How Children Learn
Six-year-old Rudy, a kindergartner attending Jewish day school, came home one day and announced to the family that he believed Jesus was indeed the son of God. Thinking wryly of the thousands of dollars she was spending for the child's private-school education, Rudy's mother gently reminded him that he was Jewish, "and most Jewish people don't believe that Jesus is God's son." Still, Rudy was adamant.
"He is too," the child insisted. "Because the rabbi told us that we're all God's children, so that means Jesus is God's son and you're one of God's children too, Mom, even though you're a Mom!"
The exchange is a poignant reminder that spiritual thoughts and feelings are as much a part of the growth process for young children as their physical, mental, or emotional development. Still, in a secular society where consumerism is king and progress is measured in scientific, rather than spiritual terms, researchers often ignore this aspect of a child's being.
"Spirituality has traditionally been framed in terms of religion, and so the issue of church and state comes up," observes Don Ratcliff, Ph.D., education professor at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, and the author of several books on children's spiritual development. "In the research area, a lot of secular universities shy away from it because they think the topic is getting too close to religion. There's concern about objectivity."
Ratcliff's own research and experience as a parent have led him to believe that many children actively search for spiritual understanding, beginning at a young age. He recalls his own son, at five, becoming deeply reflective while watching a campfire during a family trip. Gazing into the flames, the child observed that "the fire is like Jesus on the cross, and the stones are like people standing around looking up at the cross."
To Ratcliff, the story is a reminder that even very young children have the ability to think abstractly. Many experts in early childhood development, however, believe just the opposite -- that young children's early expressions of faith can only be rooted in the concrete experiences of seeing, hearing, and touching.
"If you ask a preschooler, 'What is God?' you get an answer that God is a person," says Helen Cohen, director of the Frances Jacobson Early Childhood Center at Temple Israel in Boston. "I remember a child telling me she didn't believe in God. I said, 'Why do you say that?' She said, 'I can't see God or hear God, so I know there is no God.'"
Other children seem to be more openly engaged by the concept of a higher power, says David Elkind, Ph.D., professor of child study at Tufts University. He recalls a conversation with a four-year-old who spoke with authority when asked to describe the difference between God and Jesus.
"The difference, according to this child," Elkind recalls with a chuckle, "is that God doesn't have birthdays and Jesus does."
Stages of Faith Development
Elkind has identified three stages of faith development:
Children's thoughts and feeling about God or other spiritual themes appear to be a natural part of human development, a search for some force in the universe that represents eternity and the absence of change. Even children who are not raised in a religious home are likely to ask spiritual questions.
Things for Parents to Remember