An Overview of the Field of Children’s Spirituality

Anne Glenn is a wife, parent, and graduate student working on an MA in Religious Studies with a focus on children’s spirituality at Bryn Athyn College in the US. This article was a paper she wrote for one of her psychology courses highlighting the importance of children’s spiritual development from a psychological perspective, with particular focus on Swedenborg’s high regard for children’s spiritual development in his writings.

The field of Children’s Spirituality is a relatively young one, both from psychological and theological approaches, with the vast majority of research being done in the last 20 years. Children have historically been neglected or minimized by both psychologists and theologians, but slowly over the last century both religious and secular scholars have turned their attention to children and childhood. In recent years the research has begun to shift from studying children and their spiritual capacity only in terms of their potential future as adults to seeing children as complete spiritual beings as they are, and focusing on nurturing their spiritual development for their own sake.

This paper is an investigation into the significance of the field of children’s spirituality, including summary of the history of the field, the interactions between theology and psychology in this field and the implications of research into children’s spirituality on religious communities, particularly in the New Church.

An Overview of the Field of Children’s Spirituality
The spiritual development of children has historically been overlooked both by theologians and psychologists (Boyatzis, 2013; Miller-McLemore, 2006); however, children’s spirituality is of vital importance, both to their health and well-being and to their ability to build healthy relationships with others (Bunge 2006; Nye, 2009). Despite this, spirituality is hard to define, and perhaps children’s spirituality and its development even more so (Boyatzis, 2013). Many writers coming from both religious and secular, academic and practical perspectives spend a significant number of pages offering, critiquing, and examining different definitions (see Boyatzis 2013; Hay &Nye, 2006; Nye, 2009). Among all of these different approaches and definition, several themes emerge: children’s spirituality includes some sort of intrinsic capacity (children are innately spiritual beings); it involves some awareness of something greater than or outside of self (an awareness of the sacred); and children’s spirituality develops both within and outside of formal religious contexts (subject to a wide range of influences) (Boyatzis, 2013).

The importance of children’s spirituality has significant personal weight for me. I am a mother of two young children and I have long been interested in and active in childcare, especially in Christian ministry settings (such as Sunday School, youth groups and church camps). I am a trained Godly Play⁠ (1) practitioner, my children attend a Montessori school and I am currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religious Studies focusing on children’s spirituality from a Swedenborgian perspective.

Historical Overview
The study of children and childhood has often been demeaned, diminished, or dismissed (Bunge, 2001; 2006). Children have historically been studied only in the context of their potential adulthood, with the academy holding the white, adult male as neutral or the primary actor (Bunge, 2006; Miller-McLemore, 2006). In the realm of theology, the study of children and their religious or spiritual experiences has been relegated to religious educators (Berryman, 2013; Miller-McLemore, 2006). Both Miller-McLemore (2006) and Bunge (2006) explore some of the problems with historical religious education’s approaches to children, many of them ultimately coming back to a denial of children’s capacity for or right to moral agency. The focus of religious education has often been on information over experience, teaching doctrine rather than inviting children to encounter God (Berryman, 2013).

Coles (1991), a trained pediatrician and child psychologist pursuing phsyochoanalysis in the tradition of Freud, notes in his own early practice an explicit dismissal of children’s spiritual capacity:
“I was trained to work with children medically and psychiatrically in the 1950s… The people I met in hospitals and clinics were all too often turned into a reductive putty by my mind… Even today I recall with sadness and remorse some of the thoughts I had, the words I used, as I worked with children who had their own moral concerns, their philosophical interests, their religious convictions. I tended to focus on their “psychodynamics” unrelievedly, to the point that they and I became caricatures…” (p. 10)

Coles (1991) goes on to recount his treatment of a young devout Roman Catholic girl that changed his perspective on the significance of faith, spirituality and religion in the life of children. He read Erikson’s Young Man Luther which gave him permission to “connect psychoanalysis to religion, as Erikson had done” (p. 13).

In Stages of Faith (first published in 1981) Fowler outlines a series of six (or seven, if we count stage 0) stages of faith development, modeled after Piaget, Erikson and Kohlberg’s research and developmental models (Fowler, 1995). There are useful aspects of this model (2), and it has been a popular one among religious educators; however there have been significant criticisms in recent years, with some scholars noting that Fowler’s primary concern is not the child, but the adult, looking backwards to where they have been (Miller-McLemore, 2006). Unlike some stage-based developmental models, Fowler’s does not end at young adulthood; instead, like Erikson’s psycho-social model of development, it continues to old age (Berryman, 2013). Childhood and children may not have been Fowler’s exclusive focus as he developed his developmental model, but it can still be useful and informative when studying children and their spiritual development. Berryman has adapted Fowler’s work to inform the development of Godly Play, choosing to interpret Fowler’s somewhat ambiguous term “faith development” not as the study of faith itself but rather how we communicate about faith (Berryman, 2013). Berryman has children and childhood itself as his focus and sees children as full participants in Christian community as they are (Miller-McLemore, 2006). Godly Play stresses that children are full members of the Church as children, not merely as potential adults or future members (Berryman, 2009, 2013).

Research and Limitations
There are significant limitations when it comes to research done on children’s spirituality. The study of children’s spirituality is a relatively young field, from both theological and psychological perspectives (Boyatzis, 2013; Bunge, 2006; Hay&Nye, 2006) with much of the research on spirituality (especially that which has children as the focus) being done in the last 20 years (Boyatzis, 2013). The majority of research done consists of quantitative surveys (Kohls et al., 2008), with adults in the child’s life reporting on some aspect of their spiritual or religious life, and some self-reporting done by older children and adolescents (Boyatzis, 2013). As already mentioned, defining ‘spirituality’ and ‘spiritual development’ can be challenging and clear definitions are essential to qualitative, or self-reported quantitative research. Narrow definitions of spirituality may exclude large groups of people (Hay&Nye, 2006). Studies have typically been short-term or surveys, and there are many variables that can’t be controlled (Boyatzis, 2013).

In her survey of recent research (2000-2015), Mata-McMahon (2016) summarises Ratcliff’s review of earlier research, divided into four phases: an early holistic interest in children’s spiritual experiences (1892-1930), a decrease in interest in children’s experiences (1930-1960), a focus on cognitive stages and their role in spirituality (1960-1990) and finally an increasing interest in children’s spirituality (1990-2010). Mata-McHahon (2016) goes on to outline some of the most recent research and advocates for a pluricultural approach to children’s spirituality, in order to broaden the field and the kind of research being done. Many scholars call for more diverse research, examining more variables and considering more perspectives, and offer suggestions for the field (Boyatzis, 2013; Bunge, 2006; Hay&Nye, 2006; MataMcMahon, 2016).

Despite the challenges in research, the importance of children’s spirituality to their overall health and well-being cannot be overstated. It affects their physical and mental health, their relationships with others, their ability participate in healthy relationships and community, and empowers them to confront the great existential questions of life, death, and purpose (Berryman, 2009; Boyatzis, 2013).

Higher personal religiosity and spirituality have been associated with mental health, lower anxiety and better psychological adjustment, and frequent prayer in children linked with stronger coping skills, such as humour and social connectedness, as well as a stronger sense of purpose in life (Boyatzis, 2013). Spirituality plays an important role in education and school counselling (Ingersoll, 2004). Kiesling, et al., (2006) set out to explore the concept of “spiritual identity” and found that spiritually devout adults were able to relate much of their spiritual identity back to moments of spirituality in childhood and adolescence. The way adults, especially parents, view children’s spirituality can have a significant impact on their relationships and the child’s development; if caregivers are aware of children’s spiritual capacity, they may be more motivated to understand rather than control the child, resulting in deeper relationships of mutual trust, respect and understanding (Watts et al., 2001).

While many stages of human life and development have been articulated in the last century, Emanuel Swedenborg described the spiritual and psychological stages of human development of in his comprehensive works of systematic theology originally published in the 1700’s. For Swedenborg, the development of a person’s interior or spiritual life is essential for their life on earth and in the spiritual world or afterlife. Swedenborg identifies different levels of the mind; the celestial mind (the soul, which is inviolate and belongs to God), the spiritual mind (which has three degrees: lower, higher and still-higher) and the natural mind (which also has three degrees: sensual, imaginative and rational) (Barler, 1907; Swedenborg, 1990; 2003). Throughout his works, Swedenborg describes the stages of human life as infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and life-after-death (Barler, 1907). Both psychologically and spiritually, we begin in infancy, in the sensual degree of our natural mind. As we grow, we come into the imaginative and then the rational degrees. If we continue to develop spiritually, then we will begin to come into our spiritual minds. (Swedenborg, 2003).

Children’s involvement in religious and spiritual communities plays a significant part in their spiritual development (Watts et al., 2001), and so leaders in these communities should be deeply interested in nurturing children’s spiritual development, and the process of how to go about doing so. Child psychologists and theologians alike offer suggestions. Hay offers a four-point plan for teachers: helping children to keep an open mind; explore exploring ways of seeing; encouraging personal awareness; and becoming personally aware of the social and political dimensions of spirituality (Hay & Nye, 2006). Nye uses an acronym, SPIRIT to outline six criteria for ensuring spiritual foundations: Space, Process, Imagination, Relationship, Intimacy, Trust (Nye, 2009). Berryman has spent forty years developing Godly Play, grounding it in the foundational Montessori principle of child-led discovery learning (Berryman, 2013). Watts et al. encourage ministry leaders to consider the church’s role in the child’s life, as well as the child’s role in the church’s life (Watts et a;., 2001). All of these researchers stress the importance of listening to children and seeing them with respect. Children are not empty vessels for us to fill up with knowledge or tradition so that they can have a spiritual life; children already have a spiritual life and our job is to nurture it. We do this by recognizing it, respecting it and responding to it.

“Someday, maybe, there will exist a well informed, well considered and yet fervent conviction that the most deadly of sins is the mutilation of a child’s spirit.” (Erik Erikson; quoted in Nye, 2009).

For those of us in the New Church, Swedenborg’s theological works are the lens through which we interpret Scripture, construct doctrine, implement policy and develop practice. Swedenborg’s theology has a high regard for children, recognizing the innocence they have, their closeness to God and the preciousness of the states of infancy, childhood and adolescence, as well as their potential for strongly influencing the rest of our lives, including to eternity. Those of us who work with children and are interested in nurturing their spiritual development should be emboldened in our understanding that children’s spirituality is of great importance to their overall health and well being and that prioritizing their spiritual development is essential to a healthy church community.

1 Godly Play is a Montessori-based program for nurtuing children’s spiritual development, developped by Rev. Dr. Jeromw W. Berryman over the last forty years. Godly Play uses stories and lessons in the Montessori style to teach children the Christian language system and to provide safe space (both physical and social) for children to use that language to confront existential questions and make meaning in their own lives (Berryman, 2009).

2 Miller-McLemore (2006) highlights that Fowler’s model takes children’s imaginary life seriously and believes adults should not abuse or take advantage of this quality by trying to shape behaviour using fear of hell or damnation. This is an important distinction that departs from some previous religious educational and theological perspectives (Berryman, 2009; Bunge 2006), and Miller-McLermoren notes the psychological importance of this, of not burdening children with self-destructive patterns of guilt and self-hate.

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About Anne Grace Glenn

Anne Grace Glenn is wife to Rev. Coleman Glenn (a priest in the General Church of the New Jerusalem) and a mom of two. Raised in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, she spent her university years with Catholics and seriously considered becoming a nun and joining the Sisters of Life. She met Coleman at her brother’s wedding (he married a Swedenborgian (New Church) girl), and they spent their courtship 12,516 km/7,777 miles apart, which gave them lots of time to talk. Long theological discussions led Anne to investigate the claims of the New Church and the Writings for herself, and she has embraced them with her whole being. Anne Grace occasionally refers to herself as ‘denominationally challenged’ (she both enjoys the challenges of denominations and is challenged by them), and she has a heart for ecumenism. Her parents are missionaries with OMF (formerly CIM) serving in Singapore. Anne Grace has a BFA from York University with a double major in dance and East Asian history. She spent several years dancing professionally in Toronto, and a year volunteering for OMF in Singapore. In 2012 Anne Grace and Coleman were married in Canada and she moved to Dawson Creek, BC, where they served for 18 months before moving to Westville, South Africa. She has lived in Ontario, British Columbia, Japan, Singapore and South Africa, and embraces both being a TCK (Third-Culture-Kid) and raising TCKs.