Skill #1: Attentiveness: Notice spiritual activity in children.
Attentiveness is used most often in the context of everyday life, but don’t overlook its presence here:
- Awe-inspiring activities
- Peace in hard times
- Out-of-control events
- Coincidences and unexplainable events
Skill #2: Active listening: Engage the child in conversation about it.
- Dreams — “As my son was going to sleep he said he was afraid to go to heaven because he didn’t know what it would look like. I told him to ask God to show him while he was asleep.” Later, his mom listened to the dream and asked if it took away her son’s fear.
- Awe-inspiring activities — When a teenage girl was asked what she liked about surfing, she said: “For me, just being in nature and feeling the ocean as this elemental force, and then doing some sort of meditation. I think yoga is a good starting point.”“
- Peace in hard times: “I was 6, maybe 7, when my pet cat died. I wanted to know where my cat went, why she couldn’t come back, etc. I was completely satisfied with my parents’ answers of “She went to Heaven.” God is watching over her now.” I felt peace. I remember it distinctly. That’s when I realized that there was someone watching and caring for us that we couldn’t see or touch, but they were out there.”
- Out-of-control events: “During the pandemic things were out of control and I didn’t expect anything positive to come out of it. My mother helped me recognize some good things did come out of it.”
- Coincidences and unexplainable events: “My teenage daughter called me to tell me that she had pulled a 10-year-old up from the bottom of the pool where she lifeguards. The next morning she said, ‘I couldn’t sleep last night, Ma. I kept thinking about that girl and what might have happened if I hadn’t rescued her.’ And I responded, ‘You did something extraordinary. You should feel incredibly good about yourself.’”
Skill #3: Acceptance: Discern if the child wants information or empathy.
Pay attention to this distinction. Accept it either way and respond accordingly. The child in Situation 3 needs information about her cat. The child in Situation 5 wants understanding.
“One size fits all” doesn’t make sense in children’s faith development. I like my cousin’s perspective. He said, “I am adopted and so are my brother and sister. Our values seem remarkably similar. We are always going to take the kitten out of the storm. That is what our parents taught us to do.
But we don’t otherwise parrot our parents and we don’t much resemble each other. This has led me to favor a theory of human nature wherein we are bestowed a core personality type. You could say this is largely through genetic make-up or perhaps you could call it the soulish essence of a person.
Environment may pinch or stretch or permanently stain us but our essential traits are immutable.”
One child’s essential traits tend toward ritual and routine.
In her spiritual development, this child will resonate with scheduled times for prayer, inspirational readings in the same favorite location every day, or regular attendance at religious services.
Another more free-spirited child will find this style constraining…
….and boring and “something I have to do.” So we approach this child about talking to God wherever, whenever, spontaneously. When you are out doing active things and you feel God’s presence, say a prayer of gratitude. When you get yourself into a precarious situation, call on God’s help.
Adults who take a truly holistic view of children will help them connect with God in different ways that align with their personality. They realize it doesn’t make sense to enforce one style, one method, or only the approach that works for them.
A child’s core personality guides caregivers in how to discuss spirituality uniquely with each
Talk to any 3- or 4-year-old and you will find a capacity to think about God. Researcher Justin Barrett says, “They already have something like an impulse to think about supernatural beings, to account for why things are the way they are and how things work in the world around them. They’re really inclined to make sense of it in terms of something like God.”
Cultivate that natural capacity as they get older.
So how does that work? How can parents, or any adult who’s caring for a child’s spiritual well-being, encourage engaging with the mind of God? Dr. Barrett continues:
Ask your child to consider: How does God think?
How might that be different from how they think? What is God’s perspective on their life, on the lives of those around them? This kind of engagement might be good for their personal development but it’s also great for their social, cognitive development.
Children’s social intelligence increases as they consider these kinds of questions.
There is evidence that thinking about others who have different perspectives is good for developing children’s social intelligence:
- others who look at things a different way
- others who feel something differently
- others who know different things
- myself who is not the center of the world
- myself who does not think the way everyone else thinks
- myself who isn’t always is right nor is what everybody else thinks wrong
God is a really interesting test case
Thinking about God, engaging with God, and considering the difference between God and them can help stretch a child. It can bring the understanding that I could be wrong about certain things because God captures the truth better than I do.
It is healthy for children from a very young age to begin engaging with how God thinks.
This post is composed of excerpts taken from a magazine interview given by Dr. Justin Barrett.