In the Spotlight

News & Features
Children and Spirituality
By Mary Stucky
April 28, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the MPR News project Religion in Everyday Life

Child psychologists tell us that even very young children ask the kind of questions that can only be called spiritual. Who created the earth? Why am I here? How do I know what's right and wrong? Some children find answers to these questions in church, others develop a moral sense completely separate from organized religion.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL KIDS are out on the playground enjoying a lovely spring day. They're wearing the usual - blue jeans, T-shirts and tennis shoes, and on some wrists a bracelet in brightly woven yarn. On the bracelet, the letters "WWJD"

Stucky: What does WWJD mean?

Child: What would Jesus do?
These bracelets may just be the biggest craze since Beanie Babies. They're selling like hotcakes in the malls at teen-oriented chain stores like Claire's. But are the bracelets a fashion statement, or a genuine expression of religious belief?
Unidentified kids: It's both, cause I like rainbow colors and it says "What Would Jesus Do" on it, so it's both. It helps us make the right choice when we have a tough decision, or like if you don't know want to do, just think like "What would Jesus do?": and do the same thing. Like, say you're about to steal your sister's Easter candy and you look at your bracelet, and you put it back.
In a capitalist culture it may seem natural to market religious icons, but should we use caution when the target is children? Ann Maston, professor of child development at the University of Minnesota says it's important for parents to be aware of the messages on products their children purchase.
Maston: Many parents would be okay with this. Now if parents do not follow Christian beliefs they might have some concerns about the focus on Jesus per se but I can easily imagine bracelets coming out saying what would Buddha do? This seems pretty harmless to me and supports a set of values that I'm okay with.
Bracelets may represent an ideal marketing opportunity, combining children's love of a fashion statement with a sense of belonging. In fact, that desire to be with friends may be what draws some kids to church in the first place. For instance at Grace Church in Edina, Mike Pagh says his 13- and 11-year-old sons participate in what might be called a sort of missionary effort.
Pagh: There are outreach events where they can invite other kids from their neighborhood or their school or other activities where they are involved. My boys are both involved in sports. There are several hundred kids that come both on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings; Sunday evenings all kinds of different events.
In fact, going to church with your friends, wearing a "WWJD" bracelet, may meet an important need in the lives of children. According to experts in child development, even very young children ask questions that can be called religious.
Mary Deeken: They're very curious and they really do want to know about God and Jesus and the world around them and how it was created.
Mary Deeken teaches 4- and 5-year-olds at the preschool in St. Paul's House of Hope Presbyterian Church.

Experts say children start thinking about the metaphysical at about the time they learn language. By the age of 4 or 5, psychologists say, kids are intensely interested in right and wrong, good and evil. For teachers like Mary Deeken, those are spiritual questions that can invite a conversation about God.

Deeken: God made us the smartest of all the animals. Why?
Kids: If he didn't make anybody it would just be quiet. It's good to be ourselves because we're human.
Talking with children and teaching them the moral code of their religion helps them figure out how to behave in life, according to House of Hope preschool director Jo Kircher.
Kircher: The children do respond to this. I see the peace that they get, the happiness that they have. I see it for instance when we say our prayer at snack time, they love it when we say what it means to talk to God.
Many parents of today's young children, distrustful of institutions, moved away from organized religion in their youth. But now, they want their children to have the same religious education they had.

Wade Clark Roof, a professor of religion at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has studied baby boomers and their religious practices. He concludes many boomers are coming back to church not because they believe, but because of their children.

Roof: Many of the baby boomers who returned for religious participation when their children were young have now relaxed their commitment and seem to be dropping out again now that their parenting responsibilities are over.
Even when they drop out, they are still pleased they've give their children a religious foundation for life. In a recent Gallup Poll commissioned by "Parenting Magazine," 40 percent of adults say religion became more important to them when they had children, and almost 90 percent say they talk to their children about God.
Unidentified speakers: I think the institutional church is really important for kids because it's an arena in which they learn that it's not just mom and dad who love them, it's another community that is there for them. Having some spiritual base, some place to go when, like, you know, if a terrible thing happens in their life, I think is really important. I want our kids to know the Lord, to have a firm understanding of right and wrong.
Experts in child development say kids learn right and wrong in many ways. Child psychologist Ann Maston says church may reinforce those messages but it is possible to raise a moral child without organized religion.
Maston: Children are very attentive to what their parents are doing and the people around them - how they're living their lives. They're always observing and so what they observe and what they learn outside of Sunday school is going to be very important spiritually.
Of course some parents choose to give their children a religious education because it's a fundamental part, not only of the family's spiritual values, but of their cultural identity. A way to connect with a heritage going back thousands of years.

Twice a week at the Talmud Torah School in St. Paul, a class of teenagers study Hebrew and the Torah in addition to coursework that includes Yiddish and Jewish film. Research shows adolescence is a typical time for religious awakening along with a search for identity. Emma Kippley-Ogman, a high school junior, says without this study she would be missing a link in the chain of Jewish continuity.

Kippley-Ogman: I find spirituality in the continuity in that the words that I'm reading are words that my ancestors have read, that my descendants will read, and, yeah, it is important.
Dalilah Vladovir, Principal of this afternoon and evening school, sees parents who never had this religious education eager to provide it for their children.
Vladovir: People fulfilled one dream, melting into the society, but they missed being Jewish. They are now seeking to go back into tradition and introduce tradition.
And they want to introduce tradition into the lives of their children - children who face a barrage of cultural messages counteracting what they learn at church and at home. Many parents, regardless of their religion, say they're concerned about the power of the culture to override values they want for their children.
Mike Dosho Port: Largely children get their values from TV.
Mike Dosho Port is the father of two young children and the guiding teacher at Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul.
Dosho Port: I think it's very important that we consciously choose what kinds of values we want our children to receive.
Port says he draws on his religion to counteract the cultural programming that can be overwhelming. Robert Coles, the acclaimed child psychologist, has studied the spirituality of children and concludes that children's lives are rich with thoughts about God, faith, and the meaning of life. Questions that only deepen with age, but are part of our makeup from childhood.