Growing to Trust: Reflections on the Bible and Childhood Development, Part 1

If you've worked with kids for any time at all, you've probably had this experience--you walk into the nursery and see a familiar child, but she has changed since you last met. The words are out of your mouth almost before you think them: "Wow, you've grown!" It's a common experience because the changes come so rapidly in early childhood.

Yesterday, I introduced this new series where I'm recording my reflections on the Bible and early child development. The first stage we're going to consider is the infancy stage (from birth to 24 months). Tiny babies are changing at a rapid pace. Early in this stage, a baby will suck his thumb and recognize his mother but really nothing else in his environment. But after four months or so, the child begins to recognize that there is stuff outside of himself. So, a child will touch soft things or squeeze a toy. The more the child grows, the more he begins to be interested in things and explore his environment. By 18 months, children develop object permanence, beginning now to look around for hidden objects. They'll begin to imitate or make representations of things they have seen—like waving “Hi” or “Bye.” Before they've even reached age 2, these babes are able to work simple combinations in their mind: “I can put down the bucket to pick up the toy.” Pretend play begins. The child will rock a doll and tuck it into bed. And kids begin to see an object not only as what it is but also as what it could be--so for example, a toy block is used as a telephone. Piaget called this the young scientist stage; children begin to do little experiments as they explore their environments.

Erikson’s “Trust vs. Mistrust” Stage

New parents are thrilled with seeing their babes soak up life and learn new skills. But it's easy to miss the way they learn. Infants perceive life through an emotional grid--not a logical one. So what a child most needs at this stage is his parent’s loving and attentive care. Karyn Henley reminds us, “When the infant is hungry, we feed him. When he’s cold, we wrap him in a blanket. When his diaper is wet, we put a clean diaper on him. He learns that he can trust us to take care of him." Eric Erikson called this the "Trust vs. Mistrust" stage. As a child learns to trust, he has hope: hope that his needs will be met, hope that even though he is momentarily uncomfortable, everything will work out all right, because there is someone taking care of him.

Erikson was one of the first to observe that some developmental difficulties can be traced to children not coming to see that the world is a safe place. Today psychologists confirm that the quality and character of the emotional programming we received early in life establishes a pattern that can control our relationships later on. Rich Plass and Jim Cofield remind us that children must know their primary caregivers are both available and reliable. When caregivers are consistently unavailable, a child learns to avoid trusting others. When caregivers are consistently unreliable, a child can grow to be deeply insecure. 

The test of Intimacy: Can I trust I'll be loved and protected?

Parents' tender, available, and consistent care for their children is supposed to mirror God the Father's care for his people. Think about it. Adam is God’s son. Our first parents were made in his likeness (Genesis 1:26). This means they are his beloved children. Their identity is grounded in an intimate relationship--one that God kept with loyal love. God loved and cared for Adam perfectly. He provided Adam with everything he needed—a place to live (Genesis 2:8), food (Genesis 1:29, 2:9), water (Genesis 2:10-14), responsibility (Genesis 2:15, 1:28), boundaries for his protection (Genesis 2:16-17), and companionship (Genesis 2:18, 21-25). God shows this same kind of intimacy and love to every child from conception (Psalm 139:13-18).

But it wasn't long before a spiritual battle began for Adam's soul. It's a battle that begins for our kids even before they leave the nursery. When Satan came into the garden, he questioned God’s intimate love: "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden' (Genesis 3:1-3)? The snake questioned God’s motivation with the subtle “really.” And, by broadening the prohibition, “not eat from any,” he paints a picture of God as more strict than he really is. Satan raised doubts in the woman’s mind about God’s love and care. And the woman took the bait. Even though she corrected the snake, her own version of God’s prohibition in her response (Genesis 3:2) demonstrates she’d misunderstood God’s loving intention. First, she omits God’s statement that they were “free to eat from any tree in the garden except…” which had placed God’s prohibition in the context of liberality. Second, she identified the tree according to its location rather than its significance, which made God's prohibition seem arbitrary rather than a boundary given given for protection. She referred to God with the generic term like Satan had done rather than using LORD, his intimate covenant name. That shows us she wasn't conscious of her relationship with him in that moment. Finally, she added the phrase “you must not touch it,” which made God's prohibition more stringent and strict that it was when God gave it. Even with a perfectly available and consistent Father, Eve failed to trust. 

How Do We Help Infants Learn to Trust?

Seeing the way Satan tested humanity in its infancy should be a warning to parents. We have a huge responsibility to show our children they are really loved and can trust our reliable and available care. But how can we do it? Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Be Affectionate & Available —The first representation a child has of God is their parents and regular caregivers. When a child can feel attached to a loving parent, this can help them later develop attachment to and intimacy with a loving God. This is a practical outworking of the biblical truth “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). It's important for parents to show affection through appropriate physical touch, eye contact, and focused attention.  
     
  • Seeds of FaithDr. Brent Bounds encourages parents to introduce infants to God in very simple ways. We teach infants, “I’m taking care of you. God takes care of you.” “I love you. Jesus loves you.” We can point out God’s good creation—his loving provision for us. When an infant eats a banana, we say, “God made the banana.” When he smells a flower, we say, “The Lord made this flower.” When he feels the rain sprinkle down on him, we say, “God made the rain.” At first, the infant does not know the word “God” or the covenant names “Jesus” or “Lord” but he sees, smells, touches, tastes, and hears the world our Lord made. So we begin to make the connection for him.
     
  • Constancy—Infants are developing skills that will help them to trust that our Creator is good and unchanging in his love and care. Your ability to believe and trust God that he will be there for you even when you can’t see him was developed before 18 months (object permanence). It's not easy. Parents can lose a lot of sleep when a baby comes, and battling our own avoidant or emotionally erratic habits can be really difficult, especially when we're tired. But a maturing parent pursues consistency and unchanging unconditional love.

We Teach Trust By Trusting Ourselves

Finally, parents of infants can remember their hope is in the Father's loving care. We teach trust by trusting God ourselves. When Jesus had been fasting for forty days in the wilderness, the devil confronted him in the midst of his hunger (Matthew 4:2-3; Luke 4:3-4): "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Satan challenged the Savior to act apart from faithful dependence upon God and all God ordains for his provision. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 in response: "Man doesn't live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." In the original setting, Moses was reminding Israel that during their forty years in the desert God was testing them. He allowed them to be hungry and gave them manna so they might learn that people don't merely need bread but God's constant, sustaining word. Sometimes we quote those words as if Jesus was talking about having good theology, that is, knowing the right Bible verses for each and every situation. But Jesus (like Moses before him) was talking about a deep trust in God’s goodness. Our lives are sustained by God's every word--his constant care. The only way to give our kids the availability and reliability they need is to remember that is what God has first given to us.

Even during the infancy stage, when you're worn out from midnight feedings and constant diaper changes, you can rest in what God ordains. What he brings about is for your good. Trust in what he provides. That's the pathway toward teaching our children to trust as well.