Virginia L. Smith, PhD, is the director of Children's Ministry Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

The White House in Washington, D.C., Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report magazines, plus many radio and television programs and secular publishing houses are now helping the Department of Children's Ministries do its work. You would have to have been almost dead over the last few months to miss all the messages being broadcast and published about the importance of interaction with children. Emotional experience is the basis of the mind's growth, and interaction during those critical first years actually determines the physical brain structure throughout the rest of a person's life.

At birth a baby's brain cells are already wired for more than 50 trillion connections. Within the first few months of life, that number will soar to more than 1,000 trillion. However, emotions and experiences are required to put into use this enormous potential. Interactions determine how many of the connections will be used and how many unused ones will wither away. Only live interactions count, not television "noise." Apparently there must be an emotional relationship accompanying information that is heard or seen in order for new strong linkages to develop in the young brain. 

Just as surely as exciting possibilities exist in a positive environment, negative consequences result when children repeatedly face fear, stress, abuse, or neglect. These damaging emotions are paralyzing to positive learning. Such trauma promotes brain connections and hormone levels that will cause adverse effects throughout life. A church community has more than an ethical responsibility to protect children. Brain structure and resulting behavior and emotional patterns throughout life depend on the environment babies and children experience with adults from the earliest days of life.

That newborn who seems so incapable of learning is already paying close attention to every sound. At four days of age, a baby can already distinguish one language from another by sucking more strongly while listening to the mother tongue than another language being spoken. But babies pay attention to all language sounds. However, by 12 months, an infant has already stopped paying attention to language sounds not commonly heard. From then on, learning the sounds of new languages will become more and more difficult throughout life.

Vocabulary development is another area that shows the importance of interaction. The more time children spend interacting with adults, the more advanced their language use. The more parents use complex sentence structure in speaking to their children, the more their children will do so. The size and difficulty of the words is no deterrent for children. Those who are surrounded by swearing will soon be swearing experts. Children who are immersed in Bible vocabulary will naturally incorporate the same words into their everyday communication.

Future interpersonal relationships and success in educational settings spring from a sequence of four skills that develop very early in life in emotional intimacy with care-givers.

  1. Attention. A nursing baby loves to stare intently at mommy or the person holding the bottle. This is not a haphazard behavior. Baby is practicing focusing attention, an important skill for future education.
  2. Strong relationships. Smiles and hugs and kisses teach a baby early that love feels good. The most important gift that parents give a child is unrelated to things or status; it is the gift of time, plenty of time, to establish bonds of love in strong relationships.
  3. Communication. The sounds babies make are soon interpreted by a sensitive care giver. A giveand-take pattern of communication takes place that models the same types of conversation they will need to use in school.
  4. The ability to reflect on personal understanding. Within two years a child who has participated in numerous interactions will be reflecting on what he understands and what he considers confusing. This prepares him to monitor his own learning, an invaluable skill throughout life.

The church community is an ideal setting for increasing the amount of interaction available to a child. Church members share basic values and positive standards that can enrich the mind and character. Church activities provide unlimited opportunities for participation and interaction. Even for babies, Sabbath school with visual aids provides practice in focusing attention, building relationships, communicating, and thinking about ones' understanding. Within a few years children, are capable of being involved in all the activities of the church. Adults do not need to spend long hours preparing complicated activities or spending large amounts of money buying high tech-toys. The easiest, cheapest, simplest things we can do with and for children are the best. Talking, playing, reading, and praying with the children are activities available around the world. They provide the ideal settings for developing secure emotional relationships that provide the foundation for positive learning experiences, while bonding the hearts of the children to us, to Christ, and to the Adventist Church.

Virginia L. Smith, Ph.D., is the Director of the General Conference Department of Children's Ministries.