We often think of kids as trusting and believing in everything. But research over the past 15 years has shown that even young kids do a good job of distinguishing between fantasy and reality.
For example, if a four-year-old hears a story about a man named Stan who gets thrown overboard on a ship and gets swallowed up by a huge fish who carries him to safety, the child is quite likely to think that the story is made up. Adults know that people do not usually get swallowed by fish, and apparently by the age of four, kids know that as well.
This story may sound a bit familiar, of course. There is a similar story in the Bible about Jonah. Jonah tries to run away from God after being asked to do something. He gets on a ship, and God causes a storm to rock the ship. Eventually, the men on the ship find out that Jonah is the reason for the storm, and he is thrown overboard. A giant fish swallows him and carries him to safety.
What happens to children's beliefs if they hear the version of the story that has God in it? This question was addressed in a paper by Victoria Cox Vaden and Jacqueline Woolley in the August, 2011 issue of Child Development.
They told a number of stories to 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds. The children heard stories that had a number of fantastical elements like a man being swallowed by a fish or a person who raised his arms and caused water to move aside so people could walk through it. Some children heard these stories with unfamiliar names in them. Other children heard the stories with biblical names and with God as one of the characters. After hearing the stories, the children were asked whether they thought the story was true, whether the people in the story really existed, and whether the events could possibly happen.
4-year-olds were not affected by the version of the story. They did not think the story was true regardless of whether it was about unfamiliar people, or whether God was a character in the story. By the age of six, though, the children in the study seemed quite sure that the stories that involved God were true, even though the same stories told without God were not thought to be true.
Children seem to be learning something about religion between the ages of 4 and 6. One way to see that this is an effect of learning about religion is that the authors measured the religiousity of the parents. When the parents were religious, then six-year-olds generally believed the stories that involved God more than the stories that involved unfamiliar characters. When the parents were not religious, then the six-year-olds did not think that the stories involving God were more likely to be true than the ones involving unfamiliar characters.
The pattern of data from this study is interesting. Young children do a pretty good job of distinguishing fantastic stories from realistic ones. At the age of 4, children treat stories as fantasy when they involve events that could not happen in real life. Even when God is involved in the story, these children think of the events as things that did not happen.
Between the ages of 4 and 6, children who grow up in religious families (who probably get religious education both at home and from other sources) come to believe that the stories involving God are true, even when they contain fantastic elements. This religious education from trusted adults influences what children believe that God can do.
Follow Art Markman, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/abmarkman