Spiritual Development in Pre-Adolescent Children
Growing up in a Christian home has its mix of blessings and curses. The blessings are obviously the security and stability of a family whose foundation is firmly planted in the Word of God. The curses are the problems that come as a result of being swept along the river of the faith of the parents. This paper is written with these problems in mind. For as I deal with considering the faith of the pre-adolescent children of my congregation, and my family, I seek to address the question, “When are children ready to make the faith commitment of their life? My own journey will weigh heavily on the direction of this thesis so let me begin by painting a picture of my experience growing up in the church. As far back as I recall, my family was deeply involved in the life of the church. My father was a church leader. Among my best friends was the son of the church chairman and another was the pastor’s son. We spent much time together both at the church and at each of our homes. Each of our parents played a role in our formative years. This was our extended family.
We were more like cousins than friends, for each of our natural extended families were hundreds of miles away. We were no different from the other kids but the bond we had held us closer to the influence of the church. So when it came to making a decision for Christ, there really was no decision. What other choice was there? So at age five, the three of us responded to the request of our Children’s Chapel teacher and prayed that Jesus would come into our hearts. Was there a change in our lives? No, we were simply following the ‘natural’ order of events for children in the church.
Several years later, when we were twelve, our Sunday School class met in the pastor’s study for baptism and membership class. Again, expectations dictated that by this time in our life it was time to take this step. So one Sunday evening the three of us boys, along with others in our class, stepped into the water and were baptized. Were we demonstrating to the world that we were now dead in our sins and raised into new life in Christ? No, we were following the sequence of events of all the church kids that went before us. It was a right of passage into the next level of life in the church.
Were we forced or coerced into doing this? No, we desired to take these steps because it was the proper thing to do. As I grew in my understanding and faith, I came to resent the actions of the church. I perceived the events as irresponsible and meaningless. I felt that I had been misled and was given a false sense of my position in Christ. I concluded that I was not saved during those early years and I objected to the practice of child evangelism. This state of hostility toward my church lasted for about three years during my late teens as I struggled with my own identity and my relationship with God.
Now I am a father of two children and a leader and a pastor in a congregation. In light of my own spiritual development I am asking the question, “How do I measure a child’s spiritual readiness? ” or more specifically, “How do I know when a child is ready to make a decision for Christ and for baptism? ” So it is with this question in mind that I enter into this study of the development of faith in pre-adolescent children. Psychological Development Theory Those of us who work or live with adolescents know first-hand that they are at once impossible to live with and a joy to have around.
They are moody, critical, combative, and absent-minded; they are also creative, energetic, and impassioned about the world and their place in it. However, research on pre-adolescent development has shown clearly that the surface behaviors of early adolescents provide poor clues as to what is really going on inside them, in their minds and souls. The common perception of students in middle schools is that they are constantly in storm and stress, peer driven, rebellious toward adults, moody, uncommunicative and unpredictable.
Unfortunately, these views are popular myths and have resulted in generations of misunderstanding and inappropriate attention to the needs of 10 to 14 year-olds. Early adolescents are rarely perceived as being deeply thinking, caring and valuing individuals who are greatly influenced by loving adults. They are in the final stages of developing the character and personality that will distinguish them as adults; difficult, serious and personal questions and inquiries into the meaning of life and death are very important, for they play a crucial role in their faith development.
In his theory of cognitive development (Table 1), Jean Piaget put forth the intellectual counterpart of biological adaptation to the environment. He said that as we adapt biologically to our environment, so too we adapt intellectually. Through assimilation, accommodation and rejection, the external world is organized and given structure. Adaptation begins at birth with the exercise of sensori-motor reflexes. Differentiations via reflexes are the first adaptations that are of eventual importance in cognitive development.
As the child develops, the adaptations he makes are increasingly less related to sensory and motor behaviors alone, and may be less clearly seen as adaptations by the untrained eye. Each successive stage is built upon the one before in an accumulating, orderly, sequential and hierarchical manner. Yet the cognitive structures are developed in an invariant sequence. That is, the course of cognitive development, marked by the development of structures, is the same for all children, although the ages at which they attain particular structures may vary with intelligence and the social environment (Piaget and Inhelder, 1969, p. 153).
Erik Erikson, in his theory of psychosocial stages (Table 2), similarly stated that an individual’s personality develops according to predefined steps that are maturationally set. Society is structured in a way that invites and encourages the challenges that arise at these particular times. Each stage presents the individual with a crisis. If a particular crisis is handled well, the outcome is positive. If it is not handled well, the outcome is negative. The resolution of each stage lays the foundation for negotiating the challenges of the next. Lawrence Kohlberg views the development of morality in terms of moral reasoning (Table 3).
The stage of moral reasoning at which people can be placed depends upon the reasoning behind their decisions, not the decisions themselves. He believes that the stages are sequential and that people do not skip stages, although they enter and leave them at varying times. Implications on Spiritual Development Using Piagetian, Eriksonian and Kolbergian theory, James Fowler set out to explain the process of spiritual development in his description of several stages that occur in the development of faith in a person’s lifetime (Table 4). He called the stage of most pre-adolescents to be mythic-literal faith.
This stage is consistent with Piaget’s concrete operational stage and Erikson’s industry vs. inferiority stage. It is at this stage that children develop their sense of position relative to others in the peer group by mastering the academic and social skills. Their individuality is defined by their position in the group. They become less egocentric and begin to understand complex concepts like conservation. The child still has difficulty though with abstract terms such as freedom and liberty. Children at this stage understand the world on a basic concrete level.
Fowler states that most adolescents are at synthetic-conventional faith. This stage correlates to Erikson’s identity vs. role confusion stage and a more mature level of Piaget’s concrete operational stage. They develop a sense of who they are and where they belong. A strong emphasis is placed on being part of the group. There is an even more intense need for conformity and the approval of the community. Their identification and expression of faith are an extension of their family, their church and their peers. During childhood, religious beliefs and behaviors are greatly influenced by one’s parents.
Children tend to imitate their parents’ beliefs and behaviors. In adolescence, however, there is a change and a questioning of many of these religious beliefs. David deVaus looked at the importance of parental influence in relation to religious values and behavior in Australian teenagers. The results showed that, at least for religious activity (behavior), both parents and peers were about equal in importance. However, when asked who had been most influential in development of their religious feelings, the most common answer was the mother (51 percent), followed by father (42 percent).
According to Fowler it is not until a child reaches the next stage, individuative-reflective faith, that individuals begin to assume personal responsibility for their own commitments, life-styles, or beliefs. As this takes place, adolescents are forced to address unavoidable tensions between the person they want to be and what others expect of them. This stage is associated with Erikson’s intimacy vs. isolation and the beginning level of Piaget’s formal operational stage when children begin to develop close interpersonal relationships, showing a willingness to commit to others.
They begin to develop the ability to test hypotheses in a mature, scientific manner and can understand and communicate their positions on complex ethical issues that demand an ability to use the abstract. They can think about thinking — that is they become aware of the processes where by they come to hold a particular opinion. They begin to own the beliefs they hold. They are becoming adults. Understanding the Implications and the Dangers A girl’s body can begin to take on the shape and features of a woman. She can speak with the sophistication associated with adolescence or even adulthood.
Social and legal arrangements can permit new freedoms simply because a person reaches a certain age. But until the evolution of meaning becomes interpersonal, there is a very real sense in which the person is not yet an adolescent. If those around her should mistake physiology, calendar age, or verbal ability for psychological age and expect her to function interpersonally, they create a situation which is dangerous for the developing teenager. In his discussion on the dangers of applying developmental theory to spiritual growth, John Ackerman states that we can make three grave mistakes.
First, we may have a tendency to rank individuals according to their development. Second, we may think that because we have labeled them, we know them. Third, we may take the groupings and define an absolute relationship between psychological and spiritual growth. “We need to know where people are developmentally, but the focus is on God, in the person’s perception of God. ” (Ackerman, 1994, p. 111) I will venture to say that most churches, mine included, proceed with the expectation that chronological age defines spiritual readiness with respect to issues such as faith commitment and baptism.
Within the structure of our institutions we have rituals that are performed, with some regularity, with children entering puberty. The Jewish Bar Mitzvah, Catholic and Lutheran Confirmation, and Baptist and Brethren Baptism are examples of ordinances that the church observes when children have reached their pre-teen years. Tradition dictates that at this age a child is ready to begin the transition to adulthood. They need to begin taking the faith they have been taught since infancy and make it their own. But are our children really ready for such a step?
Do they really understand the steps they are taking? The most common argument I hear in favor of child conversion are based on verses like the following: At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Matt 11:25 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matt 18:3 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Matt 19:14 Reasoning that God accepts the faith of a child, parents and teachers do their best to help the child to make these life decisions. But unfortunately, in the well-intentioned adults attempt to ‘hurry up and save the children from eternal damnation,” they have misunderstood the concept Jesus was teaching. Taken in their proper context we see that Jesus’ teachings were pointing not to the childish faith as being the characteristic he was seeking, but to the humility and trust of a child as being the characteristic he was seeking in his followers.
This teaching is not for the children but for the adults to follow. At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? ” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.
But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Matt 18:1-6 In each case where Jesus speaks of the faith of a child he is using this attitude to offset the tendency for his followers to become proud and self-sufficient. We need to see how helpless we really are without God and how our faith must grow out of trust rather than our achievements. So how then do we assess our children’s readiness to make these life changing decisions?
We need to consider each child as an individual and measure their spiritual readiness based upon their understanding of who God is and what he has done for them. Faith is a response to a need and if the child does not perceive the reality of the need then there cannot be true faith. Measuring Spiritual Readiness During a recent Texas Baptist evangelism conference held in Fort Worth, leaders of a “Bring the Children to Jesus” workshop said “Children should come to Jesus just like grown-ups – freely. Parents should neither push them into premature professions of faith nor neglect their spiritual nurture. “Teach parents that they have a responsibility to God in the stewardship of their children’s spiritual development,” said Karen Cavin, minister of childhood education at Mimosa Lane Baptist Church, Mesquite, Texas, who led the workshop with Wayne Shuffield Jr. , pastor of Royal Haven Baptist Church, Dallas, and co-author of “Bring the Children to Jesus,” a resource published by the Baptist General Convention of Texas evangelism division. The gospel plan of salvation can be explained in terms an older child – a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-grader – can easily understand, they noted.
Realize children think in literal terms, so avoid figurative language, they suggested. Shuffield and Cavin advised parents and church leaders to look for signs of readiness in children such as: – Questions. Listen carefully to a child’s questions about spiritual matters. “If the child is asking who the guy was that climbed the sycamore tree, he’s probably just asking for factual information about Zaccheus,” Shuffield said. “Just because you know the verse follows about the Son of Man coming to ‘seek and save that which was lost,’ don’t assume the child is making that leap. On the other hand, if a child begins to ask serious questions about sin, death and eternity, that could be a sign the Holy Spirit is drawing the child. Explore the level of interest and understanding by asking probing, open-ended questions, not queries that could be answered “yes” or “no. ” – Focus. Watch for a child who suddenly becomes focused on religious instruction. Unusual attentiveness in Sunday school or during worship could be a signal a child is ready to make a faith commitment. – Behavioral changes.
Anything from a sudden interest in Bible-reading to expressions of guilt over wrongdoing at home could mean God is working in a child’s heart. Shuffield said that while some young children genuinely are converted, that is the exception, not the rule. Pastors, teachers and parents can help young children by distinguishing between the natural desire of a child to express love for Jesus and the life-changing decision of receiving him as Lord and Savior. At another workshop, “Children’s Church – A New Way,” leaders suggested a combination of small-group sessions, self-guided activities and large-group time for children’s worship.
Life development pastor Charlie McAllister and children’s worship leader Karen Lewis from the Houston-area Fellowship of The Woodlands said they incorporate lively music with “a lot of hand motions,” drama and secular videos with spiritual applications into their “Adventure Zone” children’s church service. “We make it fun for the kids,” Lewis said. “Kids tell their parents, ‘I want to go back to that church where they sing, dance and have donut holes. ’” “We try not to make it like school,” McAllister said. “We want it to be fun.
We involve the kids in worship. Our goal is to raise up a generation of worshipers. Kids learn by doing. There’s no altar call and no scare tactics. We let the Holy Spirit convict. ” Conclusion Taking the information presented by developmental psychology one might conclude that pre-adolescent children are simply not capable of making a decision for Christ. Maturationally speaking they have not developed the cognitive tools they need to come to this decision. Their thinking processes are still governed by mythical, literal understanding of their environment.
They are more interested in fitting into the group than making individual decisions. But this conclusion would be flawed. Indeed John Ackerman states that most adults within the church would possibly fall into this same category. Rather, when we look more closely at the evidence we come to the conclusion that there is no magical age at which a child suddenly becomes able to understand spiritual matters. It seems quite clear that the only way to assess the spiritual readiness of a child is on an individual basis. And the real problem exists not with the children but the adults who are trying to teach them.
In our sometimes over-zealous attempts to bring children to a decision for Christ we forget what that decision is. First, it is the job of the Holy Spirit to convict the heart of the individual, to open their eyes to the truth, to help them understand the eternal significance of the decision. Only God knows when the time is right but we can watch for the signs to know when to open the Word to these children. Second, tradition and ritual can be quite meaningful in helping us define our relationship with God, but it cannot create that relationship.
Only through teaching and discipleship can a child begin to define his or her own relationship with God. It is through good biblical teaching that the child will understand why he needs the relationship and through godly Christian modeling that the child will understand how he develops that relationship. In many ways our traditions have made it so much easier to deal with issues pertaining to the spiritual development of children. They define the quantifiable standard and make the decision easy. They excuse us from the difficult job of working closely with each individual, to assess her specific spiritual needs.