Children’s spiritual development–what does that mean?

spiritual development from birthSpiritual development is indeed a journey. Dr. James Fowler’s well-reasoned book, Stages of Faith, gives valuable resources for adults responsible for the spiritual development of children. How and when does faith develop? What should we know about the developmental stages?

I cannot improve on Maxine Handelman’s summary of Dr. Fowler’s empirical research into the spiritual development of children, so I offer you the “best of” here:.

What is faith development?

“Faith development is about making meaning of life’s significant questions, adhering to this meaning, and acting it out in his or her life span.Faith is a common pursuit and quest of all individuals. Faith development theory provides a place for God and religious ways of being without mandating them.”

How and when does faith develop?

“Faith formation occurs in relation to others. It can be in relation to parents, church-temple-mosque, [sacred texts], school, friends or any group of people with whom one interacts. Just as one’s intellectual abilities, motor skills and social behaviors change over the life span, so does one’s faith. Views of God will not remain the same. Faith can be nurtured, strengthened and enhanced.

spiritual development of boy and girlWhat should we know about the developmental stages of faith?

  • Stage 0 (birth to 2 years) — Early learning about the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, the child will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and God.
  • Stage 1 (ages 3-7) — Faith is learned mainly through experiences, stories (including holy texts), images, and the people with whom the child comes in contact.
  • Stage 2 (mostly in school children) — Children have a strong belief in justice and reciprocity. They experience God as almost always personal, with characteristics such as goodness, mercy, care and love.
  • Stage 3 (arising in adolescence) — Characterized by the development of a personal identity and conformity to their faith community.
  • Stage 4 (usually late teens to late thirties) — A stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith.

Awareness of the general passages of faith can provide an anchor as we look back at our own lives, and look ahead to what children have in store.

Tweetable: Awareness of the general passages of faith development can provide an anchor as we guide children in theirs. Click to Tweet

My new book, Child-centered Spirituality: Helping children develop their own spirituality, is now available on Amazon – just in time for the holidays!

Where did Grandma go when she died?

Why doesn’t God stop bad things from happening?

Many parents have experienced a child asking difficult spiritual questions– usually at inopportune moments. While we stumble around trying to think of an answer, we feel inadequate… and sometimes startled by their questions. If you’re like most adults, you try your hardest to avoid thinking much about questions like these. So why on earth is a child asking you about them?

We talk with our children about the importance of school work, about physical health, about how to navigate social difficulties. We even talk with them about sex, drugs, and internet safety… or if we don’t, we know we should.

So why do we find it so difficult to talk with children about God?

Whether you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, foster parent, or other caregiver, this is a book to help you engage with the children in your life about their spiritual needs.

Purchase your copy in paperback here.

If you prefer the Kindle version, you can purchase it here.

Childhood spiritual styles: Bold Idealistic Style

A child’s spiritual style is not the same as personality or character. Rather, it describes the way the child most naturally connects with God. Our aim here is to give adults some tools for leading children to discover and experience further growth in their faith in a way that connects to them most effectively.

Previously we discussed sensory style and rational style. Now we look at a third way children express their individual style.

bold idealistic kids seek truthThe Bold Idealistic Style:  A child thinks correctly about God through doctrines and truth.

Note the items below that apply to the children in your life to assess their inclination toward this style. .

  1. A theological system that reflects God’s truth helps the child in her spirituality.
  2. The child possesses unwavering belief that this theological system is correct.
  3. The accuracy of the child’s beliefs is of utmost importance.
  4. The child demonstrates a strong sense of justice.
  5. It is important to the child that his faith does not depend on emotion.
  6. The child feels close to God when she takes a stand for a cause even at great personal expense.

Discovery questions for bold idealistic children

bold idealistic kids need sacred writingsIf you notice four or more of the above characteristics, the child probably has a natural pattern of taking unwavering stands for his or her convictions. The following questions may be useful as you seek to help children mature in their style.

  • How did you express your beliefs and convictions today?
  • What attitude did you have?
  • When is your anger triggered by an injustice?
  • What kind of courage will you need to stand up for truth and justice?
  • How do you defend the needs, worth and convictions of a person, an animal or a cause?

Adapted from Christian A. Schwarz, The 3 Colors of Your Spirituality.

Tweetable: Children with strong convictions can see their bold idealism influence even spiritual beliefs. Click to Tweet

Tell children your own spiritual stories

Many times, a personal story sheds a brighter light on the subject than moralizing. Rather than telling a child facing a question or decision what to do, telling them a story from your own life can be much more helpful. It helps them think creatively and gives them the confidence that they can come to their own solutions.

When children raise questions, our ideal response is to hear them out and invite more dialog. Lisa Miller uses something like: “You bring such important questions to the family;”  or “When I was a child I wondered that, too. I am so happy you are sharing these thoughts with me.”

Consider what spiritual stories you can tell the children in your life.

A friend of mine (mother of three teens) who does this says, “It could be about a time you failed, a time you needed God, a time you doubted God, a time you were surprised by something you couldn’t explain, a time when you sensed God communicating something to you. And consider what beliefs of yours came out of these experiences.”

Questions to help adults remember our spiritual stories we can share with kids:

  • What beliefs define your decision-making process?
  • What do you believe about how you will relate to people? Strangers, enemies, wrongdoers, immediate family, etc.
  • How do you relate to God?
  • When have you had times of doubt when God felt very far away?
  • What/who are your trusted sources that informed your spiritual progression, growth and wisdom?
  • What gives your life purpose and meaning?
  • How did you arrive at your present spiritual place?

Our spiritual stories don’t have to be noble or positive. The power comes from it being real and being yours.

Note: Some of the ideas for questions were inspired by Tom Rapsas on StoryCorps.


  • Tell kids your spiritual story. They’re still forming a moral compass and our experiences inspire. Click to Tweet
  • Seven questions here that help adults remember our spiritual stories we can share with kids.

Blessings that make a difference

Regardless of our differences in religion, language or ideas, there is no heart that is without an inner divine reference. And each family seems to have a unique impression about when, how and if God makes known his thoughts and feelings toward them, often referred to as blessings. What impressions about God’s blessing are you imparting to the children in your family?

From one of my interviews about spirituality emerged this family’s image of a God who does not bless, but forgets, entire groups of people.

As a young child, if I questioned my family about God or spiritual things, it was often tossed aside as unimportant and not for people like us, that is, those who God forgets.

My grandmother considered our family in the group of those God forgets because we didn’t go to church and there was just too much disaster and brokenness in our lives.

A second family presents a God whose nature is to bless.

Our parental blessing was invested with a certain higher power, intended for the good of our children.

May God bless you and guard you.
May God show you favor and be gracious to you.
May God show you kindness and grant you peace.

To this day, the blessing is prized highly by the children. The value of the benediction repeatedly spoken by the father and mother represents the working of forces that make for righteousness, and the continuity of the Jewish spirit.*

Adult family members can invoke God’s blessing, in their own words and style:

  • Bob Dylan’s parental blessing in song:   “May God bless and keep you always…..   …May you grow up to be righteous, may you grow up to be true,
    May you always know the truth and see the lights surrounding you,
    May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong.
    May you stay forever young…..”*
  • “God, may the people in my life never be left wondering if they are of value to you or to me. Help me to bless them with my words and my actions.   Remind me not to leave my words to chance but use them to protect, encourage and renew.” (my prayer)
  • “When inspired, I bless my son noting milestones in his life from the past week and anything else that moves me about my relationship with him. There are no specific formulations to these personal prayers, just simple sentiments like, ‘May you continue to approach the smallest discoveries in life with wonder and joy’ or ‘May I continue to learn how to be the best mother to you.’ (Dasee Berkowitz)

What do your blessings toward your children look like in your family?

*Jewish Encyclopedia: “Ethics of Judaism,” pt. ii., p. 213; Bob Dylan, “Forever Young.” Published by Lyrics © BOB DYLAN MUSIC CO


  • Regardless of our differences in religion or ideas no heart is without an inner divine reference. Click to Tweet
  • Adult family members can invoke God’s blessing on kids in their own words and style. Some examples here. Click to Tweet

Spirituality in adolescence: not what but how

teens rugbyYoung people raised with moral or religious principles and practices typically arrive at adolescence ready to find answers to a questions like “How do I know and experience and be ‘right’ with God? How should that look different for me than it does for my parents?”
After all, the faith they have now cannot be the faith they had when they were 4 or 8 or 10.

Nor will it be their faith when they’re 21 or 48 or 83. Faith is a force that will continue to develop and mature over the course of a lifetime, and sometimes it needs to change in order to continue to invigorate and sustain people as they enter different stages of their own development.

Show them how

teen girl wonderingSo how– now in their teens– can you show the kids in your life how to experience and navigate a relationship with God? Here are some thoughts I have… feel free to adapt them for your own use.

  • Explain “relationship” with God as an internal conversation that includes questions, doubts, heart longings/prayers. God is big enough to handle it all.
  • Ask them questions… and really listen to their answers.
  • Do NOT pretend you have it all together and do NOT pretend you know everything. They will know you are lying.
  • Open up to share appropriately (less is more) when you’re going through something that life throws at you and how you experience God in that situation.
  • Confirm that a relationship with God is a good idea, even when you don’t know all the answers. Open dialogue is good.
  • Invite them to come along with you when you’re doing community service… or just doing something nice for others. Making a meal for someone who just had a baby is a tangible way of showing the love of God. Make that connection.
  • Don’t major on the minors. When kids get sidetracked on minor points of doctrine and belief, try to call their attention back to the main points and general principles.

“But I’m not a religious person.”

if you don’t think of yourself as having spiritual awareness, ask trusted family friends whose spiritual life you respect to stand in for you. Meanwhile, communicate positive intent toward God and faith, much like divorced couples who have learned it is best for the children to speak positively of the other parent, though they personally feel quite differently.

The evidence confirms the value of faith to young people.

Studies of religiousness/spirituality have found a positive correlation with an adolescent sense of well-being, positive life attitudes, altruism, resiliency, school success, health and positive identity, as well as a negative correlation with alcohol and drug use, delinquency, depression, excessive risk-taking and early sexual activity.

Their questions are deeper than we think.

teen boy 1“A number of years ago I overheard my then teenage son discussing with his friends the origin of AIDS. Not how AIDS developed…. rather they were arguing why — a deep spiritual question. Was this disease a simple development of nature? A cosmic punishment? Or even a divine opportunity for compassion?

The conversation surprised me,” said Dr. Ken Doka. “I was confounded by the intensity of the debate. I should not have been. We often fail to acknowledge the intense spirituality that underlies adolescence. It’s a spiritual time of development, complete with idealism and questions of identity and meaning.

Tweetable: The faith adolescents have now cannot be the faith they had when they were 4 or 8 or 10. Here’s why. Click to Tweet