Hettie Brittz on the Stages of Children’s Spiritual Development
Below is an excerpt from Guiding Children to Discover the Bible, Navigate Technology & Follow Jesus, a new Barna report exploring children’s spiritual development in a technological age. Hettie’s insights accompany new Barna research on what pastors and parents can do to help children build a healthy and lasting foundation in Christ.
Hettie Britz is developer of the Evergreen Parenting Course and heads a group of more than 200 facilitators in eight countries who use the course to help families. She is married to the Gospel singer and music producer Louis Brittz, and they have three children.
Stages of Spiritual Development
Spiritual development is closely tied to moral development phases—how growing children process the ideas of right and wrong, safe and unsafe, good and bad. These are very abstract concepts for a while and only become concrete later in childhood.
From ages 3 to 5 there’s a phase of wonder. Kids are very much impressed by the miracles God can do. It’s almost a magical phase—where the stories about the miracles of Christ, the plagues or Samson’s strength really grab their attention. Kids see God almost like a superhero with incredible powers. During this time, they need to be taught how the wonder points to the inner powers, such as love, that makes God better than any superhero.
The 5-year-old starts getting ready to understand some of that and the 6-year-old, depending on their development and personality, can move onto a next phase that’s very, very different. (Six-year-olds are right on “the crack” between the two spiritual developmental phases on either side.)
The years from 6 to 10 are almost ruled by fear. Kids become acutely aware of how real dangers are in the world around them. They become aware of illness. It’s the age when parents start telling them, “We’re not going to grandma’s because she is sick.” Parents start talking about death. Children are more exposed, more active out of the house. They see the world a bit more clearly. During this time, one of their primary felt needs is to know, “How can God protect me?” The world has become so much bigger, so they want to know how “big” God is and how his power can help them.
This is a phase when we sometimes think children are too small to deal with difficult truths, so we are tempted to give them a false foundation. This is an extreme example, but something along the lines of, “If you pray Psalm 91 before you go to bed, then the bad guys can’t come into the house.” We try to give them concrete guarantees of safety, but that undermines faith when people do die. Not everybody we pray for gets healed and things don’t always go smoothly. In this phase, we need to understand that they could develop a very unhelpful fear of God because of this propensity to be afraid.
Then, from age 11 onward, there is a stronger focus on morality. There is an acute awareness of sin, uncertainty whether they are good enough for God. Usually they want to know what “the rules” are. They regard faith as making the right choices, believing the right things, having the right information and living right. Right, right, right.
This is a wonderful phase for them to be introduced to concepts of grace, forgiveness, confession and the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to live the Christian life. It’s really in this phase they can get their heads around Jesus dying on the cross for us in very meaningful ways. Earlier on it’s almost a little too scary and too concrete, and kids who are exposed to the crucifixion of Christ in a very graphic manner before that age often go into extreme guilt about what “they” have done to Christ, personally and individually, unless they are guided carefully through that.
When we as parents demonstrate both God’s justice and his forgiveness in consistent ways in that phase from 10 to 12, it is the best spiritual gift we can give our children.