A Child’s faith must be grown just right.

When the renowned child-development theorist Jean Piaget traveled in the U.S., audiences inevitably asked what became known as “the American question.” It contained two parts. First, Americans asked, “Can we accelerate the emergence of the stages of mental growth you describe?” (Further research proved this impossible.) Second, “Is it better to do nothing at all and just let maturing ‘happen’?” Again, the answer was no.

The man who revolutionized our understanding of intellectual growth urged avoidance of both extremes: Don’t push kids; yet don’t be passive about their growth. And through it all, he said, remember that children, youth, and adults frame ideas and perceive life in radically different ways.

Most educators heeded Piaget’s advice. But some Christian leaders have turned a deaf ear. These teachers and parents deny children their land of make-believe—their normal world of playful fantasy. They stress math or Bible memorization, but leave little room for the likes of Mary Poppins or Bilbo Baggins. Some so emphasize the accumulation of knowledge that they neglect the cultivation of imagination. In so doing, they rush intellectual growth, ignore age-appropriate instruction, and refuse to let kids be kids.

This errant pattern of education mirrors five misconceptions about faith and psychological development.

Why childlikeness is not childish

Some teachers and parents lump all age groups together when trying to nurture maturity. They fail to see intrinsic differences between children, youth, and adults. Psychologist David Elkind approaches human development differently. He made it a point to ask kids, “Can a dog or cat be Protestant [or Catholic, or Jew, depending on the person’s denomination]?” Regardless of age or denomination, children and teens both said no. But it was the distinctive reasoning processes behind the answers that caught Elkind’s attention.

Older youths dismissed the inclusion of dogs and cats by arguing that animals were not intelligent. “They would not understand religion,” said one. Another added, “They don’t believe in God.” Children, on the other hand, said no because they thought that the minister, priest, or rabbi would not permit animals into the church or synagogue. One child explained, “They would make noise and run around!”

The apostle Paul also acknowledged the fact of age dissimilarities. “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (1 Cor. 13:11, NIV). Childlikeness is not a sin for youngsters, nor is it “childishness.”

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By not valuing inherent age differences, teachers and parents may fall prey to a second misconception.

Why doubt is not disbelief

Preschoolers grow into their early elementary years the same way they move into adolescence: They doubt. They necessarily question both their previous knowledge and their precedent thinking patterns. Cognitive theorists call it dissonance.

When we contemplate our own transitional moments of growth, we see that maturity often came when we outgrew time-worn ideas and categories for thinking. That is, both the content and the structure of our thinking matured. People outgrow approaches to faith in the same way. A young teen not only leaves behind “fairy tales,” he or she also understands abstract truths for the first time.

This has special relevance for helping others understand Scripture. When a child becomes a young teen, for example, he or she has the potential to understand the abstract truths of Scripture for the first time. Christ’s symbolic claims to be the Door and the Vine are no longer restricted to the confusing, literal interpretive patterns of childhood. Again, doubt serves as catalyst for these transitional moments.

Doubt is not a four-letter word. It is not disbelief. When the father of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9 claimed he believed in Jesus’ power, he simultaneously confessed his personal question marks. Christ never equated this man’s spiritual condition with the stubborn disbelief of the religious leaders. Indeed, by healing the boy, the Lord suggested that this mixture of faith and searching doubt is permissible (Mark 9:14–27).

The doubting condition of the imprisoned John the Baptist further substantiates this point. Late in his ministry, John selects two ambassadors to confront Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” The question’s second half reveals John’s genuine desire to believe. Again, the prophet’s faith struggle is unlike the disbelief of the religious leaders who said, in effect, “Don’t confuse us with the facts; our minds are made up.”

Seeing how Jesus responds to John’s doubts is significant: He intentionally performs many miracles, then turns to the two disciples and commands them, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard” (Luke 7:18–23). Rather than scolding John for his doubt—as some are inclined to do today—he showed respect. He offered more evidence of his messiahship.

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In both of these passages, stronger faith emerges. In both instances, doubt is essential. So is the place for individually tailored ways of thinking and believing. This God-given use of doubt within human maturation must be cultivated early in life.

We rightly encourage young children, then, to believe in the age-appropriate fantasies of Santa, Beauty and the Beast, and the Tooth Fairy—then to doubt these characters and to substitute new perspectives. Educators who mock make-believe misunderstand how we learn and grow. This second misconception complements the third.

Why inherited faith is not enough

Local churches and parachurch organizations are institutions of conformity. Their members necessarily adhere to certain basic beliefs. Sometimes this produces what is known as “surrogate faith.” This form of faith says that an uncritical acceptance of another’s belief is not only acceptable, but cherished or necessary. Appropriate conformity, however, results from the choice of mature adults, not from fiat. The difference is between inherited faith and owned faith. Whether it is primary beliefs or gray areas of faith, church leadership should want each member to ask, “What is it that I believe?” The person who sincerely says no to surrogate faith may be better off than the one who insincerely says yes. The sincere no stands a better chance of becoming a sincere yes.

Children generally exhibit surrogate faith. They innocently accept what their parents and their Sunday-school teachers believe. Although this may be adequate for children, the apostle Paul suggests that inherited faith is untenable for grownups. When Paul deals with the controversy over “unclean” foods in Romans 14, he calls believers to assess carefully their own convictions and to live by them, allowing others to do the same. He concludes, “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (v. 23). This approach must not be misconstrued as rebellion. It requires rigorous examination and single-minded commitment, along with sensitive moral responsibility.

In the early 1960s, sociological studies coined the term “total institution,” describing social organizations that provide highly regulated 24-hour-per-day services, such as nursing homes, prisons, and boarding schools. One discovery revealed that, regardless of particular purposes, all such organizations affect their membership the same ways: They stunt interpersonal growth, reduce levels of individual responsibility, and hinder opportunities to make personal choices. Within religious organizations, “total institutions” consistently produce surrogate faith. Churches, too, must guard against such tendencies. We need to uphold certain standards of faith and practice without at the same time creating a “one-size-fits-all” approach to Christian life.

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Why beliefs are not good slogans

I recently saw two arresting business signboards. Outside a local restaurant one sign flashed, “To God Be the Glory … Try Thursday’s Luncheon Special—Lasagna.” The second sign read, “Andy’s Tire, Oil, and Batteries … Large Selection … Jesus Is Lord.” These examples suggest a tendency to reduce faith to slogans or simplistic propositions.

Children whose imaginations are not nurtured may adopt their own version of sloganized faith. I’ve found that educators who refuse to value flights of imaginative fancy in children end up imparting mistaken perceptions to kids. Their simplistic either-or mindset (truth versus fantasy, they say) perpetrates views like: “If it’s not in the Bible, it must be false.”

Such nearsightedness tries to box God’s truth into tight, neat packages. It fails to help children deal with the complexities of theological questions. It does not help them harness imagination or creativity when thinking about God in all his complexity and greatness.

Either-or perceptions or boxed-in truth militate against sophisticated thought and faith. As the fourth misconception, this viewpoint pushes adults to supply easy answers to complex questions.

Why faith is never static

What becomes of the child who never learns to appreciate Dr. Seuss and Peter Pan? A full understanding of God may become jeopardized. When a youngster’s natural inclinations toward imagination are stymied, his maximum potential for spiritual growth is likewise thwarted. The fifth misconception—that faith never changes or grows—forgets something vital about the nature of faith.

Three distinct phases of childhood can be compared by contrasting their maturing perceptions about Santa Claus. First, the young preschooler thrives on the awe and wonder within his or her fantasy world. Fact and fiction are inseparable. Michael Jordan lives alongside Winnie-the-Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and Robin Hood. In this phase, which some theorists call mystical, the child deciphers lyrics like “Up on the housetop reindeer pause, out jumps good ol’ Santa Claus” quite literally. In similar fashion, young children see God as a heavenly wishgranter. Like “the stocking of little Nell,” they expect their prayers to be “filled well.”

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By contrast, young school-age kids gradually dismiss the mystical and enter a judicial phase. They particularly revere the connection between their actions and reward or punishment. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” heralds this period of life. Around the holidays, these children are on their best behavior, for “he knows if you’ve been bad or good.” Similarly, God plays the role of powerful Judge.

Finally, older elementary children proceed to the empirical phase. Their naturally skeptical minds prohibit them from accepting Saint Nick as a real person. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus [i.e., Daddy]” is the tune that characterizes their critical thinking. One of my daughters at this phase once confessed, “I don’t believe in Santa because I haven’t heard his reindeers on the roof, and I haven’t heard him scratching down the chimney.”

God becomes more difficult to understand, too, in this phase. Religious developmental theorist James Fowler, after several interviews with older children who struggled to see God’s justice in the world, coined the phrase “the 11-year-old atheist.” Educators and parents need to become aware of the varied age-appropriate questions that older children raise as they struggle with faith.

Perpetrators of this fifth misconception, in contrast, advocate a rigid, static approach. To continue the illustration, they hold a very literal view of Saint Nicholas, seen exclusively as a fourth-century bishop of Asia Minor. Their perceptions of theology are no more comprehensive. They reason that since God is changeless, our life-span ideas about him should not alter, either. They miss the truth that childhood perspectives of God do shift. One who is merely a wonder to a preschooler becomes a judge for the younger elementary child, then later a mystery.

Faith must be grown just right. Encouraging spiritual growth requires sensitivity to the child’s world. Evangelical leaders who deny children their land of make-believe hurt children. It is not so much the denial of the childhood fantasies themselves as the fuller picture of reality that is simultaneously distorted. Adults who have not known childhood imagination and adventure will fail to see God’s all-encompassing wonder and awe. Youngsters forced to take adult views of make-believe will later hold childish notions about life, faith, and God. Prudent caregivers don’t push. They let kids be kids.

Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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