Being raised up in a spiritually oriented family has its mix of blessings and curses. The blessings are certainly the security and stability of a family whose foundation is strongly well 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. I am writing this paper with intentions of highlighting the readers with these problems in mind. As one deal with considering the faith of the pre-adolescent children from within the congregation or from the family prospective, one ought to ask the question, “When are children ready to make the faith commitment of their life?” Therefore, before I draw my ideas from other various sources, I would like to start with a personal experience of a friend of mind whom I came to know during my basic combat training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and whom we are stationed together in Camp Robinson, North Little Rock.
Andrew is chaplain assistance for my army unit and my close battle buddy whom I thought would be a best candidate to interview for my research paper. Based on his responses to my curiosity about his spiritual life, he informed me that his family was deeply involved in the life of the church way before he was born. His father was a church leader. Among his best friends, was the son of the church chairman and another was the pastor’s son. According to Andrew, he spent much of his time with his friends both at the church and at each other’s homes. Each of their parents played a role in their 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,” he said with a serious look on his face.
He went further by saying that they were no different from the other kids, but evidently the bond that they had, held them closer to the influence of the church. “So, when it came to making a decision for Christ, there really was no decision,” he said. In the case of Andrew, one is left to believe they had no other choice other than go with the flow. So, as early as the age of five, the three of the best friends would respond to the request of their children’s chapel teacher and prayed that Jesus would come into their hearts without having a firm cognitive sense of their prayers. Was there a change in their lives? No, they were simply following the ‘natural’ order of events for children in the church.
Furthermore, Andrew stated that when they were twelve, after several years later, their Sunday school class met in the pastor’s study for baptism and membership class. Again, expectations dictated that by this time in their lives it was time to take this step. So, one Sunday evening the three friends, along with others in their class, stepped into the water and were baptized. “Were we demonstrating to the world that we were now dead in our sins and transformed into new life in Christ?” he wondered. “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.”
Andrew confessed that as he grew in his understanding and faith, he came to resent both the actions of the church and home. He perceived the events as irresponsible and meaningless. He felt that he had been misled and was given a false sense of his position in Christ. “I concluded that I was not saved during those early years and I objected to the practice of child evangelism,” he protested. This state of hostility toward his church lasted for about three years during his late teens as he struggled with his own identity and his relationship with God.
Now, Andrew is a married man and Chaplain assistance in the military unit. His wife and he are planning to have children in the nearest future. Therefore, in light of his own spiritual development he is left to wonder how he would measure a child’s spiritual readiness or more explicitly, how would he know when a child is ready to make a decision for Christ and for baptism? It is with this question that every parents out there should bear in mind when considering spiritual formation of their preadolescence children.
Another point one would want to put extra emphasis on is the psychological development theory. Those of us who went through adolescent stage and the parents 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-adolescents 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 years old.
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 sensory-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 inter-personally, 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. One needs to see how helpless we really are without God and how our faith must grow out of one’s trust rather than one’s achievements.
So how then do one assess children’s readiness to make these life changing decisions? One needs 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.”
In 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. Maturely[ 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 his or her specific spiritual needs. But in order to achieve the desired result – a life-changing decision for Christ – we must break free from our tradition and begin working to develop the spirituality of children in the only way that is truly effective – individually.
COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT PIAGET
A. Four Factors Determining Development
1) Maturation – the gradual unfolding of the genetic plan for life.
2) Experience – the active interation of the child with the environment.
3) Social Transmission – the information and customs that are transmitted from parents and other people in the child’s environment.
4) Process of Equalibration – the process by which the child seeks a balance between what they know and what they are experiencing. When thay are faced with information that calls for a new and different analysis or activity, children enter a state of disequalibrium. When this occurs, they must change the way they deal with the information and establish a new, more stable state of equalibrium.
B. Concepts and Processes
1) Scheme – a method of dealing with the environment that can be generalized to many situations.
2) Adaptation – can be understood in terms of adjustment. As the forces in the environment change, so must the individual’s ability to deal with them. Adaptation involves two complementary processes:
a) Assimilation – In this process, input is filtered or modified to fit already existing structures. When we assimilate something, we alter the form of the incoming stimulus to adapt it to our already established actions or structures.
b) Accomodation – The process that involves modifying internal existing schemes to meet the requirements of the new experience. When we accommodate, we create a new scheme or modify old ones.
C. Cognitive Development Stages
1) Sensorimotor Stage – Birth to about Two years.
Infants progress through their world using senses and motor activity. The develop object permanence, the understanding that objects and people do not disappear merely because they are out of sight. Their abilities are limited by an inability to use language or symbols to communicate. Intelligence during this stage involves organized systems or schemes of actions and behaviors that become increasingly complex and coordinated.
2) Preoperational Stage – Age Two to Ten
Children can use on thing to represent another. They can use language to go beyond their own direct experience. But their understanding of the world is still limited. They oftem believe that inanimate objects have a life of their own. They are egocentric, believing that everyone sees a situation the wat they do. Preschoolers do not understand conservation, the idea of something remaining the same despite changes in appearance.
3) Concrete Operational Stage – Age Ten to Fifteen
Children progress through this stage where many of the preoperational deficiencies are slowly overcome. Children begome less egocentric and begin to understand conservation. The child still has difficulty though with abstract terms such as freedom and liberty. Children in this stage understand the world only on a concrete level.
4) Formal Operational Stage – Adolescence to Adulthood
Children entering this stage now 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.
PSYCHOSOCIAL THEORY ERIKSON
A. Eight Psychosocial Stages
1) Trust vs. Mistrust – The positive outcome of the stage of infancy is a sense of trust. If children are cared for in a warm, caring manner, they are apt to trust the environment and develop a feeling that they live among friends. If the parents are anxious, angry or incapable of meeting a child’s needs, the child may develop a sense of mistrust. Trust is the cornerstone of the child’s attitude toward life.
2) Autonomy vs. Shame or Doubt – Toddlers are no longer completely dependent on adults. They practice new physical skills and develop a sense of autonomy. If they are not allowed to do the things they can do or are forced to do things they are not ready for, they may develop a sense of doubt and shame about their own abilities and fail to develop self-confidence. If encouraged to do what they can for themselves, they are helped to acquire a sense of autonomy.
3) Initiative vs. Guilt – At age four or five, children begin to formulate plans and carry it through. If encouraged to form their own ideas, the child will develop a sense of initiative. If punished for expressing their own plans, the child develops a sense of guilt, which leads to fear and a lack of assertiveness.
4) Industry vs. Inferiority – During middle childhood, children must learn the academic skills of reading, writing and math, as well as social skills. If they succeed in acquiring these skills and if their accomplishments are valued by others, the child develops a sense of industry. If they are constantly compared to others and come up a distinct second, they may develop a sense of inferiority.
5) Identity vs. Role Confusion – During adolescence, children must decide their own vocational and personal future. They develop a sense of who they are and where they belong. The child who develops a strong sense of identity formulates a satisfying plan and gains a sense of security. Those who do not develop this sense of identity may develop role confusion, a sense of aimlessness and being adrift without an anchor or plan.
6) Intimacy vs. Isolation – The positive outcome of the psychosocial crisis of young adults, involving development of close interpersonal relationships, most often typified by marriage. The negative outcome of this stage is the unwillingness or inability to commit to others.
7) Generativity vs. Stagnation – The positive outcome of the psychosocial crisis of middle age involves giving of oneself and one’s talents to others. It is primarily concerned with establishing and guiding the next generation, investing something of oneself in the future. The negative outcome of this stage involves absorption in one’s own personal needs and an inability or unwillingness to give to others.
8) Integrity vs. Despair – The positive outcome of this last stage involves the realization that one’s life has been worthwhile. After a life time of facing challenges and problems, they can look back on a productive life. Mature adults have a different perspective on life and see their lives as having a purpose. People who see only missed opportunities may become bitter and depressed.
STAGES OF MORAL REASONING KOHLBERG
A. Preconventional Level
The child is responsive to cultural rules and labels of good and bad, right and wrong, but interprets these either in terms of the physical or hedonistic consequences of action( punishment, reward, exchange favors) or in terms of the physical power of those who enunciate the rules. The level is divided into two stages:
Stage 1: Punishment and obedience orientation.
The physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness regardless of the meaning or value of these consequences. Avoidance of punishment and unquestioning deference to power are valued in their own right, not in terms of respect for an underlying moral order.
Stage 2: Instrumental relativist orientation.
Right action is that which instrumentally satisfies one’s own needs and occasionally the needs of others. Human relations are viewed in terms of the marketplace. Fairness, reciprocity, and equal sharing are present, but are always interpreted in a physical, pragmatic way. Reciprocity is a matter of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” not of loyalty, gratitude, or justice.
B. Conventional Level
Maintaining the expectations of the individual’s family, group, or nation is perceived as valuable in its own right, regardless of consequences. The attitude is not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social order but also of loyalty to it, of actively maintaining, supporting, and justifying it, of identifying with persons or group involved in it. This level has two stages:
Stage 3: Interpersonal concordance or “good boy / nice girl” orientation.
Good behavior is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or “natural” behavior. Behavior is frequently judged by intention – “he means well” becomes important for the first time. One earns approval by being “nice.”
Stage 4: Law and order orientation
Orientation is toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of the social order. Right behavior consists of doing one’s duty, showing respect for authority, maintaining the social order for its own sake.
C. Postconventional, Autonomous, or Principled Level
The person makes a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups or persons holding these principles, and apart from the individual’s own identification with these groups. This level has two stages:
Stage 5: Social-contact, legalistic orientation
Generally with utilitarian overtones. Right action is defined in terms of general individual rights and standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by society. The person is clearly aware of the relativism of values and opinions and so emphasizes procedural rule for reaching consensus. Aside from what is constitutionally and democratically agreed upon, right is a matter of personal “values” and “opinions”; emphasis is thus on the “legal point of view,” but with the possibility of changing law in terms of rational considerations of social utility rather than freezing law for the sake of social order. Outside the legal realm, free agreement and contract is the binding element. This is the “official” morality of the American government and Constitution.
Stage 6: Universal ethical principle orientation
Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency. These principles are abstract and ethical; they are not concrete moral rules. At the heart, these are universal principles of justice of the reciprocity and equality of human rights and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.
STAGES OF FAITH DEVELOPMENT FOWLER
Stages Description of Characteristics
Primal Faith * Undifferentiated faith
(Infants to 2 years) * Embedded in reflexes, sensing, sensor motor skills
Intuitive-Projective Faith * Reflection of parental /family faith and religious traditions