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Supporting Your Child�s Spiritual Development

    Every parent can observe that children pass through stages of development: physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. Psychologists and other researchers have documented these stages of development scientifically through careful studies of children, and their abilities at various ages. Less well known is similar work showing that children also go through stages of moral and spiritual development. These stages are tied to the development of cognitive and conceptual abilities, which are in turn dependent on the maturation of the brain. These stages have practical implications regarding how and what a child can be taught at a particular age.

    Dr. James Fowler, a theologian who became a researcher of developmental psychology, studied all the major theories of child and adult development and incorporated them into a framework for understanding the development of faith. We begin from birth to about age 1 � with the pre-stage which he calls �Undifferentiated faith.� Here the major task of the infant and the parent is to establish a sense of trust and mutuality; which is essential both for the physical survival of the child, and for its later psychological and social development. By expressing love and support and providing for the infant�s needs, the parent is encouraging in the child a bias toward trust, hope, and courage, instead of fear and apprehension.

    All of this has to be communicated non-verbally, and some of us have difficulty accessing those skills that are mostly unpracticed in the adult world, with the spontaneity and genuineness that is necessary to connect with an infant. I remember that holding and feeding my granddaughter, who is now three, was the first time I felt able to connect with an infant in a profound way. Our gender roles are changing, yet this is still a challenging area for many men. Perhaps by better understanding the importance of what is being communicated, we will be encouraged to dig deeper for that lost child within us. In my view, the key lessons that apply to infancy as well as to the later stages are:

  • Age-appropriate Communication � This is obvious in infancy, but may be forgotten in the heat of the moment once your child is speaking.
  • Compassion, not just behavior � Just as infancy is not just about feeding and diapering, interactions with your older child is not just about obedience and other actions, but about also learning compassion.
  • Modeling, not just telling � In teaching children about Godliness, our major challenge as parents is to model that behavior in characteristics such as patience, compassion, humility and love, particularly when dealing with conflict and the need to discipline. In the situation of infancy discussed above, it is difficult to communicate trust and hope non-verbally, when what we are experiencing is anxiety and frustration. So being aware of and dealing with our own emotions in interaction with our children is one of our major teaching tools.
  • Opportunity � Although it�s not just about activity and behavior, engaging in activities and behaviors provide the opportunity for your child to do by imitation and direction, what he or she can later do out of love and compassion.
  • Maturation � While you as a parent are very important to your child�s development, much frustration and despair can be avoided by realizing that a major part of development involves maturation; that is, it happens with time and cannot be hurried by parental effort.

    With this in mind, let�s look at the other stages of faith development in Dr. Fowler�s theory. From about age two to age six, children go through what Dr. Fowler calls the Intuitive-Projective stage of faith. He calls it that because at this stage children are very verbal, but their ability to use logic and understand cause and effect is limited. Because they are unable to compare two different perspectives on the same object, they operate primarily from one perspective, their own. This puts some limits on their ability to experience true empathy, and a sense of justice.

    Dr. Fowler used a moral dilemma (originally created by the earlier development psychologist Jean Piaget) to demonstrate the limited moral reasoning of a child of age four. The child is told about two children who spill some milk. The first child spills the milk accidentally and makes a very big mess. The second child is angry about not being allowed a second helping of cake, and spills the milk intentionally, but makes only a small mess. When asked which child is more at fault, the four year old names the child who made the bigger mess, even though it was an accident.

    Because of their limited ability to accurately conceptualize reality, children in the Intuitive-Projective stage are vulnerable to powerful fears and fantasies. They are also apparently hard at work constructing a rudimentary theology. Dr. Ana-Maria Rizzuto found despite secularization of our society, religious symbols are pervasive enough in the media and our communities that almost all children have an image or images of God by the time they reach school age. I have observed how responsive young children can be to the images and stories from the Bible, and rituals such as praying and singing praises to God.

    Dr. Fowler describes the next stage, which covers approximately between age seven and adolescence as Mythic-Literal faith: �Mythic-Literal faith is the stage in which the person begins to take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community. Beliefs are appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning.� Children at this age are now able to take another�s perspective and have a firm grasp of fairness and justice based on reciprocity. They are deeply affected by, and can also re-tell and formulate long and detailed narratives. What they cannot do very well is to step back from a concrete story and reflect on its conceptual meaning.

    As children move beyond their immediate families as their sources of guidance and knowledge, it is important that parents ensure that their children have the opportunity to include religion as a central part of their expanding world view, and not just become little empiricists and hedonists; which are the dominant philosophies that they will receive from mass media and even from school. I have observed that children can be as enthusiastic about bible study, and singing and dancing to religious videos as they are about secular entertainment activities. If the activities and media are age- and culture appropriate, and the parents, grandparents or other responsible adults demonstrate by modeling the important of religious ideas and activities in their daily lives, the children will incorporate it.

    Initially, it may be the social nature of the activity and other immediate rewards rather than the content that attracts the children. I rather suspect that a large part of the motivation for the interest of children at my church in Bible study is the socializing and play between Bible stories and the candy treats that the teacher gives out, but being present creates the opportunity for learning that can later become transformative. I can still remember as a child in Sunday school, being powerfully affected by the story of Samuel hearing God calling to him when he was a child.

    Although the concepts of maturity and adolescence may seem at variance, it does appear that the physical brain does mature at least in its cognitive ability during this age. Dr. Fowler describes the Synthetic-Conventional stage of faith as beginning with adolescence. This is the time when the brain is able to perform the cognitive operations of an adult, specifically the ability to analyze a situation and form and test a variety of hypothetical solutions to a problem. On the other hand, the adolescent is bombarded by the challenges preliminary to entry into adulthood, which have been described by psychologist Erik Erikson as constituting an identity crisis.

    The adolescent has a deep hunger for meaning, to be part of a community or group, and at the same time, a desperate need to differentiate him- or herself from others (especially parents) as a unique individual. According to Dr. Fowler�s research, adolescence is when the person has the ability to understand and participate in a religious faith in the conventional sense. But it can also be a time of great skepticism, despair, and experimentation with hedonism. By providing the teenage a consistent model of real-life faith, the parent can provide an anchor during the storm of adolescence. The child may rebel against it and do the opposite, but it provides a source of stability to which he or she will usually return.

    The challenge is to be firm and compassionate, but neither rigid and authoritarian nor weak and vacillating; in a word, to be Christ-like. Dealing positively with all of the frustration, anger and fear that an adolescent in crisis can generate in a parent is probably the way to best help the child to make it safely through the storm. They key lessons in my view again are:

  • Age-appropriate Communication � This does not mean accepting obscenity, or trying to learn adolescent slang. It means understanding that your child is approaching adulthood, and encouraging responsible independence; providing limits when necessary, but always working to toward having the teenager make good decisions independently.
  • Compassion, not just behavior � Remember that while you want your teenager to stay out of trouble, you do not want to force him or her to become an overly conformist and unoriginal person, a perfect victim for authoritarian bullies. The goal is to learn compassion and a sense of justice, and to develop the capability of a deep, enduring and thoughtful faith that can overcome skepticism and despair.
  • Modeling, not just telling �Being aware of, and dealing constructively with, your own emotions in interaction with your children is one of your major teaching tools.
  • Opportunity � Although it�s not just about activity and behavior, engaging in activities and behaviors provide the opportunity for your child to do by imitation and direction, what he or she can later do out of love and compassion.
  • Maturation � While you as a parent are very important to your child�s development, much frustration and despair can be avoided by realizing that a major part of development involves maturation; that is, it happens with time and cannot be hurried by parental effort. This is also true of adolescence, despite its sometimes apparent desperation and urgency.

    � Bernard Brookes, Ph.D.

    Dr. Bernard Brookes is President of BHM International, Inc. and co-founder and former Executive Director of Center for Health and Development, a mental health service agency in Massachusetts. Dr. Bernard Brookes is a musician, president of the Health Ministry, and a trustee at Poplar Grove Baptist Church in Maryland. Prior to working independently, Dr. Brookes was affiliated with Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital as a Clinical Fellow in Psychology, and is a member of the American Psychological Association. He is author of the book God, Self & Community, and a music CD with the same title.

    Visit Dr. Brookes at www.bhm.com.