The biggest problem I had was at their vulnerable moments. When the child was tired and unable to cope was one of these moments. When I was threatening the child’s will, even if the child’s will was to harm another, was another one of those moments. Yesterday was my first of many days with a particular group of two-year-old children over the next several weeks.
This particular group of children have been victimized by a system of child care in this country that underpays staff, that de-values the individual child’s need for creativity, and that limits resources to programs that serve the children born to the “least of these.” The result is children who are suspicious of the revolving door of underpaid adults who come through their classroom. Is it any wonder that I did not get their immediate trust? Is it any wonder that at a mere two years, I saw defense mechanisms galore among this small group of children?
Young children learn about the trustworthiness of God and the world we live in from the primary adults in their lives. This typically includes parents but also includes teachers, educarers, and extended family members. Because of the many hours that children spend in child care programs, teachers and educarers have an influence only secondary to parents.
Erik Erikson described the psychosocial challenge of the under-two as Trust vs. Mistrust. In relationships with parents, teachers, educarers, family members, or other important adults “babies form trust and loyalties or they come to mistrust their world and withdraw. When [children] feel loved and enjoyed, they come to trust themselves as worthy of being loved. This basic trust is the embryo of faith, which can come to maturity in a relationship with God.’’ (1)
As the baby begins to walk and becomes an active toddler, the child begins to move into Erikson’s Autonomy vs. Shame or Doubt. Children are looking for opportunities to practice independence while still needing adults to “provide judgment and consequences that keep them within . . . protective boundaries. In this structure, children find security. The children in the classroom I spent my day yesterday are moving from Trust vs. Mistrust to Autonomy vs. Shame or Doubt.
In Autonomy vs. Shame or Doubt, when children experience shame for what they have done, they need release. . . . Since young children see God as the ultimate parent, they expect God to set limits and to punish those who violate those limits. It is important for them to know that God also forgives [them].” (2)
Sadly, the children I am spending time with over the next several weeks have learned from the revolving door of underpaid teachers that adults are not very trustworthy. They come and they go. The children and adults do not have relationships. Without reliable relationships with adults, the prototypical relationship that will provide a model for relationship with God, is one of mistrust, unreliability, inconsistent expectations, and a lack of love. As too many of our children spend their days in financially undersupported child care settings, is it any wonder that we are also seeing more adults who do not have relationships with the Divine?
The good news for the children in this classroom, is that the head teacher, though new, is committed to staying for the long haul. She is skilled and genuinely cares about the children while providing appropriate behavioral boundaries. The leadership of the program is seeking an assistant teacher with the same qualities.
In the meantime, I will provide as many hours as I’m able substituting in this room, supporting the loving, healing, and consistent educare that the head teacher is providing.
Tim is a veteran early childhood educator and ordained Christian minister.
(1) Catherine Stonehouse, Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), Kindle Book edition, locator #1733-37.
(2) Stonehouse, locator #1833-36.