God is not a concept or an idea or a belief system to children. Children are literal and concrete. They can only understand God as a person with whom they have a relationship.
One thing I find interesting about this approach children take to God is how they can attach to God in much the same way they attach to their parents and caregivers.
Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. describes attachment as “the capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional relationships. This attachment, the emotional relationship, is not as easy to see or document, yet it is nonetheless as important for human development as the umbilical cord is in utero.
Babies are born ready to attach to a caregiver.
Researchers at the University of Dartmouth Medical School, embarking upon a study of infant attachment and child and adolescent brain development, reported that all scientific research now shows that from the time a baby is born the brain is already biologically formed to connect in relationships.
While an infant is experiencing delight in looking at the parent’s face, feeling warm bath water on her skin or being cuddled, the human spirit is doing its own attachment work within the young child. The human spirit is looking for a God who is able to know and be known. This “attachment view” of God underscores the personal relationship approach most children take to God.
- Children can attach to God in much the same way they attach to their parents. Click to Tweet
- The human spirit is looking for a God who is able to know and be known. Click to Tweet
I have been interviewing adults about their childhood spiritual experiences for four years now, and here’s one important observation I’ve made: As children, they didn’t have the vocabulary to express how they were processing spirituality and God. As adults, they look back and try to put words to their experiences and thoughts, but when they were children they had difficulty. Consider this quote from one man I interviewed:
“I remember I was four or five years old and feeding white ducks bread crumbs from the top of a playground slide. It seemed very wonderful to me for some reason and I dreamed about it and I can still see myself doing it. My thoughts couldn’t have been very abstract or sophisticated or articulated in any vocabulary I had at the time, but I felt I was in the presence of something greater than myself, in a world beyond the surface world where I was tossing down food onto the white ducks and feeling very whole, free, peaceful.”
That it, isn’t it? Children can’t articulate in the vocabulary they have at the time.
We can help children build a spiritual vocabulary, using the same methods we did when we taught them basic vocabulary words. When they learned animal names, we had picture books of animals, “Where’s the bird? What does the bird say?” And when we went outdoors, “See the bird? Hear the bird?“
Use children’s literature in the same way. It’s packed with stories about the human spirit developing and prevailing. When you read to children, emphasize and repeat age-appropriate spiritual vocabulary words such as right, wrong, conscience, character, wise, forgive, as these concepts come up in the book. Use these vocabulary words in normal everyday conversations. As children get older, you can move on to words like mindful, ethics, purpose, presence, worship, spirit, soul, self and reason.
When they know words like these, they’ll be equipped with a vocabulary to express themselves as they begin to work out the complexities of life. With no need to bottle it up inside, they will talk freely and listen to others, thus understanding how normal and widespread is the spiritual dimension of life.
- Help children build a spiritual vocabulary by the same method you taught them basic vocabulary. Click To Tweet
- Children don’t know the words to use to express their spiritual experiences. Click To Tweet
Last week’s post highlights how important it is to a child to have adult engagement with their most difficult questions. Older children seem to be aware of unexplainable events in their life. To an interested listener, they speak freely, with the attitude that it’s obvious there’s something out there and they have ideas and questions about what that something might be.
Adults can offer a calm presence and a certain comfort level with the contradictions and complexities of a preteen.
We also offer children information when they share their outlook:
There’s a lot of time I think I don’t really necessarily believe there’s life after death right now. I’m pondering, toying around with the idea that once you die it’s done, which would put the end to the point of belief right? But at the same time there’s this nagging, well if it is true, I’m screwed.
If a caregiver has a clear belief system, they can suggest an answer to a child’s questions in alignment with that belief system, although it’s still a good idea to hear the child out and not try to force your own opinions.
The obvious challenge arises when adults aren’t sure what they believe themselves.
If a caregiver isn’t sure, what then? Although saying “I have no idea” to an adult is a perfectly fine response, that can be unsettling to a child because it does not provide a safe boundary.
You might consider responses such as: “Some people think X, others think Y.” “What do you think?” or “That’s a great question. Let’s explore that together and figure it out,” followed by an Internet search, a trip to the library and/or some other sources of information.
- The challenge in discussing spiritual questions arises when adults aren’t sure what they believe themselves. Click to Tweet
- Although saying “I have no idea” to an adult is a perfectly fine response, that can be unsettling to a child. Click to Tweet
Educator Janet Gonzalez-Mena uses the following analogy to describe the connection between security and boundaries: Imagine driving over a bridge in the dark. If the bridge has no railings we will drive across it slowly and tentatively. But if we see railings on either side of us, we can drive over the bridge with easy confidence. This is how a child feels in regard to limits in his environment.
The repeated experience of exploring in safe surroundings teaches young children that they are not likely to get hurt, that they can trust their caregivers to keep them safe, and that new experiences are enjoyable.
Spiritual exploration is similar.
Yes, it’s hard, but this is what we do: We allow children room to explore while also providing enough boundaries to keep them safe. We dialogue with them and allow them to ask questions… no matter what kinds of questions those might be.
Attending to things of eternal significance is a wide-open field of exploration for children– one in which they want their caregivers to allow them room to explore while also providing enough boundaries to keep them safe. Their curiosity and desire to explore is revealed by their questions: What happens when people die? Why do bad things happen?
Yet those same questions also reveal a desire for adult engagement in that exploration. That adult engagement provides the safety rails.
- Attending to things of eternal significance is a wide-open field of exploration for children. – Click to Tweet
- Children desire adult engagement in their spiritual exploration because you provide the safety rails. – Click to Tweet