Spiritual Development of Young Children

The most basic component of any relationship is that of trust (Erikson, 2010). Trust in someone's care; trust in someone’s love. It is trust that makes one feel safe and secure. It is trust that brings contentment. It is trust that gives us a sense of our own self-worth and allows us to value those around us as well as to empathize with another person's plight.

The concept of trust is being taught from the time an infant is born. Will a cry be answered? Will a need be met? Is there comfort to be found? Within the answers to these quests, the infant discovers that trust is only the beginning. Love and acceptance, care and concern, tenderness and contentment all support the developing person-hood of the infant.

As the infant matures into a young toddler, certain behaviors require limit setting. Still, the nurturing of emotions and individual sensitivities helps the child learn about feelings, what they are and how to handle them.

When the desire for autonomy initiates, so does the fundamental knowledge of their own thoughts and feelings. This new knowledge helps them understand the thoughts and feelings of others. The family environment assists in learning how others should be treated as well as the need for reciprocal relationships.

The combination of relationships (Markus & Wurf, 1987 as cited in Lee, 1998), purposeful affective instruction and a loving, accepting environment (McGuire, 1984 as cited in Lee, 1988) strongly influence the person-hood of each child. Through teaching and life-lessons, the child’s world-view and understanding of self is laid. Religious instruction, then, can begin to influence the child’s world-view and understanding of self. And all this occurs before the age of five. 

When contemplating the questions and principles regarding the religious instruction of young children, there appears to be some foundational knowledge missing from the writings of researchers. There appears to be a lot of confusion regarding the difference between religious instruction and spiritual development. Many researchers write about the metaphysical world, the transcendental world, not realizing these are a form of religion even if not specifically tied to a denomination.

The strength behind this argument lies in the fact that one’s spiritual development begins at birth, not as “cosmic beings… united with angelic and other spiritual beings” (Trostli, 1998), but as immature humans who must learn to trust those around them. Perhaps defining the differences between religious instruction and spiritual development would be beneficial.

Defining Spirituality

First of all, the religious instruction of a child is very, very different from the spiritual development of a child. Religious instruction is just that – instruction in one’s set of religious beliefs. It is expressed in the organized practice and discipline of certain beliefs about self, God and humanity. Spiritual development, though, involves the “integration of one’s beliefs, value, meaning and self-worth… These are intangible elements, such as beliefs about self and others… Religious beliefs may eventually be part of what a child believes about himself and others, but… it is only one of the many factors that make up spirituality” (Gillan, 2007, p. 1, ¶3 & p. 2, ¶ 1& 2).

Understanding the difference between the religious instruction and spiritual development of a young child will go a long way in helping to understand how to foster the child’s spiritual development. It will also help to inform and guide the process of religious instruction.

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Recently, I received an email from an earnest and sincere lady. She was experiencing a real dilemma, personally and spiritually. It took me more than a month to respond. I wanted my response to be as genuine as her questions:


Do we shelter our children too much?

Let me explain what I mean by this. A two year old is taught that Jesus came from heaven, was born human, suffered and died on the cross. There is no other story so graphic and unfair as that story. Yet the young child is told this story. Why then do we not tell some of the other stories or why do we leave out portions of those stories?

I have often wondered this because I teach Kindergarten at church and there are so many good lessons that we do not teach. If a child can hear about God's holy Son dying on a cross for the human race, shouldn't they know why He did that? Can't they "handle" hearing all the other stories in their entirety?

Daniel was mistreated for no reason and was sentenced to death in a lion's den, but God saved him. However, the ones who mistreated him had to face the consequences of their choice. That is what needs to be taught. Right away, not later. How else can they understand the terrible nature of sin?


As I contemplated the questions and principles regarding the religious instruction of young children, it dawned on me that some foundational knowledge might be missing.


Stages of Spiritual Development

As would be expected, the stages of spiritual development build upon each other and always overlap. There is no definite age at which an individual passes from one stage to another it is simply a matter of maturation and readiness. The continuum that is demonstrated in the individual's ability to comprehend certain concepts and teachings, such as cause and effect, expressiveness, me and others, all play an important role in the advancement from stage to stage.

A child's spirituality is certainly developed over time simultaneously with mental and physical growth, but it is not a "developmental stage". In fact, many adults find themselves in need of spiritual development at certain times of their lives. The spiritual dimension is the integrator of all contributing factors, such as psychological, social, environmental, cognitive and emotional, thus providing a foundation on which to build who the child will become (Gillan, 2007).

Spiritual Development: Affective Dimension
If we know that the most prominent and influential aspect of the young infant’s world is the affective dimension, then we also know that the bonds of love and affection which are developed during the first few months are vital information carriers. The smiles, gentle touches, soothing words and songs, and tenderness all demonstrate love and acceptance, care and concern, trust and contentment. This affective dimension is the foundation upon which all other dimensions are built.

Religious Instruction: Affective Dimension

Young children, especially infants, learn God’s love and care through their relationships, the affective dimension (Hyman, 1968 as cited in Lee, 1988). The smiles, gentle touches, soothing words and songs, and affection given and shown all demonstrate the love and acceptance of a gracious God (Dunn, 1986; Lee, 1988).

During this phase, the foundation for religious instruction should focus on a God who is loving, accepting, caring, concerned, trustworthy and in whom we can find contentment. Stories from the Bible which demonstrate these characteristics include the story of creation and a myriad of other stories that demonstrate God’s care and concern for those who trust in Him: Moses in the bulrushes; water from a rock; ravens feeding Elijah; Jesus making breakfast for His disciples; Jesus’ miracles, etcetera. The goal is to teach the infant that the Most High God of Heaven is a good God who will love and care for those who trust in Him.

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Spiritual Development: Cognitive Dimension
As the infant matures into a young toddler, parents naturally find themselves correcting behaviors, setting limits and reinforcing those limits all the while still nurturing the emotions and sensitivities of their young child. This is when the young child begins to learn about feelings, what they are, what they are called and how to handle them. This is when empathy begins to express itself and where lessons of altruism commence.

Religious Instruction: Cognitive Dimension

As the young child’s cognitive abilities develop, these can be enhanced by the affective dimension; a dimension which “can be influenced, developed, and taught… through specific pedagogical skills” (Brophy, Good & Needler, 1975 as cited in Lee, 1988, p. 169). Research indicates that the development of the young child’s affective dimension must be purposefully taught (Lee, 1988). Parents must intentionally attend to the child’s affective behaviors, communicate and respond empathically, name and describe feelings and use nonverbal behaviors and signs (Carkhuff, 1981 as cited in Lee, 1988).

As religious instruction continues, the affective components previously taught now include descriptions of feelings, emotions, reactions and decisions. For instance, the story of Naaman now includes the concepts of how kind the little maid was, how worried Mrs. Naaman felt and how unhappy, indeed angry, Naaman was when told to wash in the dirty Jordan river. As with previous tellings, everyone is happy when Naaman is obedient and God heals him. The freedom to make decisions, both good and bad, is discussed. Obedience is emphasized and yet, disobedience must come into the conversation from time to time. Lessons must be learned; consequences experienced.

Spiritual Development: Social and Emotional Dimensions

As the child matures into the stage of autonomy, changes occur in behavior, mindset, intentionality and willfulness. Here they embark on the social and emotional stage of spiritual development. The fundamental knowledge of their own thoughts and feelings begins to help them understand the thoughts and feelings of others. The family environment is a microcosm of society at large: How others are to be treated, the role of self and one’s will, the value of one’s contributions, efforts and cooperation, interpersonal interactions as well as a dawning awareness of one’s intrapersonal perspectives.

Religious Instruction: Social and Emotional Dimensions

Christian families provide a unique medium for sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with young children. In order to accomplish this, the social and emotional climate of the entire home must reflect the character of Christ: Love, care, unconditional acceptance, warmth, giving, forgiveness, empathy, altruism, carefulness and thoroughness (Lee, 1998). An environment of this type, along with the instructional behaviors exhibited, are vital in helping young children learn to love an unseen God (Kelsey, 1977 as cited in Lee, 1988). Without which, children may learn to be apathetic, lacking feelings and emotions, concern and interest (May, 1969 as cited in Lee, 1988).

Biblical stories can now have an additional component added to them:

·         How did the character’s feel/think? If you were this person, how would you think/feel?

·         What should they do? What would you do?

·         What should they say? What would you say?

·         What did they do wrong?

·         What did they do right?

·         What does this story teach us about God?

Probably the most important lessons to learn at this stage have to do with the picture of God that is being formed in the child’s mind. A demanding, arbitrary parent will be reflected in Bible stories and represent a demanding, arbitrary God. An unpredictable, undependable parent will also mirror an unpredictable, undependable God. How important it is then, for the parents to be examples of the loving, caring, forgiving God so well depicted within the stories of Scripture.

Spiritual Development: Self-Concept Dimension


The combination of relationships (Markus & Wurf, 1987 as cited in Lee, 1998), purposeful affective instruction and a loving, accepting environment (McGuire, 1984 as cited in Lee, 1988) strongly influences the beliefs, values, meaning, and self-worth of a child (Gillan, 2007). Through learning and personal life-experiences the foundation of the child’s world-view and view of self is laid (Gillan, 2007). “The spiritual dimension integrates all” (Gillan, 2007, p. 2, ¶1) other dimensions into a child who gradually learns to “differentiate self from others and to evaluate who self is, what self is like, and what self ought to be” (Hess & Croft, 1975 as cited in Lee, 1988p. 172) in relation to role models and expectations (Lee, 1988).

Religious Instruction: Self-Concept Dimension

One’s self-concept is predicated upon the personal value instilled into the young child from infancy.  Hence, the Christian parent will de-emphasize the idea of self-esteem (Philippians 2:3) while emphasizing the importance of self-worth (White, 1954/2002, Page 162, ¶ 4). Here now, the stories of self-sacrifice, submission and selflessness become meaningful as the young child participates in various acts of kindness and thoughtfulness toward others. The ultimate example of selflessness, that of God giving His only begotten Son, is held in deep reverence and appreciation. So too, are the reasons for God’s gift: To demonstrate God’s character; to provide us an example of how we should be; to establish our faith in God’s promises; to give us hope.

As the young child participates in projects that help to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick and confined (Matthew 25:31-37) – they will learn life lessons that will strengthen their ability to empathize with the plight of others. They will learn to appreciate the gift of life – all life – because of the gift of eternal life provided to them by a gracious, ever-present God. Such lessons should span the entirety of daily life – from the caring of plants and animals to the care of other children, adults and the elderly.

Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he was asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring child. The winner was a four year old child whose next door neighbor was an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman's yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his mother asked what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy replied, "Nothing. I just helped him cry."

This is religion in action; the reality of life here on Earth while we wait for the realization of our hope.

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Understanding the difference between the religious instruction and spiritual development of a young child will go a long way in helping to understand how to foster the child’s spiritual development. It will also help to inform and guide the process of religious instruction.

Despite the hectic lifestyles; despite the financial burdens; despite the opinions of others – the spiritual development of each child rests upon the shoulders of the parent and largely upon the mother of the child. The topic has so many facets and implications: Healthy moms/unhealthy moms; stable homes/unstable homes; supportive fathers/abusive and neglectful fathers. For now, I am content to share what is currently known and look eagerly for new data, new knowledge, new ways of presenting truth.

© 2010, C. Gillan Byrne

Speaking appointments are typically scheduled 12 months in advance. 

To schedule a speaking appointment with Dr. Gillan Byrne, please use the email link or call (479) 216-9771.


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Erik Erikson. (2010, October 22). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:17, October 28, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Erik_Erikson&oldid=392272469
Gillan, S. (2007). Young children and spirituality. Unpublished manuscript.
Kanter, Janet. (2007, November 6). Spiritual health: Data supporting a revised definition based on spiritual need fulfillment. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the American Public Health Association, Washington, D.C.
Lee, J. M. (1988). How to teach: Foundations, processes, procedures. In D. Ratcliff (Ed.), Handbook of Preschool Religious Education (pp. 152-223). Birmingham, Alabama: Religious Education Press.
Stewart, S. & Berryman, J. (1989). Young children and worship. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Trostli, R. (1998). Rhythms of learning. Anthroposophical Press. Retrieved December 28, 2008 from http://www.waldorfearlychildhood.org/articles.asp?id=3.

White, E. G. (1954; 2002). Child Guidance. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association. 

White, E.G. (1896, November 17). A letter from Sister White. The Review and Herald [RH]. Retrieved from http://egwdatabase.whiteestate.org/nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates$fn=default.htm$vid=default

Vader, John-Paul. (2006, October). Spiritual health: The next frontier. European Journal of Public Health, 16(5): 457. http://eurpub.oxfordjournals.org/content/16/5/457.full 


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