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.