Spirituality has been around for a long time and has developed and adapted through the ages depending on context, societal changes and various religious eras. Christian Spirituality has a long tradition and is firmly rooted in our belief that it is possible to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.
However, Christian Spirituality has often focused on adult spirituality. Children have been regarded as ‘spiritual beings in the making’ and much of Christian nurture has been based on the belief that children need to grow up to be mature, spiritual adults. This view assumes that children do not have the capacity to be spiritual or experience spirituality until they are older.
Jesus turns this thinking on its head in Matthew 18 when he puts a child in the midst of an argument about status in the kingdom of heaven and says we should be like the child. Child theology engages with this and other scriptures to draw attention to the upside-down nature of spirituality and points to the child as an example of what it means to have a relationship with Jesus and enter the kingdom of heaven. This does not mean we elevate the child but rather that we are all equals in relationship with God and his kingdom regardless of our age.
Parents intuitively know that their children are spiritual as part of being human. Mostly they describe it through stories about what children do, what they say, how they act or how they see the world. Rebecca Nye, an influential researcher in Child Spirituality says that Child Spirituality is a “child’s way of being with God and God’s ways of being with the child.” (1)
In her research (with British primary school children), where she listened to their talk about life, she identified that young children are spiritually aware from a young age: “As our research has shown, when they are very young most children are perfectly well aware that they have a spiritual dimension to their experience of life. The task of the teacher (parents) is therefore not at all abstract, though spiritual education has something of a subversive quality to it, since it is encouraging children to question the isolation and individualism that is bequeathed to them by European social history. It is to give permission for spiritual awareness to continue to flourish by pointing to it in the children themselves and relating it to its cultural expressions in the great ethical and religious traditions of humanity.” (2)
So how can we help our children to develop a healthy, Christian spirituality? We need to recognise that spirituality is not only about extraordinary experiences or something only some children experience. It is evident in everyday, ordinary aspects of children’s lives. To help us further recognise spirituality in our children, some research by David Csinos (as well as others) has shown that children exhibit different styles of spirituality. He suggests four styles: (3)
- Word – these children value words and knowledge about God. They enjoy reading the Bible and love collecting cognitive knowledge
about God. Reason and logic are seen as the avenues for knowing God and people of this style value clarity, accuracy, precision, and thoughtfulness as they examine ideas about faith, life, religion, and God.
- Emotion – these children value the arts like drama, music and visual arts. They are relational and experiential in style. Worship and singing are particularly important to these children.
- Symbol – these children value places where they can be alone and spend time with God in silence, often in nature. Prayer in quiet places and privacy is important to them.
- Action – while prayer, knowledge, and emotions matter to these children, what is most important is how they are expressed in acts of compassion and justice that seek to change the world.
Csinos notes that children will not be purely one style and also that it is healthy to encourage children to try other styles so that they do not become extreme in any single one of them. Here are some steps for you to try:
- Pay attention to your own spirituality and faith. Discover what your spiritual style is.
- Discover your child’s spiritual style and ways of encouraging it.
- Listen carefully to your child with spiritual ears to discover the insights and childlike faith they already have.
- Learn spirituality from your child; see things through their eyes with awe and wonder, learn to trust from the way they trust you, see them as God sees them and you.
- Real Kids, Real Faith: Practices
for Nurturing Children’s Spiritual Lives – Karen Marie Yust & Eugene Roehlkepartain.
- Children’s Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters – Rebecca Nye.
- Four Ways of Knowing God: Exploring Children’s Spiritual Styles – David Csinos.
1. Rebecca Nye. 2009. Children’s Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters. London. Church House Publishing.
2. David Hay and Rebecca Nye. 1998.The Spirit of the Child. London and Philadelphia. Harper Collins.
3. David Csinos. Four Ways of Knowing God: Exploring Children’s Spiritual Styles. Journal of Childhood and Religion. Volume 1, Issue 8, December 2010.
Story: Elke Keeling
Elke Keeling is a Children and Family Ministries practitioner, coach and national leader with a Bachelor of Applied Theology, in the process of doing her Master of Applied Theology degree in Child Spirituality Studies.
- What is the spiritual style of you and your children?
- Consider keeping a journal each day of where you see your child’s spiritual awareness. How can you encourage them? How does this encourage you?
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