Creating Spaces for Children to Flourish in the Modern World

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on The Spirituality of Children. Read other perspectives here.

People who have seen a child mesmerized by a starry sky, captivated by a wild storm, or reaching out to someone in unprompted kindness would likely agree that from the beginning of life, children display an innate capacity for spiritual awareness and response. Sofia Cavalletti describes observing how children intuitively know that the Good Shepherd will take his sheep to see the bright stars at night, and knows where to find the best grassy hills for a good roll (benefits of staying close to the Good Shepherd that most adults have long since forgotten). And Jesus tells us clearly that children are sources of revelation for adults and provide access to the Kingdom of God in ways that adults cannot grasp on their own. Asking the question "What can the spirituality of children teach us?" reaps profound benefits for adults. But unless our exploration of children's spirituality also contributes to the flourishing of children, we have missed the mark.

Through the last several decades, a rich literature base has emerged, giving unprecedented attention to the spiritual lives of children. In my own spiritual health research at Queen's, my team and I had the opportunity to use data from a large (>30,000) national population health survey to observe relationships between spiritual health and various health outcomes in Canadian children. In measuring spiritual health, we were paying attention to connections in four established domains: to self; to others; to nature; and to mystery, God, or whatever one experiences as transcendent. While we can't claim to capture the whole of a person's spiritual health (or for that matter, the broader dimension of spirituality in a person's life) through a survey, these findings offered us clues about relationships between spirituality and other health outcomes.

The full results of this study are being written up for publication, and there isn't room here to report the findings in the depth they deserve. But here's the gist of what we found. Positive spiritual health was protective to overall health in both boys and girls and across age groups. This makes sense, because it's well established in academic literature (and frankly, it's well established by simply getting to know kids) that spiritual health is related to all kinds of good health outcomes (mental, physical, social, etc.). Also unsurprising, we observed that religious group participants attributed a higher importance to spiritual health than their non-involved peers.

It's the next finding that was particularly curious. While more participants in the religiously involved group reported spiritual health to be important, the protective effects were stronger in the non-religious group. This is counter-intuitive, as one might expect that children involved in a religious group would have access to tools and traditions that would nurture positive spiritual health, and that they would benefit most from the protective health effects. According to our study, this is just not the case. While conceptually spiritual health may be reported as more important for religiously engaged children, they didn't report experiencing the potential protective health benefits at the same strength as their non-involved peers.

So what's going on? Because these data aren't just abstract numbers, behind each piece of data is a real child, with a real story. Why doesn't religious involvement seem to be nurturing a robust spirituality that is benefitting these children at the same strength that spirituality is benefiting their non-religiously connected peers? And second, what can parents, religious leaders, and other adults learn from this to help the children in their lives to flourish? I'll make two suggestions.

1. There are many explanations as to why children's experiences of spiritual health might decline as they grow older. I've asked lots of children to help me interpret these results, and the first thing they nearly always tell me is, "We just get so busy!" And yet, for the children for whom a positive experience of spiritual health doesn't decline, the overall health effects are strikingly positive. It's worth thinking about how to help children create space in their lives in which they can pay attention to connections with one another, with the natural world, with themselves and with God. For us adults, this might mean paying attention to the pace we model in our own lives, and disconnecting ourselves virtually so that we can connect with children in real space and time. It might mean enticing our kids out into the woods, and celebrating when they run, play, get dirty, and engage. Maybe it means we model in our own lives a different way of being in the world that values connections in the domains of spirituality over and above our own busy strivings, because children will learn far more from what they see us doing than from anything we will ever teach or say.