For the past four years, I have taken my now-seven-year-old daughter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a weekly class called Start with Art. A friend recently asked me, “Do you think she’ll remember those trips to the Met when she is older?” The answer is, I don’t know. However, I do know that those repeated early experiences will shape how she sees and enjoys the world around her for the rest of her life, because early childhood is to this life what this life is to eternity. Though we may remember very little of it, early childhood experiences shape our ability to understand, enjoy, and embrace our Creator and His good creation. In a similar way, though “the former things shall be forgotten” in the age to come, yet this life of faith will shape the capacity of our souls to enjoy God to all eternity.
Therefore, the vocation of parenting in early childhood is of double importance—both for this age and for the age to come. Empirically, early childhood is important: it is a time of breathtakingly rapid brain development. A child’s brain grows from 25% to 90% of its adult volume from birth to age five, forming up to two million neurons per second. Furthermore, Zero to Three, a research and advocacy group, reports, “Brain development is ‘activity-dependent,’ meaning that the electrical activity in every circuit—sensory, motor, emotional, cognitive—shapes the way that circuit gets put together.” And spiritually, early childhood is also important: It is when we learn how to be human, how to bear the image of God and glorify Him.
Our repeated experiences in the earliest years define for us what is normal and what is normative. That is to say, repeated experiences teach what is and what ought to be. Of this, discipline is the perfect example. Sitting in the sandbox at the playground, I observe a toddler throwing sand. His mother says, “If you do that again, we’re going home!” A few minutes later, he throws sand again. And again his mother says, “If you throw sand again, we’re going home!” What is this child’s normal experience? Mom threatens me, but doesn’t make good on her threats (at least until she’s really mad). What is normative? You do as much as you can get away with. Make no mistake: this mother is teaching her son not to obey her the first time she speaks. She is forming his character.
In their earliest years, children are developing the four C’s: character, competence in age-appropriate skills, creativity, and the ability to collaborate with others. For example, children learn to tell the truth not only by being told that they must tell the truth, but by living among others (the family) who consistently speak truth, and who honestly confess (and repent of) their fault and seek forgiveness when they do not. It is in learning to tell the truth that children first learn their need of forgiveness from the One to whom they will finally answer, and that they need grace to be truthful—and yet not proud of their truthfulness.
Young children are not only forming character, competence, creativity, and the capacity to collaborate; they are also learning by experience which of these qualities is most important. For example, a father takes his three-year-old son to an indoor play area where kids two and under play for free. At the entrance, the father tells his son to say he is two when they get to the counter. In that interaction, the child is learning to collaborate with his father, and is creatively solving an economic problem. However, the boy is also learning that character isn’t as valuable to his father as the admission price to the indoor playground.
Since the first five years play such a critical role in child development, parents often reach for the panic button, wondering, “What am I supposed to do to nurture healthy development?!” There are three keys: love, language, and literature. Love is primary both because we were created for loving relationship, and because love enables us to become who we are created to be (and will not be without that love). Parental affection and security, sometimes called attachment, encourages children to take the appropriate risks which are an essential part of learning. Zero to Three summarizes it this way: “Normal, loving, responsive caregiving seems to provide babies with the ideal environment for encouraging their own exploration, which is always the best route to learning.” Love and affection have the power to make latent abilities flower and thrive.
In the context of a loving parent-child relationship, language has a cascading effect in stimulating child development. First, words are a medium of relationship. Through them we express love, sadness, curiosity, awe, and joy—to name just a few. Second, words are a tool of exploration by which we navigate the world. Words, when used well by loving parents, can foster healthy, exuberant creativity. By contrast, words used to discourage and denigrate have the effect of stunting linguistic, emotional, and cognitive development. Zero to Three explains, “Because language is fundamental to most of the rest of cognitive development, this simple action—talking [with] and listening to your child—is one of the best ways to make the most of his or her critical brain-building years.” Sitting on the floor with a toddler and naming the colors and letters on a set of alphabet blocks can truly provide the “building blocks” of linguistic and cognitive development.
Literature, not mere literacy, is the third key. Reading great children’s books with young children is emphatically not for the sake of optimal brain development or producing precocious readers. These are but fringe benefits. Rather, we introduce our children to the antics of Ian Falconer’s Olivia and Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny and a thousand other books for the sake of goodness, truth, and beauty. In well told, beautifully illustrated stories and poems (including the Bible!), we enjoy shared experiences by which we understand our personal experiences. In stories, we see and experience virtue; we meet heroes to love, and villains to hate. The world of books prepares us for the world of people.
Parents, or those who act in their stead, establish the liturgies of life—the routines of family life that teach children what is normal and what is normative (whether or not they ever give thought to their influence). Through sitting down and talking at mealtimes, working together in a garden, walking in a park, reading aloud together, memorizing Scripture, praying with and for others, and helping neighbours, or going to a museum every week, parents prepare their children for life, and for eternity.