The Holy Spirit helps believers grow as disciples of Jesus who are becoming more and more like their Master. This includes believing children. As youth ministry workers, leaders, parents and grandparents, our role is to serve with the Spirit in this vital process of discipleship.
Love and instruction
In 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12, Paul compares his discipling work to that of parents with a child. Love is expressed toward the child (gentle care from the mother and encouragement and comfort from the father). In the context of that love is clear instruction (sharing the gospel and urging godly living). In this passage we see the environment and the content of the disciplemaking process. The environment, characterized by care, encouragement and comfort, is the positive relationship between the discipler and the disciple. The content of the process is instruction—imparting life-transforming knowledge through teaching and training.
Following this biblical model, our goal in ministry to children is to provide Christ-centered, gospel-oriented instruction in the context of a positive, loving relationship. Without the positive relationship, the instruction will not have a lasting impact. Without the instruction, even the best relationships can be devoid of meaning.
It’s essential that we tailor our instruction of children to their level of emotional, social, mental and spiritual development. In that regard, the work of child psychologists can be helpful. For example, Jean Piaget observed that children tend to develop morally according to the following predictable stages.
Stage One: Premoral (birth to 4 years old). At this stage, the child obeys in response to the command of a respected adult. Though the duty to obey is felt deeply, it does not emanate from within the child.
Stage Two: Heteronomy (4 to 8 years old). Literal obedience to the law is all-important at this stage. Heteronomy is a form of moral realism: acts are evaluated in terms of disobedience to the law without regard for intent or motive.
Stage Three: Autonomy (8 to 12 years old). Reciprocity or mutual respect is the key in this stage. Justice is dominant, with intent or motive rather than law the determining factors. The influence of interpersonal relationships in moral development is vividly demonstrated in this stage.
The chart below distills the work of Piaget and other child psychologists and education specialists to provide information we can use in choosing instructional curricula and in guiding us in their use. (The chart is adapted with permission from Hands-On Bible Curriculum, Teachers Guide, fall 1994, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, Colorado, 80539).
Wise (and effective) teachers and parents are careful to use methods of instruction that are in sync with these developmental issues. Don’t be discouraged—you don’t have to be a child psychologist to be an effective instructor of children—but you do need to care about children and be sensitive to their abilities and needs.
Our goal in all this is to help children in age-appropriate ways to experience Christ and to learn about him and his way. Because children develop the way they do, young children in particular learn more through experience than through verbal instruction. But words of instruction are important, too, because such words give children an internal language with which they can talk to themselves and thus comprehend these experiences.
Stages of development in children
|Mental (cognitive) development
influenced by the reactions of other youths
sensitive to the moods and reactions of adults
|generally play with same sex; prefer short group experiences; use language in dramatic play
|can recall some facts and events; can memorize stories, songs or finger plays; have an attention span of no longer than 10 minutes
|hear and enjoy Bible stories; recognize their own church; develop sense of belonging at church; understand that prayer is talking to God; pray simple, spontaneous prayers
|preschool/ kindergarten (4-6)
|proud of their accomplishments; have their feelings hurt easily; beginning to gain self-confidence
|learning to share and cooperate; can understand and follow rules; enjoy extensive dramatic play; eager to please teachers and parents
|can listen to and create stories; can distinguish between real and pretend; need simple directions —
understand one step at a time
|understand that God made them; trust that God loves them; beginning to develop a sense of conscience
|first and second graders (6-8)
|express feelings with physical action; crave individual attention and affirmation; are self-centered; each wants to be first; feeling capable is directly related to self-esteem; want everything to be fair; black-and-white sense of justice
|usually prefer to stick to same-sex friendships; thrive on organized games and group activities; want to please teachers but are beginning to recognize their role in relation to their peers; want to win and always be first; have a strong sense of competition with others
|interested in concrete learning experiences such as dramatizations and rhythms; have a limited concept of time and space; interested in the present but not past and future; yearn for competence in developing skills
|understand God’s love and God’s world through personal experience; don’t comprehend the spiritual nature of God; think of God as a giant/magician/invisible man; don’t comprehend the Bible’s chronology except that the Old Testament comes before the New; have a literal and concrete understanding of Bible stories and biblical truths; don’t comprehend abstract ideas
Author: Ted Johnston