Can We Teach Babies?
Most churches recognize the value of “childcare” for newborns. It’s important to provide a proper “nursery” so parents and family members can attend other activities taking place at church. But what about teaching newborns? Can we teach babies? Should churches give serious consideration to “discipling” (teaching) babies? Can infants and those who are not yet walking really be expected to “learn” anything? Should publishers even offer products and resources to help “workers in the nursery” actually “teach” these kids anything?
We believe there is, in fact, very real learning taking place at this important stage of a child’s life and that this learning can be directed to help establish a foundation of biblical faith in the child’s life. What’s important for teaching this age is an understanding of the KIND of learning that is happening and HOW it can be directed.
Any caring parent or adult working with babies already has an awareness that these children can’t be expected to “learn” in the sense of grasping any kind of “fact,” storing that fact in his or her memory, accessing that memory at will, and articulating the fact as needed. But, this doesn’t mean learning isn’t happening.
In fact, some of the most important things a person will EVER learn are learned during these early days. The real question isn’t whether a baby can learn, but HOW do they learn and how can we direct that learning for the sake of God’s Kingdom? The challenge for us as Christian “educators” (parents, volunteers, church staff, etc.) is to adjust our thinking about what it means to “teach” these little ones.
Changing Our Thinking
Babies may not “know” or “understand” things in the sense of the classic levels of learning. But they certainly understand that upon arrival this world can be quite inhospitable as compared to the comforts of the womb. Somehow they “know” when they are hungry. Somehow they “understand” that they are uncomfortable due to a wet diaper. And somehow they manage to “learn” that they are in a relationship with their caregivers.
The problem is that we as Christian educators tend to define learning and teaching in adult terms. “Babies can’t ‘really’ learn.” “We can’t ‘really’ teach them.” “We can’t ‘really’ expect discipleship to happen in the crib.” We believe this adult-influenced way of thinking is simply wrong and is, in fact, dangerous to the future of the church and its efforts to achieve Kingdom discipleship.
The fact is that the kind of learning taking place in the life of a newborn provides the strongest model for ANY age group. Rather than dismissing the capacity of a baby to “learn,” we should, in fact, consider how their learning can shape the discipling strategies of other age groups. That, however, is a conversation for another place. The point here is that real learning is taking place with babies of even the youngest age and we have the ability to impact that learning if we will merely adapt to it.
The Nature of Learning for Babies
The earliest steps in a baby’s “education” are about building identity through meaningful attachments. The young child is developing a very rudimentary understanding of “who I am.” This is essential and is taking place in the context of the broader environment in which he or she is living, but it is most shaped by the attachment of the child to parents or caregivers and the relationships that develop with these people. Somehow, during these early days, a baby learns that he (or she) is who he is in relationship to another person or other persons. The child’s identity is directly related to this other person who is holding, feeding, and caring for it.
Real learning for the baby is, therefore, identity-based (understanding who I am), environmentally-conditioned (am I comfortable and cared for), and relationally-driven (attachments to other people are important). If you want to achieve real discipleship in a baby, you must do so by 1) addressing its identity 2) through attachments 3) with an appropriate ability to influence its immediate environment. This model of learning is relevant for ANY age, but is never more apparent and intuitive than when the learner is a baby. These three educational elements (identity, attachments, and environment) are so inter-connected in fact, that we take them for granted. “Yes, of course. Everybody knows this is how babies learn.” But, there is a fourth element involved in teaching a baby that is often overlooked in our ministry to babies.
The Fourth Element… Content!
There’s more than identity-building taking place here through attachments. Parents and caregivers are, in fact, teaching real content to these youngest of learners. And, they do it quite often without thinking…
“Mommy loves you.”
“Mommy missed you today.”
“Daddy loves your smile.”
Now, are these children “consuming” these kinds of “truth statements” the way a seminary student might learn that Calvin was instrumental in fueling the Reformation? Certainly not. But now we’re back to comparing apples to oranges. Models of adult learning should not be applied to babies.
But, do we really believe that the kind of statements above can be considered “content?” Or are these merely the loving pronouncements of a doting parent or grandparent? Could it be that we say these things for our own sakes more than the sake of the child?
We would contend that these kinds of repeated statements, paired with an attachment to the physical presence of a loving adult in the context of a comfortable environment where the child’s physical needs are being met, DO make a genuine, educational difference in the life and mind of a child. We believe that real learning is taking place in the lives of babies and that real content can be taught to babies when the content is fashioned appropriately and shared in strategic and intentional ways.
Breaking It Down
When we break down the above convictions, we can identify several principles that can be applied to teaching babies genuine biblical content that lays a foundation for future learning and discipleship.
1. Biblical learning for babies takes place in the context of loving relationships. No one would imagine that an audio recording of affirming voices would have any positive impact in an environment where the child’s physical needs are not being met. Whatever else happens, biblical learning for babies can only happen as the child’s immediate physical needs are being met by caring people.
2. The content that is being “taught” must be simple. However strongly we may feel about a baby’s capacity for learning, we must remember that we’re dealing with “brand new brains” that are in the earliest stages of development. And, however profound the truths may be that we are attempting to teach, they must be fashioned in the simplest of ways. “Jesus loves you.” “I love you.” No statement should be over 3 or 4 words at the most.
3. The scope of the content must be limited. Time with babies at church is limited. It’s important to identify the most essential and limited number of truths and focus on those rather than attempting to cover a broad range of concepts.
4. The content must be repeated. Any language, for example, is learned by hearing words and phrases over and over and over. Even adults have difficulty remembering things they hear only a time or two. Repetition is essential to learning for this age. We suggest that strategic content be repeated weekly in church and daily at home as much as possible.
5. Learning for babies should engage all of the learner’s senses. This is especially important when a baby is not able to discern how “content” is coming at them. Every sense is a portal of learning. In the appropriate environment, teaching babies will utilize physical touch, hearing, and visual stimulation, as well as the senses of smell and even taste.
Can we teach babies? Yes! But the ideal approach to teaching the Bible to babies will utilize a limited number of brief statements that are spoken to a child by a caring adult in the context of an environment where the child’s physical needs are met and all of the child’s senses are involved. We will have more to say about this in the coming weeks.
Author, Speaker, Bible Teacher
See a list of other articles by Rick Edwards.