by Karyn Henley
“Sometimes we say, ‘I’m not playing with you ever again!’ But me and you say that all the time, but come back in about an hour and say, ‘Sorry.’ Besides, friends are friends and friends we’ll be forever.”
– 8 year old
I call children ages six through nine “Collectors” because children this age collect things: rocks or baseball cards, stamps or stuffed animals, pennants or coins. Most of all, they collect friends. They want to be part of the group.
A great deal of development occurs during these years. There’s a lot of difference between a six-year-old and a nine-year-old. Chip Wood, a principal and teacher, gives a good in-depth look at specific age differences and needs in his book Yardsticks. Briefly, here are some general characteristics he sees at each age:
- sloppy, in a hurry (Process is more important than the product.)
- competitive, eager, enthusiastic
- intense, conscientious, serious
- self-absorbed, self-conscious
- speedy, energetic, full of ideas
- exploring their potential
- worried, complaining, negative
- individualistic, prone to exaggeration
Developmental researcher Eric Erikson looked at this span of years and saw that children of these ages had something in common. He said these years were critical in creating either a sense of INDUSTRY or a sense of INFERIORITY.
An industrious person is someone who is busy doing productive things. That typifies six- through nine-year-olds. They want to use their developing physical skills. They want to see how fast they can run or how high they can jump. They want to make and build things. They want to be useful. When they are encouraged in their efforts to be busy and productive, they develop a sense of INDUSTRY.
INFERIORITY is the negative side of this stage and can develop in a variety of ways. If the adults in a child’s life set goals that are too high, and the child cannot live up to their expectations, the child feels inferior. This is especially true if the child perceives that love and acceptance is conditional, based on her performance and achievement. For her, the consequences of failure are enormous.
This age child wants to know, “What do I do well?” Adults can play a key role by pointing out the child’s strengths and accomplishments. “Jenny, I like the design in your painting. I believe you’re an artist!” “You are so thoughtful, Bryan, to hold the door open for me!” And to Bryan later: “There’s that thoughtful young man.” Adults can give children a vision for who they are and what they can do.
When a child goes through this stage developing the positive sense of INDUSTRY, she reaps a bonus: the strength of COMPETENCE. She feels capable. This powerful asset is the basis for many accomplishments that lie ahead. Of course, as we point out children’s skills, it’s always appropriate to add, “I’m so glad God gave you that ability (or talent).” Because “Our competence comes from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5).
Competence breeds confidence. Confidence helps the child stand strong in her faith. It helps her share her faith with others. But what is her faith like at this stage? At the beginning of this stage, it is still primarily a taken-for-granted faith. Throughout this stage, children generally believe whatever you say. However, they usually begin asking insightful, and sometimes uncomfortable, questions. One six-year-old wanted to know, “Why is God a He, not a She?” A seven-year-old asked, “Why shouldn’t the Palestinians shoot at Israel? Shouldn’t the Palestinians get to fight back?”
A growing faith at this stage depends in large part on the stories the child sees and hears every day, especially the stories she sees and hears from the significant adults in her life. Because “story” plays such a big role, I call this the “Story-Centered” stage of faith. According to author James Fowler, “the person begins to take on for him- or her- self the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community.”
What kind of stories affect the faith of children six through nine? The obvious stories are the Bible stories children read and hear. Children are particularly interested when we lead them to discover the historical and geographical settings of Bible stories, to examine real-life issues in the lives of biblical men and women and find out how God worked in their lives. Children at this age are ready to learn and understand that the Bible is not just a collection of stories, but is a whole story in itself.
But there are other kinds of stories that affect the faith of children who are six through nine. These are the random stories they hear from us. We are telling our stories, and children are listening. They are intensely interested in knowing what it’s like to be an adult.
To take advantage of this interest, we can begin telling children how God has worked and is working in our lives. We can invite other adults to tell their stories in our classrooms. These might be missionaries who are visiting, or someone who has come to God out of a life of drugs or atheism.
Then we can begin asking children to tell their stories. Fowler points out that this stage is a time when children have the ability to tell their own experiences. They can tell what God is doing in their lives. Together, their stories, your stories and Bible stories are strong faith builders.
During this time, children talk about church as if it were their club. “My church does it this way. Jonathan’s church does it that way. Here’s what they do at Megan’s church.” We want the children who come to our churches to feel like they belong. They are valued members.
Children of this age begin to sense their need for God. They are seeing more of the world around them in schools, on teams, at piano lessons, at gymnastics. Their relationships now encompass other people from varied backgrounds, and they begin to experience the ups and downs of friendship and being in or out of favor with groups.
Younger children often believe that Mom and Dad can solve any problem. But now children begin to see that there are problems even Mom and Dad can’t solve. All of this adds up to a strong sense of need for a faithful friend. Someone who is strong enough to protect. Someone who will stick around. Someone who is wise enough to solve any problem. They’re sensing their need for God. Perhaps this is why many children accept Jesus as Lord during this time. They know they need Him.
What’s Going on in the Mind of Six-through Nine-Year-Olds? According to Piaget, the six-year-old is in her last year of moving from being pre-operational, unable to reason and think logically, to being “concrete operational.” Piaget says the concrete operational stage lasts through age eleven. In this stage, the child is able to reason logically, but that applies only to something concrete, not abstract. In other words, the child has to see or handle something, it must be physically present or physically represented, for her to reason logically about it.
Children are now able to perceive distance and space more accurately. When children were younger, “long ago” meant yesterday. But now “long ago” means the distant past. They understand the flow of time. So they begin to study events of history and can perceive them chronologically.
By age nine, children are in what some have called “the golden age of memory” because of their ability to retain a great deal of information. Many children seem to be able to memorize easily at this time.
Where are they morally? Between the ages of seven and nine, children develop the ability to tell whether something is true or false, right or wrong. But they still depend on rules to guide their behavior, and they are very alert to infractions of the rules. They are sensitive to justice and are quick to point a finger at those who have broken the rules. “It’s not fair,” is a common complaint. In fact, their focus is on fairness. They have an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” sense of morality. However, they often have a double standard: Justice for all, mercy for me.
Do you know children who are in the age range of six through nine? What are they “into?” What do they like to do? What do they enjoy? What music do they like to listen to? What games do they like to play? What do they talk about? Add your answers to the information you learned in this article. Your challenge is to communicate God to them through what they are “into,” through what they enjoy. How can you make God relevant to their world?
–adapted from Child Sensitive Teaching, © Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Award-winning author Karyn Henley is best known for her original version of The Beginner’s Bible, which during the fifteen years it was in print (1989-2004), sold over 5 million copies and was translated into 17 languages. Subsequently she wrote the Day By Day Kid’s Bible, a chronological Bible for young readers ages 7 to 10, and Sword Fighting, a scripture memory curriculum for elementary ages. A graduate of Abilene Christian University (BSEd), Karyn earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College in 2004. She has two married sons and two grandsons. More information about Karyn and her publications go to www.KarynHenley.com