“Teacher! I’m five and nine quarters!”
– 5 year old
The Task and the Strength
At this stage, children develop either INITIATIVE or GUILT. A person with initiative does things without being asked. He takes the offensive. He thinks independently. He’s what we would call a self-starter. This describes children who are four and five years old. They are little scientists, trying to impose order on their rapidly expanding world, about which they have plenty of questions. They are out to explore, examine, and discover everything. They want to learn and know.
When a child is encouraged to follow this natural inclination to explore, he develops a sense of INITIATIVE. There are, of course, limits to what the four- or five-year-old child is able to do. There are also things he will not be allowed to explore. Again, it’s the adult’s response that is key to developing INITIATIVE. When the child is ridiculed or put down, or when he is continually restricted and told he is not capable, he begins to feel GUILT.
It’s not that adults should let the child do anything he wants. But adults should have an encouraging attitude toward the child’s God-given desire for knowledge and his attempts at exploration. There are encouraging ways to say, “No.” For example, “I’m glad you want to dig in the dirt. But now is not the time. We’ll plan another time when you can do that.” Or, “This is not a good place to dig. Here’s a better place.” Sometimes, simply substituting an acceptable avenue of exploration for an unacceptable one solves the problem.
One area in which the curious child can easily swamp adults is with his questions. Young children ask hundreds of questions every day. Some of these questions are quite deep. When one of my sons was five, he asked, “Why does the skin on your body never end?” Other questions are so off-the-wall that they have no real, logical answers.
Frustrated adults sometimes respond with, “That’s a silly question!” “Where did you come up with a question like that?” “I’ve had it with all these questions!” “I don’t want to hear another question!” Responses like these cause the child to feel guilt. He doesn’t know it’s natural for him to ask questions. As far as he knows, he may be the only person in the world who is dumb enough not to know the answer.
There are some encouraging, initiative-promoting responses that are easy for adults to use. A good start is, “That’s a good question!” It’s always all right to say, “I don’t know.” It’s even better to say, “What do you think?” Then the child can give his opinion. This helps him feel that his ideas and thoughts are valuable.
Sometimes the answer to a question is a matter of research, but the question comes at a time when it’s not possible to look up the answer. Then a good response is, “We’ll try to find out after lunch.” Or “We’ll try to find a book about that at the library.” This not only values his question, but it helps him learn how to learn.
When a child develops his sense of INITIATIVE during this stage, the strength of PURPOSE emerges. The child feels, “There’s a purpose for my curiosity. There’s a purpose for my questions. There’s a purpose for me in God’s world.” David felt the strength of purpose. He wrote, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me” (Psalm 138:8).
Faith in Four and Five Year Olds
Four- and five-year-olds are still in the Fantasy-Imitative stage of faith that began around age two. They are living what they imagine, and they are imitating the visible signs of faith of significant adults. One mother told about a baptism service at church. The children gathered around the baptismal pool and watched. Later that week, she took her five year old daughter and her cousins to the swimming pool where, she said, “They baptized each other all afternoon: You baptize me. I baptize you.” For a more thorough review of this stage, see the Faith section in the previous chapter.
A young child’s understandings are intuitive. He feels and understands without what we adults would classify as rational thought, although as the child grows, his ability to reason also grows. As we learned earlier, the young child believes whatever you tell him. That’s why we often idealize the “pure” faith of a child. His faith is “taken-for-granted,” and he does not question it. In other words, “that’s just the way it is.” And that’s perfectly normal for this stage.
What’s Going on in the Minds of Fours and Fives?
Fours and fives are still in what Piaget called the pre-operational stage, and they still learn primarily through their five senses. But significant mental skills are developing. Howard Gardner says that one of the most important skills that develops is the ability to understand and work with symbols. As the child grows from age two to around age six or seven, this ability increases. He grows from literal interpretations to understanding the symbolic.
Since there is so much symbolism and so many abstract concepts in Christianity, it’s important to understand that preschoolers have very little capacity for understanding symbolism and thinking abstractly. This is an important factor not only in choosing Bible stories and concepts for preschoolers, but also in deciding how to teach. One mother told about going to a Christian bookstore with her five-year-old daughter. The little girl saw a painting of a lion lying down with a lamb. She pointed to the lamb and asked, “Is his name Worthy?”
Another mother was warning her preschool son to behave. She said, “You’d better stop that or you’re going to be in hot water.” Her son looked awed. “Mommy,” he said, “why would you put me in hot water?” Fours and fives still interpret what we say literally.
Fours and fives also still use childlike logic. As one father and his young son walked down the front steps outside the front of the church building one Sunday, the little boy declared, “I know why we have cracks in our bottoms! It’s so we can go down the stairs!” Another preschooler saw a house in a lot, sitting on the flat bed of a truck, which to an adult would indicate that the house was to be moved. But the child pointed to it and said, “that house must have been so dirty!” His mom asked, “Why?” The child said, “Because they had to lift it up to sweep all the dirt out from under it.”
Fours and fives are beginning to realize that they are growing. They will not be babies forever. So they are very proud of their age. In fact, some of them may announce how old they are every time they come to class. This motivates other children to chime in and tell how old they are. This is a new concept to them: growing, getting older, better, smarter and stronger.
This interest in age may also have to do with the fact that children are now a great deal more interested in numbers and counting. In fact, Howard Gardner has called this an important “wave” in their growing ability to make and use symbols. Four years olds seem to want to count everything.
Because exploration and discovery are so much a part of their lives, fours and fives begin seeing a lot more of what’s happening in the world around them. By five, they are also beginning to see the difference between fantasy and reality. But there’s still a lot they don’t understand, so they may develop fears they’ve not had before. They want and need understanding and comfort.
Fours and fives still depend on rules (and the enforcement of those rules) to guide them in knowing and choosing what’s right and what’s wrong. However, their conscience is beginning to develop. The teaching and training of earlier years is beginning to be internalized. Now they don’t have to be told as often. They know it’s wrong to take toys from other children. It’s right to share. It’s wrong to hit. It’s right to help. They are starting to understand the concept of consequences, cause and effect, if/then.
Dr. Robert Solomon, a professor of philosophy, points out that the conscience is, in many ways, the sensibility of “being caught in the act.” In essence, we “catch ourselves.” That’s what moral education is. We learn to stop ourselves. “Our own self-consciousness imposes the internal judgment.” (1)
Of course, children don’t always go by what their developing conscience tells them (just as we don’t always go by what our conscience tells us). They share selectively, picking and choosing what to share and when. They still have trouble seeing from any viewpoint but their own. They continue to need external help to confirm when they are on the right or wrong track. However, according to Dr. Lickona, around age five, children move up to a new level of morality, believing that what’s right is to “do what I’m told.”
We can see their new level of morality reflected in their play. Instead of “parallel play” (side by side but not together) of the twos and threes, we find fours and fives in “associative play.” This means they start interacting cooperatively with other children when they play. You will hear things like, “You be the mommy and I’ll be the baby.” Or “You be the store man and I’ll come and buy some food.” Or “You make the road with the blocks and I’ll drive my car over it.”
Fours and fives also begin identifying with the values of the significant people in their lives. A five-year-old may report with dismay to Mom about a friend’s family: “Do you know what movie they’re going to watch tonight?” Or shocked, the five-year-old says, “Did you hear the word he said?” Four- and five-year-olds are discovering that not all people share the same values. As for them? They identify with your values, if you are one of the significant adults.
Do you know four- and five-year-old children? What are they “into?” What do they like and dislike? What do they enjoy doing, hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting? What games do they like to play? What do they talk about? Add your answers to the information you learned in this chapter. Your challenge is to decide how to communicate God to fours and fives through what they enjoy. Make it relevant to their lives. This is where you will be most successful.
By now in the child’s development, the most important character-shaping and faith-shaping years are almost over. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit leader, said, “Give me the children until they are seven, and anyone may have them afterwards.” The preschool years are perhaps the most important years of a person’s life. Although major changes can and do happen later, by age six or seven, basic foundations have been laid within the child which will underlie the rest of his life. David Kherdian, in The Road from Home, wrote, “What you learn in old age is carved on ice. What you learn in childhood is carved on stone.”
–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 6
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.
child photo courtesy pixabay.com