Directors: Twos and Threes

“Does God have a paci (pacifier)?”

– 2 year old


The Task and the Strength

Early childhood, in this growth study, includes children two and three years old. I call them “directors,” because they seem to want to direct everything. Someone once said, “Give me an army of two-year-olds, and I can take over the world.”

Erikson says that the child at this stage develops either AUTONOMY or SHAME. An autonomous person is a person who rules himself. This is just what two and three year olds seem to want. They are beginning the process of becoming independent from Mom and Dad. They are becoming their own person.

Two- and three-year-olds want to do things for themselves. To help a child this age develop a sense of autonomy, adults can look for things the child can do. Show her what she can do: brush her teeth, wash her face, pick up toys, put on Velcro-fastened shoes, and many other things. As the child learns to be independent in these small ways, she feels a sense of AUTONOMY.

Of course, there are many things a young child is not able to do or is not allowed to do. The key to helping a child develop a sense of autonomy is the attitude of the adult. Encourage the child. If she needs help, step in to help her without criticizing and judging. Instead, express your confidence in her abilities. Show how proud you are that she’s getting bigger and will one day be doing these things by herself.

If the child is not allowed to begin doing things for herself, or if she’s constantly criticized and put down, she will develop a sense of shame. Erikson says shame is a feeling of being exposed. In this case, the child feels that what has been exposed is her own deficiency and inadequacy.

When the child moves through this stage feeling a sense of AUTONOMY, then the strength of WILL develops. Twos and threes are often called “strong willed” children. This is actually a good thing. God has planned for all of us to develop our own wills. He gives us free will. Then He asks us to choose to submit our wills to His. David wrote, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. . .” (Psalm 143:10).

Faith in Early Childhood

Fowler tells us that children are now forming their ideas and images of what God is like. They often think of God as having very human characteristics. Because of how Fowler describes this stage of faith development, I call it the “Fantasy/Imitative Stage.” Fowler says this is “the fantasy-filled, imitative phase in which the child can be powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions and stories” of the significant adults in her life. This stage of faith lasts until the child is about 6 or 7.

Imagination plays a big part in the lives of young children. As we learned earlier, they have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality. So the made-up stories of TV superheroes and the real-life stories of Jesus’ miracles may be given the same importance in the child’s mind. It’s good for us to point out what’s real and what’s not. But it’s also important for us not to be surprised if young children still confuse the two.

Fowler emphasizes the adult’s tremendous responsibility at this stage. He says, “The imagination and fantasy life of a child can be exploited by witting or unwitting adults.” The religious stories, images and symbols we share with children “can prove life-opening and sustaining of love, faith and courage,” or they can give rise “to fear, rigidity and the brutalization of souls.” This is because young children generally believe what they are told, without questioning whether it is true or not. Young children are impressionable and trusting. They believe there’s a Santa Claus because you tell them there’s a Santa Claus. They believe there’s a God and Jesus, because you tell them so. This is a stage of “taken-for-granted faith.”

The “imitative” label on this stage is also important. Young children will imitate the significant adults around them. They cannot enter the adult’s world, but they can imitate it. So the outward evidences of an adult’s faith may be imitated by a young child. She may “play church,” or pretend to pray, or baptize a stuffed animal.

The Significant Adult

Let’s pause for a moment and look at the term significant adult. The question might be asked, “Who are the significant adults in the child’s life?” The obvious, traditional answer is, “Mom and Dad.” But this is not always the case. It’s true that parents will always have a significant impact on their children, even if one or both parents are gone. The absence of a parent is indeed significant. However, I use the term significant adult to refer to an adult whose influence on the child affects the child’s choices, the child’s values.

The significant adult provides a moral compass for the child. In a radio interview, novelist Scott Specer talked about the importance of a moral compass. “What do you do when you are physically away from your moorings?” he asked. It depends on your moral compass. The interviewer commented, “People close to us are our memory banks. They help explain our lives to us.” (1) These are the people I’m referring to when I talk about the significant adults in a child’s life.

To find out who the significant people are in to a particular child of any age, ask, “Who spends time with the child? (Not just in the same house, but with the child.) Who listens to the child? Who plays with the child?” The answer to those questions will usually reveal the identity of the significant people in the child’s life. And it may not always be adults.

What’s Going on in the Young Child’s Mind?

At this stage, most children use words in their communication, and they understand many more words than they use in their speech. If you listen to twos and threes, you can see that their perspective is still egocentric. They see the world only from their viewpoint, although that begins to change during the last half of this stage.

Piaget called this the “pre-operational” stage, which begins around age two and lasts until about age seven. “Operation” is a word Piaget used to describe a thought process that allows a child “to do in his mind what before was done physically.” It describes logical reasoning. “Pre-operational” means that this stage of development comes before a child can reason logically. As we saw in Chapter 1, the young child operates by her own logic. One three-year-old exclaimed, “Mommy! I know why they call it the MOON!” Mom asked, “Why?” The little one answered, “Because the cow jumped over it and said MOOO!”

Twos and threes try to make sense of the world that revolves around their everyday activities, and they move through that world like a whirlwind, learning through their five senses. To find out how they affect the world, they perform simple cause and effect experiments: what will happen if I push this button, pull this string or take that apart? All this exploring keeps the adults around them hopping.

Developing Morality

As Erikson pointed out, Will is the strength that should develop at this stage. That’s both good news and challenging news. Good news, because it means the child is growing and maturing. Challenging news, because it means the child is now aware that she can make deliberate choices. She struggles to learn the balance between exerting and submitting her will.

For toddlers this struggle is very difficult. They are just emerging from a completely egocentric stage. Everything they see, smell, taste, touch or hear is “mine.” At about eighteen months, they begin to get a glimmer of understanding that other people have feelings and needs, too. Still, throughout this stage they continue to have a difficult time accepting the difference between “mine” and “yours.” Their play reflects this possessiveness. They engage in what’s called “parallel play”: playing side by side, but not cooperatively together. However, a developmental milestone occurs as the child nears age three. She begins “perspective taking”. This means she begins to be able to understand another’s viewpoint and know that others have rights, opinions, possessions, and feelings just like hers. (2)

One mother told about her two-year-old daughter, who was not yet at the perspective-taking stage. The two-year-old hit another little girl. The mother was aghast, and asked her daughter, “How do you think that feels?” Her daughter responded by studying her fist and saying, “It felt pretty good.” The two-year-old even interpreted the question egocentrically.

According to Dr. Lickona, this is a stage in which “right” is defined as “getting my own way.”   The reason to be good is so I will be rewarded and/or avoid punishment. So rules, consistently enforced, help train children to discern what’s right and what’s wrong. As we noted earlier, rules also help young children feel safe and secure. They sense their own difficulty in controlling themselves. So when there is a trustworthy person around to do the controlling, they don’t have to be afraid of what might happen. They feel protected. One thing about toddlers: They usually have to be told the same rules over and over again. They have a hard time generalizing, understanding that a rule may apply everywhere, in all situations.

The Challenge

Do you know any two and three year olds? What do they like to do? What do they talk about? What do they like to play with? What do they like to see, hear, taste, smell and touch? What are they “into”? What games do they like to play? You can become the expert on twos and threes by watching and listening to them. Add your own observations to what you learned in this chapter.

Your challenge is to answer the question, “How do I communicate God to two- and three-year-olds using their interests? How can I make God’s word relevant to the young child?”

–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 5
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.

child photo courtesy

One thought on “Directors: Twos and Threes

  1. Karyn, I have used and enjoyed your curriculum and ideas for years. I have never thanked you for how much the children in our church have benefited from your work. I began with the individual preschool books over 15 years ago with the coordinated activities for story telling, arts and crafts, and science and cooking after a friend and I used these books for our traded play dates with our own children. Currently our children’s ministry uses your lessons from 2 1/2 yo to 5th grade and have for as many of these last 17 years that it’s all been published. Our children have learned well over these years. I love your philosophy and approach. Thank you so much for all you do. Thank you for making your material so very affordable. The rest of our staff and our deacon board are so happy with the children’s ministry budget! I thank God He led me to you.

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