Can children experience spirituality? According to child psychiatrist and author Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children (Mariner Books,1991), the entire course of ”children’s mental life can and does connect with their religious and spiritual thinking.”
A child’s spirituality develops naturally by “an inner feeling of wonder and fascination.” Parents and teachers can help develop the spiritual life of children by giving them opportunities to create meaning, connect with nature and develop empathy.
Creating Meaning in a Child’s Spiritual Life
Children have a profound desire to understand their place in this universe. It is this inner wonder and curiosity that creates meaning for them. Providing children with avenues to explore the world around them and to express themselves develops a strong sense of identity and personal values.
Keeping a strong and positive engagement with children allows them to create meaning in their social spheres. Both personal and communal “rootedness” are essential to a child’s spirituality and happiness.
According to a recent study, spirituality accounts for happiness in 16.5% of children and 5% of adults. The children in this study define meaning as the sense of value in their personal lives and in their communal interactions.
Religious practices such as attending church, praying or meditating have little effect on a child’s happiness. Not even the accumulation of things provides the sense of happiness that comes from altruistic actions; studies show that it is creating meaning in relationships, not accumulating goods that accounts for happiness in people.
Allowing Kids to Connect with Nature
No less significant than personal and social interactions is the interaction a child has with nature. Psychiatrist Edward Hoffmann sees connecting with nature as an essential part of the spiritual life of children.
It is from nature that children learn that all life is connected: the rain feeds the plants that feed man and man in turn nurtures the land that feeds the skies in an eternal cycle. Nature is the “Great Teacher that can mold thoughts and inspire love.”
A connection with nature can be as simple as growing a vegetable or flower garden, hiking, camping or simply spending as much time as possible outdoors. Ultimately, a connection with nature enables children to see themselves as stewards of the earth; this is a spiritual connection that extends their community into the global realm.
Developing Empathy in Children
Giving children the chance to interact with nature allows them to develop a sense of connectedness and empathy with people around the world which can be expressed through acts of responsibility and stewardship.
The idea is that man can help each other in cooperative efforts such as sponsoring needy children through World Vision or Plan International or supporting registered initiatives that raise funds through various endeavors to provide food for children in Africa.
Empathy is the ability to understand the needs of others; it is a value sorely needed in the modern world which has placed a great deal of emphasis on competition and self-serving materialism. Escalating violence worldwide is a reflection of this lack of empathy.
Creating meaning that is larger than the self is possible through interactions between self and society, self and nature; this is the basis for developing the spiritual life of children who, even at the tender age of 4 or 5, can understand the power of empathy and coherence.