How a child develops is a complex wonder. There are so many variables like family history, environment, peers, location and more that play a special role in the formation of a child. Here are three factors you can zone in on and leverage as you train up children to be fantastic citizens and faithful followers of Jesus.
I was intrigued recently with the motor development section of Laura Berk’s book entitled, Development Across the Lifespan, as I am running a games event at my church over March break. It’s been a memorable event that uses a lot of gross-motor skills along with some fine-motor. A few quotes caught my attention:
“[Games with rules]…contribute greatly to emotional and social development.” (296)
“[Child invented games]…permit children to try out different styles of cooperating, competing, winning and losing with little personal risk.” (296)
“…these experiences help children construct more mature concepts of fairness and justice.” (296)
There seems to be a bit of a debate over competition and cooperation in games. I’ve particularly noticed two different approaches from the camps of Group Publishing (Thom and Joani Schultz) and Roger Fields (of Kidz Blitz). On one side, there seem to be the people that avoid competition saying it can hurt self-esteem or cause hurt feelings or create the undesirable feel of winners and losers. On the other side, I find people who would say competition is helpful for building up confidence and that positive attitudes and character development can be learned whether a winner or a loser. I would tend to lean towards a good mix of both. I think a child should not be crushed emotionally because they lost a game, but also that they ought to be taught how to handle difficulties with a right attitude. I also find the connection to justice very intriguing as it seems the evangelical world is talking a lot about social justice these days. I’m feeling some teaching points coming on for the games event! And not only that, but giving kids opportunities to use their bodies promotes healthy living.
I think too often the church disconnects emotional/social issues from the teaching of theology. The church can engage families with emotional and social instruction that is theologically driven. Kids need to know how to relate to God and others and how to control their feelings. “[Children] increasingly prefer verbal strategies…to crying, sulking or aggression.” (Berk, 336) The church should be able to equip families with Biblical and self-regulating approaches to dealing with nitty gritty and day-to-day stuff. How many people hear things like rejoice, but have no idea what that looks like or what about being slow to anger? And then there’s friendship pieces (340-342). Many people don’t know how to handle difficult relationships or how to build quality friendships. So understanding peer acceptance and children who are neglected or rejected by others is not something we should gloss over in our discussions with families. I see the church taking on a larger role including “coaching, modeling, and reinforcing positive social skills…” (342). But more than offering mere social skills–offering transformational relationships!
I’m not sure what I think of putting stages into faith as outlined in another book I’ve been reading called, Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey, by Catherine Stonehouse. It can be helpful, but I want to avoid putting structure on Holy Spirit work (see John 3 and particularly v.8). I do agree that we need to be sensitive to what children can understand at their various stages of development. Genuine faith may not even be really present in the child who talks about God and knows Bible stories. So terms are important too. If we’re talking about faith in a way that describes a person’s understanding about God then let’s be clear that it’s not saving faith or use a different word. Saving faith includes a change of heart leading to righteousness. This, I think, is difficult to gauge in young children, but becomes increasingly evident as they age.
Understanding development will help in our instruction of faith. As children are concrete thinkers, talking about “Jesus in your heart” may be understood by the child the wrong way. Consider the example of the child who claimed Jesus had moved down to his foot (Stonehouse, 154). So if a child says, “I have Jesus in my heart,” I don’t necessarily think that’s a cause for great celebration. It could be and it is likely a significant step forward, but many factors should be considered such as age and further explanations from the child as to what they mean, along with demonstrations in the future that they want what God wants and live the way he wants.
How can you use these three factors to help you in the development of the children you serve?