I appreciate the man in Zeitlarn, Germany who wrote me earlier this month to tell me about a book summarizing the findings of an increasing number of studies in child psychology that support child-centered spirituality. One description in the book states:
“Scientific experiments conducted with children across the globe illustrate the ways human beings develop complex beliefs about God’s omniscience, the afterlife, and the immortality of deities. How the developing brain grapples with these and other questions leads children, across cultures, to naturally develop a belief in a divine power of remarkably consistent traits.”
Dr. Justin Barrett, in his book Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs, offers a compelling argument for the human instinct for religion. His research (and that of other scientists), supported by The John Templeton Foundation, shows how the science of childhood religiosity reveals across humanity a “natural religion,” the organization of the beliefs that humans gravitate to organically, and how it underlies all of the world’s major religions, uniting them under one common source.
Since my blog is in no way a scientific study, all the more reason to pass along scientific research to readers who may be interested. This blog is closer to a meditation on the ways in which infancy and childhood can be seen through a spiritual lens so that adults continue to address all the needs–physical, mental, emotional and spiritual–of the children they love.
- Scientific research continues to validate child-centered spirituality – Click to Tweet
- The science of childhood religiosity reveals, across humanity, a “natural religion.” – Click to Tweet
“Trust begins from day one. It develops when a baby’s physical needs are met, so if you are there to feed her, change her and respond to her [cuddle and hold], you’ll begin laying the foundation for a close relationship in later years.” — Catherine Hutter, PhD, clinical child psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital
Infants develop basic trust in others when they are helplessly dependent and their needs are met. Conversely, neglect of needs or erratic meeting of needs makes it difficult for infants to learn to trust. Trust is the basis of all future successful relationships.
What we do in the early years matters
As infants grow and learn to talk, listening to them builds trust. We have all struggled listening to the repetitive and often illogical conversation of toddlers. But as Dr. Laura Markham observes, “The ins and outs of the preschool playground may not rivet you, but communication habits start early. It’s hard to pay attention when you’re rushing to pick up food for dinner and get home, but if you aren’t really listening… he learns that there’s not much point in talking.”
When we listen closely, we get much more than we give. On a good day….amusement, joy, wonder, laughter, love…. and isn’t it the good days we store in our memory?
With kids and trust, getting there is half the fun! Click to Tweet
Every child wants to be noticed: “Look at me!” “Watch me!” “See how I can do this!” Having an adult take notice and interact provides formative feedback for children.
What do adults notice? What do they not notice? How do they respond? This is all data that children take into account as they decide how to behave in the future. “What gets me noticed? And why?”
By practicing the skills of noticing and commenting, you strengthen children’s moral and spiritual development. Catch them in the act of sharing, cooperating, being kind, or looking out for the welfare of others. When that happens, notice it and comment on it. One of my mentors, Dr. Becky Bailey, states, “Proactively notice all helpful, kind acts children perform. Notice these acts privately to the child and publicly” to their friends and family.
The 8-minute video below shows how these two skills are performed in a classroom context. During the first half, Dr. Bailey introduces the skill of noticing in the context of classroom discipline. In the last 4 minutes, she demonstrates the skill of commenting.
Today, try noticing ten helpful acts a child performs. Small ones are fine. The following are suggested steps for commenting on what you notice:
- Step 1: Start the statement with the word “you.”
- Step 2: Describe in detail what the child did.
- Step 3: Relate how the child’s behavior helped someone else or the entire family.
- Step 4: End by saying, “That was helpful!” “That was kind,” or “That was caring.”
- Catch kids in the act of sharing or looking out for the welfare of others and comment publicly. Click to Tweet
- The challenge of affirming kids is to describe what you see rather than judging the behavior as “good job” or “being good.” Click to Tweet
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