs. Mistrust" stage. As a child learns to trust, he has hope: hope that his needs will be met, hope that even though he is momentarily uncomfortable, everything will work out all right, because there is someone taking care of him.

Erikson was one of the first to observe that some developmental difficulties can be traced to children not coming to see that the world is a safe place. Today psychologists confirm that the quality and character of the emotional programming we received early in life establishes a pattern that can control our relationships later on. Rich Plass and Jim Cofield remind us that children must know their primary caregivers are both available and reliable. When caregivers are consistently unavailable, a child learns to avoid trusting others. When caregivers are consistently unreliable, a child can grow to be deeply insecure. 

The test of intimacy: Can I trust I'll be loved and protected?

Parents' tender, available, and consistent care for their children is supposed to mirror God the Father's care for his people. Think about it. Adam is God’s son. Our first parents were made in his likeness (Genesis 1:26). This means they are his beloved children. Their identity is grounded in an intimate relationship--one that God kept with loyal love. God loved and cared for Adam perfectly. He provided Adam with everything he needed—a place to live (Genesis 2:8), food (Genesis 1:29, 2:9), water (Genesis 2:10-14), responsibility (Genesis 2:15, 1:28), boundaries for his protection (Genesis 2:16-17), and companionship (Genesis 2:18, 21-25). God shows this same kind of intimacy and love to every child from conception (Psalm 139:13-18).

But it wasn't long before a spiritual battle began for Adam's soul. It's a battle that begins for our kids even before they leave the nursery. When Satan came into the garden, he questioned God’s intimate love: "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden' (Genesis 3:1-3)? The snake questioned God’s motivation with the subtle “really.” And, by broadening the prohibition, “not eat from any,” he paints a picture of God as more strict than he really is. Satan raised doubts in the woman’s mind about God’s love and care. And the woman took the bait. Even though she corrected the snake, her own version of God’s prohibition in her response (Genesis 3:2) demonstrates she’d misunderstood God’s loving intention. First, she omits God’s statement that they were “free to eat from any tree in the garden except…” which had placed God’s prohibition in the context of liberality. Second, she identified the tree according to its location rather than its significance, which made God's prohibition seem arbitrary rather than a boundary given given for protection. She referred to God with the generic term like Satan had done rather than using LORD, his intimate covenant name. That shows us she wasn't conscious of her relationship with him in that moment. Finally, she added the phrase “you must not touch it,” which made God's prohibition more stringent and strict that it was when God gave it. Even with a perfectly available and consistent Father, Eve failed to trust. 

How do we help infants learn to trust?

Seeing the way Satan tested humanity in its infancy should be a warning to parents. We have a huge responsibility to show our children they are really loved and can trust our reliable and available care. But how can we do it? Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Be Affectionate & Available —The first representation a child has of God is their parents and regular caregivers. When a child can feel attached to a loving parent, this can help them later develop attachment to and intimacy with a loving God. This is a practical outworking of the biblical truth “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). It's important for parents to show affection through appropriate physical touch, eye contact, and focused attention.  
  • Seeds of FaithDr. Brent Bounds encourages parents to introduce infants to God in very simple ways. We teach infants, “I’m taking care of you. God takes care of you.” “I love you. Jesus loves you.” We can point out God’s good creation—his loving provision for us. When an infant eats a banana, we say, “God made the banana.” When he smells a flower, we say, “The Lord made this flower.” When he feels the rain sprinkle down on him, we say, “God made the rain.” At first, the infant does not know the word “God” or the covenant names “Jesus” or “Lord” but he sees, smells, touches, tastes, and hears the world our Lord made. So we begin to make the connection for him.
  • Constancy—Infants are developing skills that will help them to trust that our Creator is good and unchanging in his love and care. Your ability to believe and trust God that he will be there for you even when you can’t see him was developed before 18 months (object permanence). It's not easy. Parents can lose a lot of sleep when a baby comes, and battling our own avoidant or emotionally erratic habits can be really difficult, especially when we're tired. But a maturing parent pursues consistency and unchanging unconditional love.

We teach trust by trusting ourselves

Finally, parents of infants can remember their hope is in the Father's loving care. We teach trust by trusting God ourselves. When Jesus had been fasting for forty days in the wilderness, the devil confronted him in the midst of his hunger (Matthew 4:2-3; Luke 4:3-4): "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Satan challenged the Savior to act apart from faithful dependence upon God and all God ordains for his provision. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 in response: "Man doesn't live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." In the original setting, Moses was reminding Israel that during their forty years in the desert God was testing them. He allowed them to be hungry and gave them manna so they might learn that people don't merely need bread but God's constant, sustaining word. Sometimes we quote those words as if Jesus was talking about having good theology, that is, knowing the right Bible verses for each and every situation. But Jesus (like Moses before him) was talking about a deep trust in God’s goodness. Our lives are sustained by God's every word--his constant care. The only way to give our kids the availability and reliability they need is to remember that is what God has first given to us.

Even during the infancy stage, when you're worn out from midnight feedings and constant diaper changes, you can rest in what God ordains. What he brings about is for your good. Trust in what he provides. That's the pathway toward teaching our children to trust as well.

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.