The Young Child's Religion

Are children born religious? In accordance with my interpretation of religious as a force toward relationship with God, I believe they are. I base my reasoning on two other questions:

children-929914 640Are children born hungry?


They are born hungry because they need food to survive.

We cannot go far in asking questions about human nature without making the basic statement that we are created by God for His own purposes. We share His image but are, as part of His creation, subject to natural laws. He created us to be a pleasure and honor to Him, to share with Him forever the joys of relationship with himself and His creation.

Sometimes I shock my students by asking them to suppose they were God. Given the stated purpose, what kind of people would they create? What essential qualities would they give people to make possible the fulfillment of their purpose?

The answer is that they would build into people's natures needs, strong urges or appetites, and potential for development. God created people with hunger so they would survive. He gave them sexual urges that would assure procreation. Would He then leave them without a spiritual appetite to prompt them toward their ultimate reason for being? No. He created them with a God-need, to which His Spirit speaks and draws them to himself.*

The Place of Human Development Theories

Scholars of biblical languages say the various words used to describe children indicate a developmental process. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13: 1, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child" give credence to the belief that children have a distinctive way of knowing. Thoughtful leaders in childhood education discover a reaching out tendency that they interpret in various ways, sometimes as religious and sometimes as natural development. In their efforts to understand children's concepts of God and needs for spiritual guidance, most writers and curriculum designers turn to human development theories. The logic is that if we understand what people are like, we can minister to them in appropriate ways.

Richard Dobbins, for example, believes that Christian experience is strongly affected by "a believer's understanding of his faith as it is communicated to him at various stages in his spiritual growth and development." He attributes high dropout rates among young people to the church's failure to communicate with them in a developmentally appropriate manner.

In bibliographies and notes in any good book on Christian education today, we find all or some of these names: Eric Erikson, Robert Havighurst, Lawrence Kohlberg, Jean Piaget, James Fowler, and Ruth Beechick. These are all thinkers with various specialties in psychology and education who have contributed to theories of human development. They propose that humans develop in generally regular stages. This assumes some inborn quality that predetermines a path for growth. A brief review of their ideas will help us understand why educators take them so seriously.


Piaget studies cognitive development and describes sequential periods in the growth of a person's ability to think. Modes of thinking change as a person matures. Piaget's theory leads to the conclusion that effective education depends on presenting learning opportunities appropriate for a person's stage of development. The ultimate goal of early teaching is to help the child advance to more mature stages of thinking.


Erikson's chief interest is psychosocial development. He presents a sequence of changes in the way people perceive themselves and others and how they respond in social relationships. According to his theory, each stage is marked by a developmental problem or turning point. Different aspects of the personality become ready for development at certain stages in life. Most significant for educators is the premise that what happens at each developmental stage strongly affects future development.


Kohlberg devotes his professional life to studies of a person's capacity to reason about moral issues. The point is not moral content, but the structure of reasoning. He identifies three major levels of thinking about moral issues in stages, from simple obedience to avoid punishment to development of a personal sense of morality. Most significant for educators is the idea that children have a natural sense of justice, but their thinking is different from that of adults. If they are not stimulated to advance from lower stages, they may never be able to make decisions based on internalized principles.

Stages of Spiritual Development

Havighurst, Fowler, and Beechick are among those who have used theories of human development to study spiritual potentialities or inclinations at various life stages. Their purpose also is to understand people in order to encourage growth.


Havighurst uses the term developmental tasks to define stages, much as Erikson uses crisis points. He outlines tasks within the capacity of people at life span stages. As each task is accomplished, a person is more capable of handling the next. In his book, Human Development and Education, Havighurst deals with education at various age levels. Later he applies the same theories to Christian education.


Building on the work of Piaget in cognitive development and Kohlberg in moral development, Fowler offers a stage theory of faith development. He describes the first stage of young children as "intuitive projective faith," which he says reflects the visible faith of their parents. He makes no detailed analyses in regard to children's earliest religious impulses.


Havighurst is Beechick's model for an outline of tasks in the spiritual development of Christians. Her aim is to give practical guidelines for a Christian education program, beginning with the preschool years. She describes spiritual development tasks mostly in terms of thinking and behavior, again with little attention to the nature of a young child's religion.

Human Stages Do Not Limit God

Theimportance of stage theories to education and religion is based on belief in a required match between learning opportunities (curriculum, religious instruction, motivational activities) and the state of the child's understanding. Recent studies say that Piaget and others grossly underestimated the abilities of infants. They judge unobserved qualities and potential on the basis of the child's actual performance in experiments. They fail to give adequate attention to factors that are not readily observed and to the influence of early experience. The age when a child moves from one stage to another may depend on the meaning and support given in the environment. Examples demonstrated by researchers include the effects of social contact on memory and caring behaviors. Children in active, sharing roles, as in a loving family and stimulating church activities, advance more rapidly than those in passive roles.

How Learning Relates to Religion

Sometimes a researcher begins with a theory and fails to consider facts that do not fit the model. Ideas of structures and sequences have caused some misunderstanding of a child's religious nature. We should learn all we can from theories, but we should never let them keep us from seeing the child first as God's creation. Educators, both Christian and otherwise, agree that learning involves interaction between the personality and the situation, including teachers and curricula. Learning is the process by which change is made or potential is brought forth. Teachers provide experience, opportunities for change. They call forth potential. The difference is that the secular definition of education limits learning to what is received by sense perception.

Christian educators define learning as the process of change in knowledge, beliefs, values, attitudes, feelings, or behaviors as a result of either natural sense perception, factors involving our God-created nature, or supernatural intervention. Robert Pazmino says, "In relation to their created nature, persons are called to learn to love, live in, and obey God within the grasp of their understanding and ability. God's grace enables persons to learn in ways that fulfill divine expectations for and gifts to humanity."

In a 1914 book before stage theories became popular, Frances Weld Danielson outlined qualities and characteristics of early childhood that she interpreted as signs of "natural religion." She said, "We must find the clue to the little child's religion in himself." She encouraged teachers to look for the child's capacities and noted how Christian teaching can meet every need. Those who would help a child develop from within should present God in relation to natural inclinations and needs.

"We must find the clue to the little child's religion in himself."

Among these she enumerated:

* Dependence, helplessness--that reach for love and security.
* Vague fears--that reach for assurance and comfort.
* Curiosity, questioning--that reach for answers and knowledge.
* Imagination--that can see and believe.
* Response to beauty--that calls forth appreciation and thanksgiving.
* Desire to communicate--that can flourish into prayer and praise.

Friedrich Froebel, founder of the kindergarten, was by no means a model for Christian teachers. However, his view of childhood supports our belief that children are born with incredible potential for religious response. He urged teachers to depend less on sense perception and more on integration of experience from within. He emphasized the interests and spontaneous activities of the child. He talked about "the Spirit of God, ever unfolding its inner essence." "Education," he declared "is simply helping the divine within us to come forth, to act."

This idea has caused concern among Christians because they fear it exalts the human and presents persons as essentially good. Because we are born in sin as a result of the Fall, we place great emphasis on the act of conversion. We must never forget our ultimate goal. However, a greater fault in the context of early childhood teaching is to focus on the sinful nature, which interferes with God's purposes, and fail to recognize and minister to the God-need.

Danielson's book refers to several comments by educators and philosophers concerning religious tendencies in the young. "There is nothing so natural to the unsophisticated human being as God," she quoted. "Those who recognize the value of the natural interests of children have always sought in the child the germs of religion." Investigation into the religious tendencies of children and primitive societies led her to conclude, "The little child shows instincts that I believe are a groping after God. Surely these unmistakable signs of interest indicate a vital longing that should be satisfied."



Pazmino, Robert W. Foundational Issues in Christian Education: An Introduction in Evangelical Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.

Danielson, Frances Weld. Lessons for Teachers of Beginners. Boston: The Pilgrim Press, 1914.

*In September 2003, the Commission on Children at Risk, a panel of leading children's doctors, research scientists and youth service professionals, issued a report to the nation about new strategies to reduce the currently high numbers of U.S. children who are suffering from emotional and behavioral problems such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit, conduct disorders, and thoughts of suicide. The Commission based its recommendations on recent scientific findings suggesting that children are biologically "hardwired" for enduring attachments to other people and for moral and spiritual meaning. Meeting children's needs for enduring attachments and for moral and spiritual meaning is the best way to ensure their healthy development, according to the Commission's report. For further information go to:

Billie Davis is an author, sociologist, and minister who lives in Springfield, Missouri. Sunday School. All rights reserved. Used with permission.