Babies, Identity Development, and Attachments
Identity development begins at birth, if not earlier. Ideally, the church should seek to influence the child’s identity at the earliest possible age, even with newborns. The fact is that we can influence the development of a healthy biblical identity from the first time the child is under our care. What’s important at this age is the relational attachments the baby is forming in the context of a positive physical environment where the child’s basic needs are being met. So, let’s talk about babies, identity development, and attachments.
Early Brain Development
Significant relational attachments literally impact the physical development of the young brain. It’s easy to overlook the importance of this because we don’t perceive this early process of brain development as real learning or as important. We tend to define learning in adult terms and babies clearly aren’t yet thinking like adults. Further, we are often unaware of the long-term impact of this early brain development. We imagine, wrongly, that real learning doesn’t begin until later and that whatever has come before is largely irrelevant.
But this overlooks what we’re now learning about how God designed the human brain to develop. The neurological pathways that develop in these earliest days of a baby’s life will define and impact the way the child thinks in long-term ways. Even if it’s just for an hour per week, the relational attachments formed between a baby and caregivers at church can influence the baby’s early brain formation and establish a lasting foundation for how the child thinks about God and the church in the future, including the child’s own identity.
This is not to suggest that an individual’s brain can’t be influenced or retrained later. The fact is that our brains continue to be “elastic” and open to further development throughout our lives. But our brains are never more pliable and open to training than in these early days. Why wouldn’t we want to begin influencing a child’s brain development for the Kingdom of God at the earliest possible time?
Pairing Relationships and Content
These relational attachments don’t exist in a vacuum, however. Ideally, the relationship needs to be paired with real “content.” As a baby hears various statements (like “Mommy loves you.”), especially when repeated regularly and often, the relationship enables the child to attach meaning to the statements so they have a greater impact on the child’s developing neural patterns and genuine learning occurs. The relational attachment facilitates the retention of the content.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of this pairing (attachments and content). The young, developing brain is forming countless synapses and patterns of connections that constitute real learning for the child, but the number of relational attachments (relationships with people) that are creating these patterns is relatively limited. Relationships at the church need to be among those that are having an impact on the child’s early identity.
Learning About People and Priorities
Among other things that a baby is learning through relational attachments is the significance of people and the fact of priorities. As obvious as this may sound to adults, for a baby to learn the significance of people is a huge step forward in maturity and identity development. A baby may love to be fed, but it’s during this season they also discover that eating is facilitated by people. People, we learn, are more important than things.
Not only are people categorically more significant than things, they actually enhance the value of things. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this lesson at any point in a person’s life. Healthy relational attachments help babies learn this early. Who I am is, to a large degree, determined by the relational attachments I form during this phase and in the years to come as well.
The realization that people are significant underscores the fact of priorities. Some things simply have greater importance and value than others. Priorities exist. They are a simple fact. Some people are more important (have a higher priority) than other people. Some things have a higher priority than other things. This, too, is a realization of enormous impact for the baby’s maturity and identity development. People and things, including themselves, exist within a hierarchy. I am who I am in a hierarchy of people and priorities.
Caregivers in the Nursery Are Actually Teachers in a Classroom
Understanding the role of relational attachments in a baby’s identity development is extremely important for the local church. Those caring for a baby in the “nursery” are doing far more than keeping the kids safe, comfortable, clean, and fed. The relational attachment being formed between a baby and an adult at church is actually TEACHING that baby foundational truths that will shape the baby’s identity and be carried with the baby throughout its life. “Workers” in the “nursery” are actually “teachers” in a very real “classroom.” Understanding this difference is a paradigm shift that needs to happen in our churches.
As we have noted, identity development for a preschooler is happening by developing attachments (babies), confronting reality (younger preschoolers), and discovering time (older preschoolers). In subsequent articles we’ll look at how we can influence the way a child confronts reality and discovers time.
This article is one of a series related to identity.
Author, Speaker, Bible Teacher
See a list of other articles by Rick Edwards.