Excuse me, but I need to rant. Recently, I have become extremely frustrated with the River Kid’s Sunday school curriculum for preschoolers. It is more than frustration. It is close to rage. How hard can it be to teach preschoolers? See, we have a holy charge to teach our kids; but instead of fulfilling our obligation to God and to the parents of these kids, our teachers do nothing but share Bible stories with our kids. That’s not quite true. They also sing cutesy songs to them. When did we give in to the spirit of our age? When did we decide that we needed to dumb down our faith? See, I have looked through our curriculum extensively, and I have yet to see one lesson (no not one!) on divine timelessness, unlimited duration and the foreknowledge of God. Nor has there been one discussion on Modalism, Docetism, Adoptionism or Partialism, not in whole or in part! Not once have we had a class on Heidegger, Barth, Brunner or Schillebeeckx. Now, I would be fine with these omissions if the reason was that the curriculum was too focused on understanding Vanhoozer’s concept of Theo-drama. But no! Instead, kids are sitting around making crafts while a teacher plays the ukulele for them (a ukulele, for goodness’ sake!)! And I have yet to see a lesson on any hermeneutics of deliverance (which could be made oh so practical with a side discussion on Robinson Crusoe and the problem of witnessing). Let me just say it: I am fed up and sick with this whole ordeal. Why, for heaven’s sake, aren’t we teaching our kids the whole counsel of God? Is it because our kids aren’t particularly bright? Is it because our teachers are lazy? Is it because trying to come up with a craft that illustrates Gadamer’s hermeneutics is beyond what one preschool teacher can do on a Saturday night? I only wish I knew the answer! In the name of all that is holy, when did our preschool Sunday school class become, as the song says, a preschool wasteland?
What’s that you say? Our curriculum, with its Bible stories and songs, is perfect for children at that stage in their development? And that preschool kids can’t handle abstract thinking and aren’t capable of wrestling with Heidegger and Gadamer or Kant? Horse hockey!
I hate to admit it; but, not only are you right, but you have all the evidence on your side. Jean Piaget researched the cognitive development of children, and what he uncovered was both revelatory and revolutionary and, at the same time, obvious and commonsensical. After Piaget studied thousands of kids, he proposed that there are four distinct stages of childhood development. And these stages are very easily discernible. His research was so convincing that almost every parent today would argue that these stages are self-evident. Let me unpack these four stages for you.
Piaget labeled the first stage the “Sensorimotor Stage,” and it describes children from birth until 2 years of age. Children in this stage experience the world only through their senses and their movements. If they see something, it exists; if they can’t see it, it doesn’t. That’s why Peek-a-Boo is a great game. Hide behind a blanket or your hands, and the baby is sure you have disappeared. Reappear and the baby is not only delighted, but awed. Even better, they have no idea how you performed the magic trick of all magic tricks! (A word of warning: if you are trying to “draw out” and “win over” a sullen teenager, for some strange reason, Peek-a-Boo, a proven winner with babies, is not recommended. I think it is because teenagers hate to be surprised).
Somewhere around age two, a second stage appears. This is the “Preoperational Stage.” Children in this stage acquire the ability to think about their world through language and mental imagery. Children at this age are great at pretending, but they aren’t so good at logical reasoning. However, they can think in symbols and understand that a word or an object can represent something else. Kids in this stage are also very egocentric. I think this is MY favorite stage, and I don’t care what you think.
At age 7, most children move into the “Concrete Operational” stage. Here, kids understand their world through logical thinking and can classify things into proper categories. They understand cause and effect, time, space and quantity. They are less egocentric and begin to be able to see the world through the eyes of another person. They have adult-like logic but they can only apply it to concrete, real-life situations. When a young girl in our church told me that he often sleeps in her hat, I asked her why her parents wouldn’t allow her to sleep in a bed like every other child I know. She assured me that I had misunderstood her and that she often wore a hat while sleeping in her bed. All that to say, you can have great conversations with kids in this stage.
Finally, around age 12, they enter the “Formal Operations” stage. Here, adolescents can think abstractly, develop hypothetical ideas, process advanced thinking in math and science and become teenagers.
And there you have it — four distinct stages that every child goes through. When three-year olds are faced with an algebraic problem, it’s not that they aren’t smart enough to figure it out, it is that they are unable to do so. Their world doesn’t work that way (or more accurately, their brains don’t think that way). And all children progress through these same four stages.
Now it is important to realize that we are talking about stages here, not just things that aren’t age appropriate. When I was a six-year-old kid living in Turkey, there was no available TV. As a result, we went to the base movie theater – a lot. Every Saturday morning, I went and watched three or four hours of silver-screen entertainment. There were two features, two or three serials and a handful of cartoons. It was great! I loved every second of flickering light. But sometimes, we also went during the week. And that is where, at age six, I saw my first James Bond movie. Now, some may cry foul, saying that was not age appropriate. Children should not see any Bond movie until they are at least 17 (I feel like I had to say that in case presbytery is reading). Others would argue Bond movies are rated PG-13, so 13 would have been an appropriate age to go to a Bond movie. And still others would argue that, because I was so young, many of the scenes would have gone over my head; and therefore, no harm, no foul. But I assure you, nothing went over my head! I still remember every scene Ursula Andress was in, complete with what she was wearing.
But the point is well taken. Some things may be age appropriate for some children, and some things may not. Go back to what we should teach our preschool kids. Do we refrain from teaching them things that I mentioned above because they are not age appropriate, meaning they should not be exposed to these things until much later in life (akin to seeing Ursula Andress in a 1962 bikini)? Or because they do not have the capacity to grasp these issues because their brains are not hardwired to process them yet? If you guessed the latter, you are absolutely right. In other words, we cannot just be age appropriate, we also have to be stage appropriate.
Okay, let’s wrap things up for today with three final points.
Big Point Number One: When Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage,” he spoke better than he knew. See, there are all sorts of discernible stages for many of the activities in our lives. Piaget discerned the four stages of cognitive development in children. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross discerned the five stages of grief. Lawrence Kohlberg discerned six stages of moral development. I am going to argue that there are also stages of faith.
Big Point Number Two: If we are serious about growing in our faith, then understanding these stages is important; but more importantly than just being important, knowing these stages is extremely helpful. Thomas Fuller said, “The fool wanders; a wise man travels.” Knowing the stages not only allows us to travel, but gives us a map so that we can see where we are and where we are going. And they give us insight into why we believe many of the things we do.
Big Point Number Three: Any time we can look at our faith in a way that is different, engaging and insightful, we are putting ourselves in a place where growth is a real possibility. Emile Chartier said: “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it’s the only one you have.” Looking at faith differently allows us to explore new questions, new answers and new viewpoints. Those perspectives may give us a whole new insight into who we are and why we believe the way we do. Marcel Proust wrote these great words: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” I believe looking at our faith journey differently gives us new eyes.
That’s all for today. Next week, we will actually begin looking at the stages. I hope you’re looking forward to it. In the meantime, remember these immortal words from Sean O’Casey: “All the world’s a stage, and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” And that is the problem with stages. I always fear that I am stuck in stage one!