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Children's Development of Spirituality

interfaithHow Children Learn

Six-year-old Rudy, a kindergartner attending Jewish day school, came home one day and announced to the family that he believed Jesus was indeed the son of God. Thinking wryly of the thousands of dollars she was spending for the child's private-school education, Rudy's mother gently reminded him that he was Jewish, "and most Jewish people don't believe that Jesus is God's son." Still, Rudy was adamant.

"He is too," the child insisted. "Because the rabbi told us that we're all God's children, so that means Jesus is God's son and you're one of God's children too, Mom, even though you're a Mom!"

The exchange is a poignant reminder that spiritual thoughts and feelings are as much a part of the growth process for young children as their physical, mental, or emotional development. Still, in a secular society where consumerism is king and progress is measured in scientific, rather than spiritual terms, researchers often ignore this aspect of a child's being.

"Spirituality has traditionally been framed in terms of religion, and so the issue of church and state comes up," observes Don Ratcliff, Ph.D., education professor at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, and the author of several books on children's spiritual development. "In the research area, a lot of secular universities shy away from it because they think the topic is getting too close to religion. There's concern about objectivity."

Ratcliff's own research and experience as a parent have led him to believe that many children actively search for spiritual understanding, beginning at a young age. He recalls his own son, at five, becoming deeply reflective while watching a campfire during a family trip. Gazing into the flames, the child observed that "the fire is like Jesus on the cross, and the stones are like people standing around looking up at the cross."

To Ratcliff, the story is a reminder that even very young children have the ability to think abstractly. Many experts in early childhood development, however, believe just the opposite -- that young children's early expressions of faith can only be rooted in the concrete experiences of seeing, hearing, and touching.

"If you ask a preschooler, 'What is God?' you get an answer that God is a person," says Helen Cohen, director of the Frances Jacobson Early Childhood Center at Temple Israel in Boston. "I remember a child telling me she didn't believe in God. I said, 'Why do you say that?' She said, 'I can't see God or hear God, so I know there is no God.'"

Other children seem to be more openly engaged by the concept of a higher power, says David Elkind, Ph.D., professor of child study at Tufts University. He recalls a conversation with a four-year-old who spoke with authority when asked to describe the difference between God and Jesus.

"The difference, according to this child," Elkind recalls with a chuckle, "is that God doesn't have birthdays and Jesus does."

Stages of Faith Development

Elkind has identified three stages of faith development:

  • The "global" stage. Until age six or seven, Elkind says, most children lack an understanding of abstract belief, and therefore can't conceptualize the differences between religious faiths. They can appreciate religious symbols and rituals, but won't necessarily connect them to the notion of an "invisible" God.
  • The "concrete" stage. Children ages 7 to 12 are still very grounded in the concrete, and are beginning to develop a greater sense of spiritual identity based on personal experience and religious practice (I go to church or I go to synagogue and this is connected to who I am and who my family is). Elkind says that rituals, whether lighting candles in church or opening the ark holding a Torah in a synagogue, are very effective in helping children this age understand religious themes.
  • The "personal connection" stage. In pre-adolescence, a feeling of personal closeness to God often emerges, the budding of what feels like an actual relationship. For some young teens, Elkind says, "God becomes a confidante, because you don't want to share your thoughts with anyone else who will tell your secrets."

    Children's thoughts and feeling about God or other spiritual themes appear to be a natural part of human development, a search for some force in the universe that represents eternity and the absence of change. Even children who are not raised in a religious home are likely to ask spiritual questions.

    Things for Parents to Remember

  • Young children are literal thinkers. If a four-year-old child is told "Grandma is up in heaven now with God," he or she is likely to look up in the sky expecting to find Grandma.
  • Just because God is an abstract concept doesn't mean children are ever too young to begin learning about faith. Kindness and sharing are also abstract concepts that children can't "see," but they learn about them from seeing others act in a kind way, or by sharing toys. Similarly, children can learn about faith from seeing people pray or connect good deeds to their religious beliefs.
  • Children's questions about spiritual matters need to be treated with utmost respect, whether the question is "Does God talk to you?" or "Why do we have to go to church?"
  • Rather than point your child in "the right direction," it's best to encourage him or her to express thoughts or question religious principles without becoming judgmental. Comments like "What you just said about God is really interesting to me. Tell me more," will encourage children to express their own ideas. "We don't believe that" will likely have the opposite effect.
  • Don't minimize the importance of rituals in the home. Many families think that taking children to church services or to Hebrew school are the most valuable parts of religious training. Research shows that home-based practices, whether prayers at bedtime, lighting Shabbat candles on Friday nights, or setting up a creche at Christmas, have an even greater impact on a child's development of faith.

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