A Foundation for Faith: Infancy

From a sign posted at the church nursery door:

“We shall not all sleep,

but we shall all be changed.”

1 Corinthians 15:51


The Task and the Strength

According to Erikson, there is a task that corresponds with each stage of development. In infancy, the task is to develop either TRUST, at the positive end of the scale, or MISTRUST, at the negative end. Since life is a mixture of positive and negative, there is conflict in each stage. If the positive side dominates, there emerges what Erikson called a “strength.” The formation of these strengths are crucial to leading a healthy life. In the stage of infancy, when TRUST develops, the strength of HOPE emerges in the child.

What does this have to do with faith development? First of all, TRUST is a spiritual concept. God asks us to trust him. It is not easy to trust a God we can’t see if we can’t trust people we can see. Erikson himself said, “Out of the conflict between TRUST and MISTRUST, the infant develops HOPE which is the earliest form of what gradually becomes FAITH in adults.”

So our role with infants is to instill in them a sense of trust. How do we do that? It’s really very simple. We take care of his needs. The infant comes into the world completely dependent on others for his care. Our interaction with him either communicates to him that he can trust us, or it brings about a sense of mistrust.

So 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. When he TRUSTS us, he has HOPE. Hope seems to be a very abstract concept for such young children. In order to make it specific and practical, let’s think about hope as it relates to you, the adult, for a moment. Then we’ll bring it back and apply it to the infant.

You have needs. You have seen how God meets your needs and the needs of others. So you TRUST Him. When you TRUST Him, He continues to confirm Himself to you by taking care of you in a variety of ways. Your relationship with God and your experience of His love and care give you have HOPE: HOPE that your needs will be met, HOPE that even when your situation looks bleak, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Everything will work out all right, because there’s someone taking care of you. “Now FAITH is being sure of what we HOPE for…” (Hebrews 11:1).

Now let’s apply this to the infant. If his caregivers are taking care of his needs, he learns he can trust them. When he trusts, he has hope that, no matter how uncomfortable he may be at any given moment (hungry or wet or cold), everything will be out all right, because there’s someone here whom he can trust to take care of him.


Faith in Infancy

Paul wrote to Timothy, “…from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures” (2 Timothy 3:15). As we saw in the previous section, infancy is where faith can begin to develop. Paul refers to Timothy’s mother and grandmother who were believers before Timothy was born. So they obviously began early to guide Timothy into a trusting relationship with God.

Fowler says that infancy is a stage of “Undifferentiated Faith.” According to Fowler, this means that the beginnings of trust, courage, hope and love are mixed together into one feeling: good. They are not experienced as separate feelings. In simple terms, the infant feels a basic sense of good and bad, pain and pleasure.

Fowler also says, “The strength of trust, autonomy, hope and courage (or their opposites) developed in this phase underlie (or threaten to undermine) all that comes later in the faith development.” Are you important if you teach infants? Yes! Can you as a parent or teacher help infants learn anything spiritually significant? Yes. You can help them trust. You can plant the seeds of faith.

In addition to taking care of an infant’s needs, there are other ways to introduce infants to God. These methods are simple, but they are important and appropriate to the infant’s developmental level. First, because infants learn through their five senses, we point out God’s creation as it relates to their immediate sensory experiences. In other words, when the infant eats a banana, we say, “God made the banana.” When he smells a flower, we say, “God made the 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,” but he sees, smells, touches, tastes and hears the world God made. So we begin to make the connection for him. We are introducing him to God.

We do a similar thing in order to teach about God’s care and love. When the infant is cold, we wrap a warm blanket around him, or we put a sweater on him. We say, “I’m taking care of you. God takes care of you.” When we rock the infant in a peaceful moment, we say, “I love you. God loves you.” The infant does not know abstractions “God” or “care” or “love,” but he does know the feeling he’s having at those moments, feelings of being loved and cared for. So we make the connection for him. We are introducing him to God.


What’s Going on in the Infant’s Mind?

Since we are created in God’s image, we are born with intellect. We’ve been made with certain built-in capabilities like creativity, exploration and discovery, the drive to communicate, laughter, personality and temperament. Researchers who don’t believe in God are still trying to determine how these can be present in babies.

An infant is not a completely blank slate when he’s born. But he has a lot to learn. Where is he in mental ability? How does his mind develop?

An infant’s world is very tangible. It consists of what he sees, hears, smells, touches and tastes. Everything is new. Everything is being discovered. Piaget labeled this time a “sensorimotor” stage. That means infants are using their senses to learn about the world around them. Their motor skills are also developing, and infants use these skills to help them discover.

But there are other ways in which the infant is learning. Infants are fascinated by faces. This is one clue that points to the fact that infants want interaction with other people. In these interactions, their communication skills grow.

An infant’s learning is also affected by his personality and temperament. Then, too, his culture affects how he learns. And he is born into a specific, unique family situation, which affects his learning as well.


Developing Morality

According to Piaget, the infant is in a premoral position. That simply means that the infant is not yet making conscious moral choices. Deuteronomy 1 shows Moses addressing God’s people, reminding them that they refused to go into the Promised Land as God had instructed. Moses says, “Your children who do not yet know good from bad – they will enter the land” (Deuteronomy 1:39). Isaiah also mentions this premoral stage: “Before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land . . . will be laid waste” (Isaiah 7:16).

The infant is, of course, born with a tendency to sin. We know this, because the infant is born completely self-centered, choosing his desires over the needs of others. He thinks the world revolves around him. In fact, at first the infant perceives even Mom and Dad to be an extension of himself. As far as morality goes, this is definitely square one.

So how does morality grow? We adults are an important key. The infant is aware of feeling comfort and discomfort, pain and pleasure, and even more important, acceptance and rejection. When an infant feels accepted, he is on the way to accepting and respecting others. Conversely, when an infant feels rejected, he is on the way to rejecting others. This is a basic truth of God’s Kingdom: “We love because he (God) first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We respect because God first respected us. In the same way, our children love because we first loved them. They respect because we first respected them. Why is this important? Because respect for others is the foundation of morality.

Of course, the infant depends on outward cues to show him which choices are right and which are wrong. He’s sensitive to the difference between smiles and frowns, and he soon learns to understand “yes” and “no,” as well as the caregiver’s tone of voice and body language that indicate something is right or wrong. These outward cues guide the infant in making right choices, although he’ll be about six years old before he will consistently be correct in discerning between right and wrong.


The Challenge

I sometimes ask people who attend my faith development seminar what an infant is like. What do infants enjoy? What do they do? Parents, grandparents and teachers who have infants raise their hands. “They like to hear singing.” “They like to put things in their mouths.” “They like to watch faces.” “They like to be held.” These people are the experts on infants. They know what an infant likes.

If you spend time with one or more infants, you can do on a small scale what researchers do. Watch and listen. Find out what motivates the infant you work with. What does he like?

Now you have a challenge. You know what the infant does. You know what he likes. How can you communicate God to the infant through the things he does and likes? How can you make it relevant to his life? This is your challenge. But it’s one you can meet. And you will be greatly rewarded for it.

–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 4
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.