Hope Today

Understanding and strengthening our most important virtue.

Keys to Building Hope in Children: Part 5, Spirituality

How to foster the spiritual growth of a child

I blog on the subject of hope. Thus far I have posted on the importance of Attachment (2/6/13), Survival/Coping (2/11 and 2/13), and Mastery (2/22). As I mentioned in those first four posts, hope derives from strong attachment, survival, mastery, and spiritual resources. To be deeply hopeful, an individual must possess trust and openness, alternative solutions for problem solving, the ability to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors, a sense of purpose and empowerment, and some form of faith, religious or spiritual.

This post will focus on spirituality.

When you finished reading this blog, I encourage you to visit my hope website (www.gainhope.com). You will find a free, confidential, automatically scored Child Hope Test that is appropriate for children ages 7 to 17 years. Younger children will need some assistance but older children and teens can do it by themselves. The results include a Total Hope Score as well as sub-scores for Attachment, Survival, Mastery, and Spirituality (Each will be scored “low”, “medium” or “high”, as compared to a sample of children who have already taken this test.) There is also a parallel adult hope test to gauge your own hope profile.

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Spirituality and Hope

In my experience working with young adults, I have found that most fall into one of three spiritual “categories”. Roughly one third have a religious framework; the remaining two-thirds are non-spiritual. A small fraction are “spiritual but not religious”.

I recently surveyed about eighty college students to ask them whether religion or spirituality was important to them and why. Those who did not believe it was important gave one of two reasons. About half reported that their parents did not preach or practice any form of religion/spirituality. The other half were told by their parents that religion had been forced upon (their parents) and they were not going to repeat the process. The common denominator was a lack of spiritual direction in childhood.

As someone interesting in hope and spirituality, I find these results simultaneously interesting and worrisome. As a social scientist, researcher and writer, I am aware that spiritual beliefs have been one of humanity’s most important sources of hope. In fact, for some groups in some eras, it was the dominant and perhaps only source of hope.

As a practicing therapist and a human being of a certain age, I have experienced directly the vital role that spirituality plays in confronting the many challenges of life. Spiritual beliefs add a vital layer of empowerment, presence, and support to an individual’s psychic repertoire. In doing so, spiritual beliefs bolster the needs for mastery, attachment, and liberation that underlie the psychology of hope.

For the first time, there is a large, emerging generation of young adults who are spiritually empty. Some are oblivious. Some are curious. Some are confused. Some feel deprived. Will they find a “higher power”, a sense of meaning in life, a path to light their way? If not, will they be able to sustain hope? Will they derive enough non-spiritual empowerment, presence, and salvation to see them through the inevitable challenges, losses, and stresses?

The First “Birth of God”

In Hope in the age of anxiety, I reviewed the building blocks on the spiritual side of hope. I outlined four stages that reflect the spiritual lifecycle and described the associated life priorities, hope building blocks, and spiritual gains. I will limit my discussion here to the two childhood stages.

From 0 to 3 years, basic trust and stable, positive introjects (internalized representations of others) create a template for connecting with a perceived spiritual force or presence. Here I will agree with William James, that the “more” we perceive may be simply part of our own unconscious or actually correspond to something beyond. Science may never be able to answer this question.

The point is that early relationship patterns will affect how (and if) children will relate to a spiritual dimension. Research has shown that parent-child relationships that are close, warm, and supportive can lead to positive views of a higher power. If mom and dad were distant or abandoning, “God” may be experienced in the same way. The psychoanalyst Ana Maria Rizzuto referred to this initial stage of religious development as the “first birth of God”. I might rename it “relational-based spirituality”.

Parents who do not wish to cultivate beliefs in a “god” or “higher power” may nevertheless aim for instilling a relational template that could later be used by the child to forge a trusting and close relationship with nature or the cosmos.

Simple family-focused activities can foster a spiritual sensibility that is not necessarily religious (but can be). Buddha compared a loving family to a “beautiful flower garden”. Author John Bowring described the happy family as an “earlier heaven”. In Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore wrote: “Family life is full of major and minor crises--the ups and downs of health, success and failure…and all kinds of characters. It is tied to places and events and histories. With all of these felt details, life etches itself into memory and personality. It's difficult to imagine anything more nourishing to the soul.”

Family rituals, meals, conversations across generations, recollections of the dead and shared hopes for the future, can all add a sense of transcendent reality, multiple layers of meaning, purpose, and a palpable continuity that rise above and beyond the self; yet is felt as intrinsic to the self. Genwriters, a web-based forum for genealogy investigators, offers a number of ideas for helping to nurture children’s interest in this area, including the use of maps or travel videos to revisit the locations of ancestors, creating family trees, building pedigree charts, planning “genealogy vacations”, and even reading historical novels to get a better sense of how early ancestors might have lived.

The Second “Birth of God”

From about 6 years to puberty, the second “Birth of God” may take place, an “institutionalized” spirituality. This refers to influences outside of the family, including religious or spiritual services and traditions, including attending Sunday school or going to temple, communions and confirmations, Bar Mitzvahs, etc. If you have raised your children within the context of a traditional religious framework, it is important to understand that their mere attendance at a mass, temple, or religious class may not necessarily assure the development of a spiritual life robust enough to enable them to deal with the inevitable vicissitudes of adult life. It is the quality, not the quantity, of religious experiences that determines the ultimate impact. For example, a study conducted by psychologist Michelle Pearce and her colleagues revealed that children’s perceptions of their congregations were far more important than their attendance levels or self-rankings of religiosity in determining how spiritually grounded they felt.

If you are not religiously inclined, there is still spiritual direction available for your child via the Boys and Girls Scouts, 4-H clubs as well as various Outward Bound programs and summer camps (Visit mysummercamps.com for links to more than 15,000 camps nationwide.) These and other organizations can foster spiritual values related to attachment, mastery, and survival while also forging a life-long connection with nature. The great naturalist John Muir wrote, “Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”

In Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv wrote of the “spiritual necessity of nature for the young.” Observing that most transcendent childhood experiences occur in nature, he summarized the findings of more than a hundred studies highlighting the many “gifts” that can be realized through the “great outdoors”. For example, research by environmental psychologists at Cornell University found that simply having a room with a view of nature seems to have a stress-buffering effect on children. There was also some evidence that middle-school children whose homes were positioned “closer to nature” reported less depression and anxiety than their urban counterparts.

Louv bemoaned the “increasing divide between the young and the natural world”, speculating that some children may even show signs of what he labeled “nature-deficit disorder”. He exhorted parents to nudge children away from television sets, videogames, and the Internet and towards wilderness walks, camping trips, and fishing expeditions. “Sit together at the edge of a pond”, “wander through an overgrown garden”, or “track bird migrations.” “In the winter look for hibernating insects.” If you want to “bring nature home”, have your child share in the care of a pet or help transform part of the backyard into a flower or vegetable garden.

Anthony Scioli is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Keene State College.

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