A Child’s First Faith Experiences

[Promote trust &identity]

Stacie Clayton (CDS)


James FowlerJames W. Fowler III (Oct 12, 1940-Oct 16, 2015) was an American theologian who was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He was director of both the Center of Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He was also a minister in the United Methodist Church. described the early stages of Faith Development as 1) Undifferentiated Faith – a pre-stage for future faith development seen in infancy. Children trust caregivers and those caregivers trust easily, and 2) Intuitive-Projective Faith between ages 2 through 7 when their imaginations are forming. They enjoy stories of faith just as much as other stories and enjoy imagining the scenes they are exposed to.

For young children biblical stories can be seen as fantasy or fact interchangeably. As a result, it is my practice to avoid referencing God when addressing errant behaviors. I try to keep the faith building experiences for children separated from any expectations from religious practice. With behavior management the purpose is to help a young child negotiate their emotional states and brainstorm with them more suitable ways to meet their needs. Addressing a child’s behavior with sentiments like “God doesn’t like that,” or otherwise using God to shame or scare them is not fair and certainly not appropriate. A child is rarely motivated to displease adults, much less God. In addition, they may only associate God with discipline, and would be distracted from enjoying spiritual experiences.

Children feel secure knowing a presence outside of them is available and accessible through prayer. Young children are surprisingly adept at talking to God. It never ceases to amaze me the things that are on their minds. Teaching children to be mindful and thankful are a lifelong gift. Typically they are thankful for favorite toys and people or animals, but sometimes they are profoundly affected by what they know about the world around them, and I only discover what is on their minds and hearts if I have an opportunity to hear them pray. For very young children singing simple songs of faith is our usual starting point. It is important to follow their lead and offer them choices. You will be amazed how quickly children will suggest praying for many things as they develop an understanding of the use of prayer.

Focusing on giving young children a basic understanding of simple concepts for their moral development is more important than having them recite scriptural passages. Though it is possible, with repetition, for young children to learn simple verses, just like identifying words in simple songs and story books, it takes a lot of effort. They have a lot of time to learn more details as they grow older, so consider allowing young children to enjoy the wonders of the stories of faith without having to worry about hard work.

Faith adds another dimension to a child’s sense of self. In my experience children relish the biblical stories and songs, particularly when accompanied by simple movements associated with key phrases or patterns. In an article in Psychology Today on Spirituality and Happiness, Maureen Healy says “It enables us as leading-edge educators, parents and creators to craft programs that “plant the seeds” of lasting happiness in children.” She cites the work of Canadian researchers who shared their convincing findings that children (8 – 12 years) that report believing in a “higher power” also report higher levels of happiness (https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/happiness). Biblical stories are very reinforcing for children, particularly the stories of Jesus with children. He often reprimanded adults who wanted to exclude children, telling the adults to be more like them. Heaven is promised as a place reserved for children or people with childlike characteristics of faith.

In early childhood children are such concrete thinkers that I think it is important to avoid negative aspects of the religious experience and limit their exposure to divisive or scary concepts. For example, in a Christian setting focus on a more appropriate precept like love, the main focus of Jesus’ teaching. A young child can relate to the tangible love of a caregiver, and can understand that parents learned how to love from God’s or Jesus’ examples.

As a child my introduction to spiritual life was literally an emotional necessity. In times of stress I spent much of my time in my mind talking it through with God. To this day this practice has become my therapy, and there are so many other dimensions of personal growth that I have experienced from deepening my faith. Reflective practice, observation and assessments, physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and language/literacy development are all essential in a quality Early Childhood program. However, caregivers must not neglect spiritual development in attending to the whole child. Spiritual Development helps children with self-identity and a sense of belonging as they learn from their relationship with God, loved ones, the community, and their environment. One’s spirit is very much a part of you from birth and requires intentional nurture as well. Children who have a strong spiritual foundation will understand the responsibility we all share in taking care of each other and our world.

Stacie Clayton


  • 1. Young children enjoy reading and hearing stories of faith.
  • 2. Children are surprisingly adept at imagining beyond themselves to worship or pray to God.
  • 3. Young children’s exposure to faith experiences should be positive, not punitive – don’t make God the bad-guy.
  • 4. Young children’s exposure to faith experiences should be positive, not punitive – don’t make God the bad-guy.
Stacie Clayton has a Master’s degree in Child Study from the Eliot Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. She has been the Choir Director of her church for over 23 years, Producer and Director of The Community Gospel Concerts for Black History music for over 11 years, and Founding Director of New Covenant School’s Preschool Program in Arlington, MA for 8 years. Stacie started her own non-profit and school, Kingdom Rock Children’s Village, Inc., serving children and families of infants through pre-kindergarten as Head of School.


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