New Discoveries about Young Children’s Faith Formation

Karen-Marie YustFaith Formation

bubblesFor decades, we have operated with certain developmental beliefs about preschool faith formation. Now, with the advantages of new research methods, it is time to reexamine our assumptions. Yale University’s Paul Bloom and Harvard University’s Paul Harris have made exciting discoveries that invite us to retool our preschool ministries. Let me share some of their findings and suggest ways their work might reframe our own efforts.

Paul Bloom studies young children’s moral development, and he has noticed that infants as young as three months old exhibit signs of moral sensitivity. Analyzing videotapes of babies and toddlers watching animated and puppet scenarios involving helping and hindering behaviors (e.g. one figure helping another roll a ball up a ramp or one blocking the ball as the other tries to roll it), Bloom realized that young children prefer figures who act helpfully over those who obstruct another’s actions. He observed that infants are particularly distressed by negative (hindering) behavior, suggesting that they sense the danger that “bad” behavior poses to human relationships. He concludes that young children have the capacity to make basic judgments between good and bad, and that their preference for helpers over hinderers shows signs of the same kind of “disinterested judgments” (i.e. judgments based on universal vs. individual benefits) that we thought only mature adults make.

We can nurture this moral sensitivity as part of faith formation by emphasizing helping and hindering actions in the Bible stories we tell. Many curricula for very young children focus primarily on stories about creation, children or animals, on the assumption that infants and toddlers can only grasp concrete objects. Bloom’s work suggests that young minds are already intuitively exploring moral principles, and caregivers can reinforce these nascent moral judgments by acting out with play figures and puppets the wide variety of helping and hindering behaviors that are part of Bible narratives.

Bloom also studies preschool ethics. His work with children as young as fifteen months indicates that toddlers have a strong bias toward fairness, defined as equal outcomes for all. However, this natural born egalitarianism is tempered by egocentrism. A toddler is mostly troubled by inequality of outcome when it means they get less of something than someone else (e.g. getting two cookies when someone else gets three). Social networks also affect a child’s ethics: toddlers and preschoolers are much more likely to share equally with people they think of as family than with strangers. And, as in helping/hindering scenarios, young children pay more attention to when others act unfairly than when they achieve egalitarian goals. Bloom explains that this is why children as young as two “tattle” about the wrong behavior of others. From the child’s perspective, tattling is meant to serve two purposes: to receive adult recognition for the child’s moral sensitivity to an unfair situation and to encourage vengeful punishment of wrongdoers. While adults may not want to reinforce vengefulness, Bloom thinks we need to work harder at reinforcing children’s accurate moral judgments by acknowledging tattlers’ correct assessments of unfairness situations.

Bloom’s work points us toward another noteworthy implication of young children’s moral development: the power of kinship language. When young children hear people outside their close family categorized as brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, parents, and/or grandparents, they are more likely to incorporate these outsiders into their preferential systems of compassion. “Adopted” outsiders are no longer viewed as strangers to fear, but as kin to care for. If we refer to a woman who is homeless as “our sister without a house”, preschoolers are more likely to exercise compassion toward that person  by looking for a way to share with her.

Paul Harris’s primary research interest has been in discerning how young children learn from listening to what other people say as well as from sensory explorations. He has found that, by thirty months of age, children competently update and enrich their ideas about how the world works on the basis of both firsthand experience and the testimony of others. They do so primarily through questioning. Previous theorists (e.g. Jean Piaget) believed that children ask questions because they want to understand how things work. However, Harris discovered that children also seek information when they notice an anomaly – something that doesn’t fit or make sense – in the world around them, and they are capable of noticing anomalies before their first birthdays. They probe these anomalies by asking series of questions designed to elicit new information that they then use to refine their ideas. If their inquisitiveness is rebuffed, they lose interest or assume that the topic is “off limits” and learn to avoid it.

Piaget believed that young children are too willing to believe anything adults tell them, and therefore adults should turn questions back to children for autonomous responses. The Godly Play approach to faith formation operates with Piaget’s theory as background. What Harris’s work suggests is that this approach deprives young children of the tools of self-initiated serial questions and elicited social testimony, leaving them to puzzle alone over the anomalies they encounter in Bible stories and faith communities. This means we should be using faith formation methods that encourage children to develop persistent curiosity about the more systematic side of beliefs and practices alongside Godly Play programs.

Harris also has found that preschoolers will imitate social conventions when they are invited to do a task an adult has demonstrated. Even when children can see no useful reason for certain actions, they assume the demonstrator has some invisible but important cultural knowledge. Thus, children discern cultural norms of behavior well before they comprehend their meaning. Furthermore, when three-year-olds receive encouragement from adults to imagine a possibility that defines their assumptions about how something should work (e.g. imagine a ball dropped in a box coming out of a different hole than the one directly below its entry point), they are more likely to overcome their bias toward a preconceived outcome (e.g. balls drop straight down) than if they simply witness the actual outcome or are told what the outcome will be. Inviting children to imagine another outcome opens children’s minds to new possibilities.

Harris’s findings remind us that we need to provide regular demonstrations of religious practices as part of young children’s faith formation. Demonstrations encourage children to develop testimony-based understandings of what Christian people do and say. Preschoolers will be quick to imitate adult faith practices because they trust that adults know what those actions mean even if the child does not. Furthermore, young children need adult prompting to see God’s presence in the world, since “God” is not a concrete object they can observe. When caregivers offer theological explanations for seemingly inexplicable outcomes (e.g. God, via gravity, explains why balls go up and come down), children imagine God playing with them and feel God’s presence.

The work of Paul Bloom and Paul Harris is part of a vast amount of new research available to Christian educators as we seek to update our understandings and practices of ministry with young children. To learn more about their work, check out Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (Bloom, 2013) and Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others (Harris, 2012).

1-DSC_1838_Karen-Marie_YustKaren-Marie Yust is the author of Real Kids, Real Faith and the co-president of the International Association of Children’s Spirituality. She teaches Christian education and spiritual formation at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA and welcomes conversation via or (804) 278-4203.

Are you joining us in Denver this week at the Annual Event? There are some amazing workshops and plenaries scheduled. We’d love your suggestions about innovative faith formation ideas you discover, so we can share them on the Advocate blog. Look for a suggestion form on the tables during Saturday’s breakfast and corporation meeting.