Often discussed in the context of religion, the subject of children's spirituality is nevertheless a separate, and arguably more general, topic. In fact, according to experts, children's spirituality not only transcends the idea of particular religious denomination or tradition, but also goes beyond religion itself, as is evidenced by the spiritual concerns of children, and people in general, who are defined as "not religious." According to the noted child psychiatrist and author Robert Martin Coles , there is nothing exceptional or unusual about children's spirituality: unless suppressed through abuse, a child's spirituality naturally develops by an innate feeling of wonderment and fascination. In his numerous conversations with children about their spiritual concerns, Coles has noted that regardless of their cultural and religious background, children feel a profound desire to understand the universe and their place in it, and that desire, articulated through words, gestures, songs, and drawings, remains constant. Furthermore, children, often combining spiritual musings with ethical concerns--e.g., wondering why there is injustice in the world--often express a wish to influence the entire universe in an effort to improve the world.

Commenting on his conversations with two eight-year-old girls with different backgrounds (Hopi and Irish American), Coles noted that the girls, despite the differences in their religious backgrounds, had similar spiritual concerns and aspirations. According to Coles, both girls find in themselves a human strength, striving "every once in a while to break the confines of self, of society, of time and space, even of faith" (Coles, 1990). While Coles's young interlocutors used different sets of symbols to express their spirituality, the Catholic girl dreaming about Christ's return, and her Hopi counterpart contemplating a joyful reunion of all humankind, their reactions to reality reflected a deep desire to live in harmony with the universe.

As researchers have observed, the phenomenon of children's spirituality eludes the traditional conceptual and methodological apparatus of psychology or theology. Spiritual concerns, i.e., questions pertaining to life, death, birth, rebirth, and the universe in all its immensity do not, it seems, directly depend on cognitive and verbal development. Indeed, it is possible to trace the development of children's religious consciousness, as David Elkind has done, noting how, for example, as children mature, their prayers shift from being self-centered to altruistic. But spirituality, undefinable as a process, defies the theoretical strictures of child development. In other words, there is something timeless about children's spirituality. Thus children often wonder about God without any intellectual, or historical, understanding of the concept "God." Children have the ability to tackle difficult philosophical and theological questions almost unknowingly, focusing on the idea itself, while sidestepping the logical sequences prescribed by rational discourse. Gareth B. Matthews has criticized Jean Piaget for dismissing a nine-year-old girl's insistence that God must exist because he has a name. According to Piaget, the child shows her inability to dissociate names from objects. Matthews demonstrates that the little girl's reasoning is logically correct and in accordance with a long philosophical and theological tradition of thinking about God.


Whatever the parents' attitude toward their child's spiritual aspirations, spirituality is an unavoidable issue in every family: the question of his or her origin, which every child asks, essentially pertains to spirituality.

According to Erik Erikson, trust "born of care is, in fact, the touchstone of the actuality of a given religion." Erikson uses the term "religion," but his insight about care and trust can easily apply to spirituality in general. While there is no formula for a healthy spiritual life, caring parents will, by inspiring a fundamental sense of trust and by respecting the spiritual aspects of birth, enable their children to freely develop a sense of spirituality and manifest it through a passionate and fulfilling involvement in life. Declaring that spirituality affirms children's humanity and enhances their ability to understand life's mysteries, Robert Coles advises parents to encourage a child's natural sense of wonderment and curiosity about spiritual issues. By their nature, children ask probing questions, and this desire to know, Coles affirms, "is also part of the moral development of children--a way for them to find a set of beliefs and ideals to guide their daily lives, a way for them to gain command of their behavior."

Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood & Adolescence. Gale Research, 1998

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