These first five years are profoundly important in the spiritual development of girls. They are awakening to this world. How a girl connects with God will be directly related to how she connects in her closest relationships. And she will develop those connections through three important tasks:
J She must learn to trust.
J She must hang on to hope.
As she learns to trust, to hope, and to imagine in relationship to those around her, she will develop the capacity to do the same in her relationship with God.
Girls in their Discovery Years ask a lot of "whys." They want to know why we say certain things . . . why clouds move across the sky . . . why fire trucks have sirens. Pretty much anything that can be asked will be asked in the first five years of life. Why? Because girls trust that you know and will provide the answer. Children in these years trust the adults in their lives simply because, in their minds, you are trustworthy. You feed them when they are hungry. You pick them up when they are crying. You change their diapers, take them to the doctor, and provide for all of their basic needs.
The renowned psychologist Erik Erikson believed that a child's ability to trust is directly related to her ability to trust her primary caregivers. If the first people she comes in contact with, most often mom and dad, are consistent—if they offer her stability and ongoing, reliable care, she will learn the concept of trust. She will believe the world is safe, based on the safety of her own home.
On the other hand, if her first world is unsafe—if her parents are abusive or neglectful —she will feel that the rest of the world will be as well. If her primary caregivers are not reliable to provide for her most basic needs, she will inherently believe the same to be true about others. Rather than developing relationships built on trust, hers will be built on mistrust.
Erikson, therefore, believed that the primary task of an infant's caregivers is building trust. Trust creates more trust. As parents, grandparents, or guardians, you are a young girl's first line of defense. She needs to believe deeply that you are trustworthy. Obviously, you won't be able to meet absolutely every need a child has at every moment. Parents need to feed themselves, feel free to go to movies without the child, or both may even require careers outside the home. But every child needs the assurance that her caregivers are trustworthy.
When children are grossly neglected, abandoned, or abused, however, they often don't learn to trust. This crucial developmental characteristic simply doesn't develop in these children. As you can imagine, this profoundly impacts the child's outlook on her parents, her other relationships, her relationship with God, and the world around her.
This often happens with children who were adopted out of abusive or neglectful homes. These children live in a great deal of mistrust. They feel a need to hoard and sometimes steal food, money, and other basic necessities from their adoptive parents. Why? Because these children never learned to trust. They believe they must take care of themselves—even when the evidence points to the contrary.
As trustworthy as the adoptive parents may be, these children never had the opportunity to develop this characteristic that is foundational to their emotional and spiritual lives. This is not to say that the child can't learn to trust. She absolutely can. And we have seen it happen time after time. But trust is not a given the way it is in homes where a child has been cared for and nurtured consistently.
Rachel is an adolescent girl in this very situation. When she was a child, her parents were either drunk or high through most of her first five years. She and her siblings had to fend for themselves. Her older sister remembers searching through dumpsters for food. She doesn't remember much in those years before she and her siblings were removed from the home.
Her only memory of her birth parents is being on a farm. She was a toddler and her father sent the kids to play with horses in the field. As the kids were playing, the horses got spooked. One horse tried to trample Rachel. But, as Rachel tells it, her mom ran under the horse and pulled her out.
This is the only memory Rachel has of her mother. And it is one she clings to with every fiber of her being. In reality, her mother was tragically untrustworthy. She couldn't provide for her children in any way that kept them safe or fed. But this teenage girl clings to the one memory of her mother that demonstrated a shred of care . . . of trustworthiness.
As a teenager, Rachel has stolen from her adoptive parents, she has a history of boyfriends who are irresponsible at best, dangerous at worst, and she cannot seem to keep a friend. Rachel's parents are kind, love her deeply, and would do anything to give her the things she missed as a young child. Rachel, however, is desperate to trust. And it is happening—Rachel is slowly learning to trust them, and even more importantly, she is learning to trust God.
Trusting God has been particularly difficult for Rachel. If God allowed her to be in a home like that, how could he be trustworthy? How could he love her and die for her but allow her to be neglected and then removed from her parents? As adults, we understand the concept of free will and sin. We can explain this with a little more rationality. But a teenager has difficulty with this concept. A child doesn't understand.
A girl's spiritual life is deeply affected by her level of trust. If she knows her parents love her and are committed to her good, she will generally believe that she is "lovable" (maybe except in middle school) both by the outside world and by God. Her parents love her. God loves her. Her parents will respond to her needs. So will God. This sounds elementary, but so is the thinking of your daughter in her Discovery Years.
She does not reason in the ways that you do. Her language and comprehension are still very simple. Your tone of voice, facial expression, and body language all communicate more to your daughter at this age than your words.
So, reasoning with your daughter about your trustworthiness is not much of an issue in her Discovery Years. She can't be convinced verbally. What convinces her you are trustworthy is your actions. She knows you are trustworthy by your willingness to pick her up and hug her, take her by the hand and show her that it is okay to touch the dog, and to get on the floor and play dolls with her.
As your daughter learns that you are there and that you are trustworthy, she learns to believe the same is true about others, and then about God. Trust ripples outward. As children discover who they are in relationship to their parents, to the adults in their lives, they begin to discover who they are in relationship to God. Trust begets trust. And this kind of trust leads to hope.
Hanging On to Hope
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Trust and hope are foundational to all of our spiritual lives, not just those of girls in the Discovery Years. We trust before we hope. And according to Hebrews, hope leads to faith. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (KJV).
In his writings on the development of children, Erik Erikson defines hope as "the belief that even when things are not going well, they will work out in the end." We all need this kind of hope. The Discovery Years are when it begins.
First, your daughter learns to trust you. She knows that she can depend on you to care for her, provide for her, and meet her basic needs. If a two-year-old could verbalize trust, she might say, "My parents take care of me. They feed me, buy me clothes, and carry me when I want to be picked up. They are always there for me."
Hope is taking that trust to the next level. If a two-year-old could verbalize hope, she might say, "My parents will come and pick me up when I fall down and cry." Trust is the belief that you are there. Hope is the belief that you will come soon. In essence, hope is emotional object permanence.
Object permanence, which children are developing at this age, is the understanding that something doesn't really disappear even though the child can't see it. If your daughter drops her cookie, it still exists out of her sight. It is on the floor, and Mommy will even stoop to pick it up (which becomes a constant source of fun for little ones!).
Emotional object permanence is the knowledge that, even if what your daughter wants is not there at the moment she wants it, it will come. You will come if she falls down. You will give her a cookie "in a minute." She can go outside as soon as she picks up her toys.
Hope is waiting with the expectation that the one we trust is going to come through for us. The development of this kind of hope is a positive sign in girls. When a child isn't overly upset (please hear the "overly") about having to wait for a cookie or to go outside—when the gratification of her needs isn't immediate and she doesn't have a complete meltdown—she is learning the concept of hope.
As with trust, this kind of hope leads to much bigger hopes. Learning to wait expectantly for a cookie at age five teaches her a basic understanding of hope. With this understanding, waiting for a "best friend" at twelve or a boyfriend at nineteen is not nearly as difficult. And at thirty, the waiting expectantly to become pregnant is not entirely foreign. It can still be painfully difficult to hope in certain circumstances. But the child who has learned to hope in the Discovery Years has a more foundational understanding of hope that she can draw on. Again, smaller hopes translate to larger hopes and involve the developing of her little spirit.
First, your daughter learns to believe that you are trustworthy. "If mom says she is coming, she is coming." This trust transforms into hope as the child learns to wait. "Mom may not be coming this second, but I know she is coming because what she says is true." You teach your daughter to hope as you teach her that, even if your response is delayed, you will come through for her. And you do so by being a consistent, supportive presence in her life.
Hope, or the lack thereof, moves outward, as does trust. Your daughter learns to trust and hope at home first. And then the hope ripples over into her picture of God. Listen to how the answers of one precocious five-year-old demonstrate the rippling effect of trust and hope.
When have you felt closest to God?
"When I'm snuggling with Mommy and Daddy."
What is most important to you?
"Mommy, I mean God."
If you could ask God anything, what would you ask him?
"Would you please make Mommy never spank me again?"
Do you believe a relationship with God is important? If yes, why? And if no, why not?
"Yes, because I love God—and that's not a girly question."
It is obvious that this little girl feels connected to her parents. She trusts them. She also trusts God. She believes that he could keep her mommy from ever spanking her again (although we know he doesn't work quite that way). And if she asks, she has hope that he will. Her parents are trustworthy, as is God. They come through for her, as will he. The trust and hope are inextrica bly linked, and it is her imagination that helps her return to trust and hope when things become difficult.
Children in the Discovery Years naturally possess an imagination. They fully believe in all things believable and unbelievable that you tell them. This has to do with their innate sense of trust. If you tell your daughter at three that she is beautiful, then she believes she is beautiful. If you say you are driving to the grocery store, she doesn't suspect that you are going to trick her and take her to the doctor instead. If you say Santa Claus is real, then Santa Claus is real and her eyes twinkle while waiting expectantly for him.
As you help your daughter develop trust and hope during these years, you also help develop her imagination. And her imagination has as much to do with the development of her spirit as do trust and hope.
In her book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith gives a poignant explanation for the necessity of imagination in a child's life. In this conversation, a grandmother-to-be is telling her daughter of the power of stories. She talks about the importance of sharing the Bible, Shakespeare, and Santa Claus with her baby girl. When asked why, this was the grandmother's response:
"Because," explained Mary Rommely simply, "the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for."
The imagination is what enables the trust and hope to continue when life becomes painful. Girls need to hear stories, to be read books, and to play games that foster their imaginations. To hear the story of the little boy's room that transforms into a jungle in Where The Wild Things Are or to believe that her daddy really is a terrible giant that is trying to eat her will cause her imagination to stretch. Jonah and the Whale, Daniel in the Lions' Den, and other Bible stories also can stir her imagination to see life beyond her own.
As a girl hears about God and Jesus, her imagination will provide her with an anchor. She will have tools to move past the four walls of her everyday life, past the tragedy of the particular moment and back into truth. When her feelings are hurt, she can fall back on stories from the Bible and on God's profound love for her. Imagination is the soil in which these spiritual truths take root. What you teach your daughter in the Discovery Years as well as who you are in relationship to her helps to foster the growth of her imagination, trust, and hope.
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