Giant tree on a green hillside with the sun shining through the branchesSpiritual & Natural Development

Four to Six

Humans develop in stages. Not exactly big news – everything that develops does it in stages. But did you know that for each stage of human development, there is a corresponding stage of spiritual growth too? And the most important of these comes first! Order the third of the series Spiritual Growth and Human Development and learn about the third stage of human development, from 4-6 years of age, and the corresponging spritual piece.

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We’re on the third sermon of the series on Spiritual Growth and Human Development. And today we’re going to think about children between the ages of four and six. And the developmental literature – at least quite a bit of it – calls that “Early School Age.” So that’s what we want to think about today – children between four to six. Do we have any children that age? Are there any children around us that age? Do we know any in this age group? What do those children need to develop a relationship with God? Is there anything that we can do to help them? The older children become, the more contact they have with those outside their home – teachers, coaches, congregational members, ministers, youth workers, whatever. And as they grow older, the more opportunity others have to contribute to their development. Now, to help other people, it’s always good to understand them. And that’s why we’re giving this series – to help adults understand how to help the children they deal with in their daily lives.

Now, before we begin, I want to call your attention to two areas of consideration. Some of us have trouble recalling what being two was like. I have, I think, one recollection from after I was two. But we can remember more about what it was like when we start thinking about being four to six. And it might be helpful, as we look at this material, to think about what life was like for us at that age, and try to connect to that stage in that way. And if you do that, I think it will help you understand yourself a bit better, and why you’re like the way you are. And it surely will help you understand children at that age.

The second thing that I wanted to mention before we got started is, that the Institute for American Values recently published a report called Hard-wired to Connect . And in this report they used findings from brain research to show that children, besides needing the love of parents, also need connections with other human beings in the context of a faith-based community. You might wonder how in the world they can learn that from brain research. Well, it has to do with the way the brain grows. The brain is hard-wired to connect to people in a faith-based community. There has to be some kind of boundary for human connection. You know, it’s kind of “duh,” isn’t it? I mean, we have known that God has gone to great lengths, first to create a nation for Israel, and then a church for us. He knows that we need a faith-based community to function in as His people. But now the scientists finally, after all these years, are starting to catch on.

The thing that I think about however is, that it’s fine to talk about a warm nurturing church, and quite another thing to have one. Easy to talk about it, and difficult to do it. The little children around us are forming impressions constantly. You can remember what it was like to be between four and six. You had opinions about things. There were adults that you liked and adults that you didn’t. There were places that you liked to go that were fun and places that were a drag and were boring to you. All the kids around us that age have all those opinions, too.

I had some little children in my room for lunch the other day. And there were about four of them there. There was one who was telling a story about her teacher. And I’m sure her teacher would have fallen over in a faint if she could have heard this story. But she told us, as she’s standing there at this round table – we were all eating lunch – she said, “Our teacher likes to take her shoes off and put her feet up on the table.” And she looked at the little girl beside her, and said, “Put your feet up on the table.” So she did. And as she walked toward her, and she got her face close to her feet, she rolled her eyes back in her head, and fell over sideways. Of course, all the other kids at the table – and myself included – just laughed like crazy, because it was so funny. And you know, I don’t know if people who teach third graders realize that they’re scrutinized, examined – what they say is evaluated. And you can start doing that when you’re four or five years old. You have opinions about things at that age. We all did.

They also have emotional radar for the feelings of other people. They know if they’re prized or if they’re tolerated. They have a very keen awareness of how adults feel about them. They have opinions about the behavior of adults around them. As western people, we think that those observations and opinions don’t count because we’re insensitive to the needs and perceptions of children. We don’t value them that much. But they count to the children. And those perceptions and opinions about us are shaping their perceptions and opinions of the Church – with a big “C” – and of God. Because that’s who we represent to those little people. Now, in a self-centered community, where people are of no value unless they can be useful, the argument I’m putting forth for you – and have been, and will continue to put forth in this series – is essentially meaningless. They don’t count, so why bother with it. But in a community of love and care, it means everything . And we adults are, in large part, defined by the way that we treat children. So let’s begin to understand a bit about children between four and six years old.

Here are four major developmental tasks of children between four and six. The first one is sex role identification. It was a big push a number of years ago to teach us that we really are all the same – no difference between men and women. Androgyny was the big thing. People starting cutting their hair the same way, and dressing the same way, and all that kind of thing – an attempt to blur the gender line. Well guess what the brain research is showing us now? Now it’s another “duh.” It’s the same thing the Bible told us all along – that men should be men, women should be women. And they’re learning that people are not happy and healthy unless they have a clear sense of gender and sex roles. To be emotionally healthy, humans need a clear sense of whether they’re male or female.

How do little boys learn to act like little boys, and how do little girls learn to act like little girls? Well, they learn from watching older people of the same sex – primarily in the beginning, mom and dad. And this is a clue for us about the process that children this age use to learn. It’s called identification . Little boys begin to identify with dad as being like him. And so they start emulating him through that process of identification.

Now, let me ask you this question. Does this process of sex role identification have any impact on us in our relationship with God as we get older? Well, of course it does! Absolutely it does! God’s very clear that He wants men to be men and women to be women. Now, I don’t want to make people feel bad. I know there are some folks that, because of genetics, have an issue there. And that is a very difficult situation. But nevertheless, God says what He says, and we listen, and we say, “Yes, Lord.” So, sex role identification is something that is very important for people to have a clear sense of as they move toward adulthood and begin to develop a relationship with God.

Let’s move on to the next task children in the four to six category are working on. They’re working on early moral development. At this age, children are thrown more and more into contact with other people – children their own age, and also adults at school. And it’s a fertile ground for learning how to get along. Kids begin to learn a moral code of their community, their family, their culture. And they begin to experience emotions that foster caring about other people, and guilt when they break the code. They also can take appropriate action at this age to inhibit negative impulses, and either be helpful and caring, or mean minded to other people. So, at this age, children are also primed and prepared to learn something vital about a successful relationship with God, aren’t they?

Let’s go to Matthew 19 and just take a quick look at that scripture that explains this to us. It’s in Matthew 19:19.

Mt. 19:19 – Honor your father and your mother, and, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus said. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s what early moral development is all about. It’s learning to love your neighbor as yourself, isn’t it? And notice what the man said to Him. The young man said to Him, in verse 20, All these things I have kept from my youth. See, he knew that. He knew that when he was just a little kid, he learned that he should love his neighbor as himself. Now, if you get to thirty and you haven’t learned that yet, you have a serious problem. You can’t get along in society. You’ll probably end up in jail if it’s bad enough. But it’s very easy to learn when we’re five. It happens naturally if parents are doing any modeling and any talking to their children. They just absorb it like a sponge. And yet, if we wait till thirty, it’s practically impossible, because our personality is one of being uncaring. And it’s hard to change it at that point.

Isn’t that interesting? One of the most important things about God is learned between the ages of four and six. In fact, we’ve seen this at every stage so far, haven’t we? Some of the core things about what’s really important to God in us we learn when we’re very, very young.

Let’s look at another scripture. This is even more powerful I think. Matthew 22, verse 36.

Mt. 22:36 – Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law? And Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. If you somehow do not make it at five years old to learn this stuff, and you go to Bible seminary and you become an expert at understanding the Bible, you’re still missing the most important thing – one of the most important things – that you shall love your neighbor as yourself – not that you shall talk about it, or think about it, but that your behavior reflects that belief. And we learn that easily and naturally when we’re four through six years old.

Let’s look at another one. Let’s move on to the third concept – issue of self-concept. How is that you have the view of yourself that you now have? What kind of person are you? Well, much of that was developed when you were between four and six years old. That’s when you could start thinking about yourself and had enough brain wiring to do that. My mother’s older sister – Aunt Velma – contracted polio when she was an infant. Her hands were affected. I could see, even as a little child, when she came to live with us for a month or so, when we lived in Denver, Colorado – I was about 5, 6 years old – that her hands were stiff and hard to use. She kind of used her index and middle fingers like hooks to pick things up. She walked on crutches. Her legs were like pipes. There was no muscle tone in her calves. She had to wear heavy, high boots laced up tight so that her feet could support her weight, even with the crutches. When she was sixteen, she developed a toxic goiter. We don’t see much of that now, because we know about iodine. And back then they didn’t. They lived way inland, so never had anything from the sea. She developed a toxic goiter and had to have her thyroid removed when she was a teenager. It affected her face. Her eyes popped out. They protruded more than most people. And I remember my mother telling me about all these things that happened to her when she was a small child. To make matters worse, their father was abusive, and she was the target child. So she was abused as a child, whereas the others weren’t so much. But I remember thinking at five, when my mother told me about this, that she’d had a rough life. And I marveled, even at that age, that she had such a great attitude and was so much fun. She was my favorite relative.

One day I came home from kindergarten, and I made a disparaging remark about some child at school that had some sort of disability – I don’t remember what it was now – but I certainly remember my mother’s reaction and what she said to me. I’m fifty-eight. I was five. I remember very clearly what happened fifty-three years ago. I remember the words. I remember the look on her face. And I remember the body language. She explained to me that this child had a disability – back then we called them handicaps – just like Aunt Velma had, I was told. Would I say something like that about her? This child was like Aunt Velma in that he or she – whoever it was – couldn’t help that they had this handicap. It was just the hand they were dealt. Would I like to have that kind of handicap? Would it be fair? Would I think it fair? Would it be fun? What was it like for that child to have to be that way? You can see that her comments were memorable. And then she said something to me that was very wise. She said, “Bill, we don’t make fun of people with handicaps. We are not that kind of people.”

Now, I’m sure that my mother had never read a child development book. But somehow she knew that it was important to me to be the same kind of people as the rest of the family, because between ages four and six the way we learn things is by identification. And I was identifying with my parents, with their values, their behaviors, and what they did. And so I identified with that, and do to this day. I am not the kind of person that makes fun of people with disabilities. I know I’m not alone in the world. I’m sitting here with a room full of people who are the same way. We all learned that value together. But that’s how I learned it. And I remember learning it that way from my mother. And I can clearly identify the source of the value that I have.

This whole self-concept thing…see, that’s the kind of person I am, right? That’s part of me now. And that’s when I learned it. But this whole issue of self-concept, in another way, has been a hot button issue for me. During the seventies, everything was all about self-esteem. You know, do you like yourself? That’s part of self-concept. And it was in pop psychology that that was really popular. It was kind of the fad issue. Everything had to do with self-esteem. The Bible says that we should esteem others greater than ourselves. Of course, that means we should esteem ourselves, right? You can’t esteem other people greater if you don’t esteem yourself. If we want to talk about how we see ourselves, it’s much better to talk about self-concept, because that doesn’t just include the one positive thing. But if you only think that you’re a great person, you’ve got a problem, because you’re not seeing the whole picture. We all have things about us that are great. And then we all have things about us that aren’t so great, too. So self-concept covers the whole thing – where we know our strengths and we know our weaknesses. You know, what are like? What are our abilities? And what are our weaknesses? What is our character like? And what is our personality like? What do we become like when things happen that we don’t like? What’s fall back mode like for us? What do we like about ourselves? And what would we like to change?

A lot of this picture of what we’re like as a person is developed within us – our own view of ourselves – between the ages of four and six years old. So why is this important to our spiritual development? What my mother did when she told me, “We’re not that kind of people,” was that she was telling me what kind of people we were . She said it in a negative way, but the message was clearly delivered. We’re the kind of people that don’t make fun of people with disabilities. We’ve all got our own disabilities to worry about. So now, at that age, I knew I was not the kind of person who ridicules others for things they can’t help. And so she added to my concept of myself.

Does God ridicule people who have disabilities? No. No, He doesn’t. And so it’s very nice for me to realize that I’m like Him in that way – in my own limited way. And so, let’s suppose that I realized that I was the kind of person who did look down on others – for whatever reason. When it comes to my relationship with God, where does that put me? It creates distance between me and Him, doesn’t it? That I have to overcome, and that He has to overcome. So all of these things that we’ve talked about so far are so important to help us when we’re young to develop the kind of personality and the kind of character that when we grow up we can connect to God.

Self-concept is not just about feeling good. It’s also about our conscience, isn’t it? Kids this age are developing their consciences. Did you know that some children believe the worst thing they can ever do is make noise at church? How do you suppose they learned that? Did I tell the story about Easter Sunday in the Episcopalian Church when I was seven? When we lived in Denver? My brother was four. I was seven. My mother made us these beautiful little sport coats. She bought the patterns and the material, and she made sport coats for us. And they had inside pockets. They were finely tailored. She was an excellent seamstress. They were matching. That irritated me a bit, because my brother, even though he was four, he was just as big as I was. And we looked like twins, and everybody commented about that at church. But we went to church…. Oh, and by the way, my father got us for Easter – I don’t think my mother would have done this – these little pot-metal cap guns that look like snub-nosed automatics. You could flip the top open, put a roll of caps in them, and crack off shots. So, of course, we put them in our inside coat pockets and went to church on Sunday, because we were like the detectives in Dick Tracy, right? Now, the Episcopalian Church we went to was a huge monolith. It had open pews and big stain glass…high ceilings. And it had slate floors. And during church – during one of the quietest parts and also to us, the most boring – my brother – four – yanks out his automatic pistol and drop it on the pew and then it falls down on the slate floor. It just reverberated through the entire building on Easter Sunday morning – the most sacred day of the year to all Episcopalians. We knew that after that the worst thing a kid could do was make noise at church. (Chuckle)

See, we do have, as adults, huge impact on children. There are kids in church that know that making noise at church is the worst thing that can happen in the world. And their parents didn’t teach it to them. Other adults did. We have huge impact on kids at that age, because they identify so much with people around them. We could go so many different ways with any of these topics that we’ve discussed to far. It’s just amazing. There’s so many areas that we could cover in each one of these things. There’s no way we could cover in the sermon all of it. And I hope everybody realizes, in this sermon – in this series – even as long as it is – we’re just scratching the surface about what’s know about how children develop into adults.

The final thing that I wanted to talk about is group play. There was a book written years ago called Everything I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten . Cookies and milk are good. Naps are good. Be nice. Don’t hit. There were several others. And it’s a fun way to talk about the important things that are learned in play at this age of life with other kids. Group play is a very important part of development. And learning of things that you learn in group play are really important if you want to be in the Church of God, because it’s a group! We all know people, who when they don’t get their way, take their ball and go home. Or they pout for week, or whatever. And that’s very hard for them to overcome that now. But they could have soaked that up like a sponge when they were four to six years old if they’d been given the opportunity to learn it. Isn’t that interesting how that works?

Let’s move away then from these four areas – sex role identification, early moral development, self-concept and group play – and let’s look at how kids learn this stuff at this age. The books tell us, and the literature tells us, that the developmental crisis – the point of tension – is between initiative and guilt. As children resolve the toddler-hood crisis – of autonomy versus shame and doubt – we talked about that last time – if they resolve that on the autonomy side, they emerge from the fours with the strong sense of themselves as unique beings. And in toddler-hood they differentiated themselves from their environment by manipulating it. You know, everything goes in the mouth. It gets pushed around. Carpet fuzz gets pulled off the carpet. Everything is manipulated. And as they come into this stage, they now have the ability to investigate the environment in a different way than they did before. And so it becomes a matter of initiative as to whether they will reach out and discover how the world works, because that’s what this age is about. And guilt is what comes from finding out it works and transgressing the boundaries. There’s always that tension. “I want to do it, but should I?” That’s where it ends up. I think about little kids playing doctor. You know, there’s all the examinations and everything. That makes parents real jumpy and nervous, especially when it’s boys and girls playing doctor, because we know they’re curious. And we know what can happen if they do that, because they want to know about everything. And so when they get scolded for doing it, then they feel guilty. So there’s that process – that give and take, back and forth, that tension between reaching out and trying to stay within the boundaries at the same time. And they also call the central learning process identification.

So what can we do? What can we do in the Church – now that we’ve talked about what’s going on with them and the process by which they learn – the tension point between initiative and guilt – what can we do in the Church with kids that between four and six years old? Well, here’s some things that I’ve thought about – certainly not a complete list, and it would be fun to have some brainstorming parties, if we had kids between four and six, to think about what we could do. But one of the things that we can do is to acknowledge them to their level of comfort. If people walk by you week after week and never make eye contact and never talk to you, how does it make you feel? It makes little kids feel the same way. So we do need to acknowledge their presence – even if it’s just a simple greeting. And if we do that, they may act shy, because they aren’t use to it. Most of them would fall over in a dead faint if an adult spoke to them, because it’s not normal in our culture to do that.

We went on a cruise a few years ago – Inside Passage Cruise – almost the entire wait staff was Filipino. I never saw one of them walk by a kid without making a big deal about them. It was quite a lesson for all us westerners about the differences in culture, and how children really ought to be treated. So just acknowledge them – a simple greeting. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it. In fact, if you did, it might be too much. But just acknowledgement. And then talk with them at their level if they’re accepting of it. And what would a kid between four and six years old be interested in? Okay, well, they’re investigators, right? So what have they been investigating lately? What do they like to play? What toys do they like? Things they like to do. You can talk to them about their parents – although you may learn more than you want to know there. Pets. Pets are good. They like to talk about that. I wouldn’t say you should put them in the order I’ve put them in, but those are things you can talk to four year olds about, and they will converse with you.

So why are these two things important? Because these children are forming an impression of the church when they come to it. They don’t know about God and the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ and His sacrifice, and they don’t understand all that stuff. They just know what church is like and that’s going to get hooked to God in their mind as they get older. They’re very concrete in their thinking. They know if he likes me, or if he doesn’t. They know if he thinks I’m a nuisance, or if I’m a person. That’s what he knows. So they’re forming those impressions of us. The thing that I think about is, that none of us has to do all of that all the time for all the kids. All we have to do is treat with knowledge the children that God sets before us each day. They’re with somebody else the rest of the time, and then it’s not our responsibility. We’re just a piece of the puzzle – a piece of the picture. We’re part of the solution for every child. God has not burdened us with the whole thing. We all just have a part to play. Isn’t that nice? So, what part do we play?

Well, they don’t need all our attention at this age. They like to play with each other a lot. Remember? Group play was a big thing with them. And God made it that way so they could learn to get along with others as adults later. But we better not ignore them. We need to learn their names. We need to make them feel a part of things. It doesn’t take much.

Activities. Activities. When we went to Big Sandy for the Natural Church Development, or NTE conference down there, Guy mentioned that church should be fun. And one of the men who’d grown up in the Church mentioned that was like a land mine going off in his head, because church and fun did not fit in the same sentence to him. Church was not fun. It wasn’t supposed to be fun. There was nothing fun about it. Church is supposed to be fun for everybody. It’s just easier to make it fun for little kids if we’d just think about it just a little bit.

Intellectual training about God is the next thing to talk about. You know, if you think about activities – what would be fun for kids – any kindergarten and first grade teacher can help you out there. They know all that stuff. And we don’t really have time to go into the details of it. But a lot of studies have been done about that. The same thing about intellectual training about God. They do have an intellect. It’s developing. It’s concrete at this point. But they can still learn things about God. They can learn to sing songs about God. They can learn that God loves them. They can understand that – at least in the sense that their parents love them. There are lots of things that children can be taught in the intellect. And you can sit them down and have groups – around in a circle – and you do things with them. They can learn those things very good. And if it’s done right, it becomes a fun activity.

And the final thing I wanted to mention is that we need to tolerate their need to investigate. All of us are in one stage of development or another. And all of us, with each stage of development, there comes a mode of learning and two crisis points that we’re always caught in a tension over. And God has to put up with all of us all the time for all of those things. So, we need to be Godly in our tolerance of the childishness of children. Children are childish. That’s how it is. They don’t act like adults. Kids act like kids.

I had a couple of fifth grade girls in my office yesterday, and last year both of them had some really horrific family problems. But this year things are going better. Haven’t seen much of them. So they came in to say, “Hi,” and I invited them to stay for lunch. So they went out to the cafeteria to get their trays. And while they were standing in line, they started painting each other with water-soluble markers. Don’t ask me, “Why?” but they did. That’s what kids do. They do kid stuff. One of the teachers saw it, and had a tantrum over it. And they were telling me about it. It’s really interesting. Adults think that when they have a tantrum about something a kid does, that the kid is in trouble. But, you know, kids know they’re in trouble. But when you stop and think about it, when you see somebody pitching a fit, what you think is, that person has a problem. Kids think the same thing when you get mad at them. They think you’re the one with the problem. It’s not a good way to help kids learn to do better, because they’re always thinking, “It’s your problem, not mine.” So anyway, that’s exactly what these kids came in…. I mean, they looked like a couple of raccoons with stuff all over their faces and around their eyes and everything. But they were telling me what a problem this teacher had. So some adults are offended when kids act like kids. Are you one of those? Kind of out-of-touch with reality, isn’t it? Folks with that viewpoint need to lighten up, ease off, relax a little bit, have some fun with them.

Did you know talking to kids is good for your health? It is. Yeah. Every time you smile at a child, a little bit of growth hormone is released into your system – a little bit of adrenaline. We always like that. That feels good. It’s very beneficial to us to be kind to children. So have some fun with them. Take it easy. It’s good for your health.

Okay, with this age group we can see that others in the congregation can just now start to pay a bit more of a part in their lives. And in the next stage that we’re going to cover, we can see that that trend is going to grow enormously. And as we proceed through this series, that’s how it’s going to continue to be. Parents will always have maximum influence. You know who has the most influence on a college student? Mother and father. So that’s always the case – all the way up through adulthood, but others do get to have more influence as time goes along. As children get older, others have increasing input for good or for bad.

I want you to turn with me to one final scripture here. It’s in Ephesians 2, verse 19. Let’s read this together.

Eph. 2:19 – Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone – in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. You know, when some people read that, they think about the head man, and then they think about all his lieutenants under them, and then they think about the pastors, and then they think about the deacons, and then they think about the lay members. And the kids never enter their thinking. They’re not baptized. Look at that word, in verse 19, household . Do you know what that means? Do you know what that word means? According to the Loneida (sp?) Lexicon, it means “the family consisting of those related by blood and marriage, as well as slaves and servants, living in the same household.” They point out in their article on this word, that in a number of languages, this word would literally mean “those within the same fence” – everybody in there. The whole family. Would slaves be included and children left out? It’s talking about everybody. The whole household of God. And we’re all responsible to each other to see that this happens. We’re all moving along together. And that includes the kids. If we’ve left children out of our thinking in times past, it’s time to repent.

Bruce Perry, the renowned expert on child development, said at a lecture I attended, that western culture is the first culture in the history of civilization to lose the ability to transmit its values to the next generation. Look around you in your congregation. See all the gray hair there? Because we do church as people of the west, we are following down the same road as western culture. We are not transmitting our values to our children. They are not following along in the faith as they get older. And we have a choice as a group of people. We can make some internal individual changes – simple changes that don’t cost a lot of money, and don’t take a lot of time – or we can die out as a church. And this series is all about showing those whose hearts are open what changes to make.