Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Does Religion Make Children Resilient?

It can, but it depends on the experience

While in Nepal for my work, I had the chance to visit a Buddhist Education Centre on the outskirts of Kathmandu. I was impressed by the cheerful nature of the children and the orderly way these tiny monks and nuns conducted themselves. Not that they aren’t still children! Despite shaved heads and ochre robes the boys teased each other and ran about, the girls laughed and played games. The instructors offered a compassionate space to learn not just religion, but all the subjects children need to learn. I was told that most of the children at that monastery are from poor families, or families who live in the rural mountain communities of Nepal. They are children of Sherpas. And yet, despite the distance from home and even without the love and care of a parent, there was something emotionally, physically and spiritually sustaining about that monastic community.

It left me comparing that experience of religion with the experience of Aboriginal children in Canada, the United States and Australia who were stolen from their parents and placed in residential schools run by religious orders. There, the word of God was beaten into them. They were physically and sexually abused. They were tortured if they spoke their own language. All of this was done under the guise of misguided religious and social doctrines. How could clergy have participated in something so brutal as to rip a child from his family? The traumatic legacy of that cultural genocide still persists, though remarkably, many Indigenous people still practice the religions they encountered in those schools. However, far from making children in those residential schools resilient, their experience of a religious community had severely damaged them.

How do we explain these two very different ways religious caretakers have looked after children? How do we account for religion doing some good for children, even when it is misused? And what impact does religion have on a child when it is just a quick sermon on Sunday, Saturday, or Friday, depending on one’s faith? Can a “religion-lite” experience benefit a child at all?

In my studies of resilience around the world, there is a fairly consistent need to account for a child’s participation in a religious activity to understand a child’s successful coping with adversity. Of course, there are some communities that are very secular. In those places, it can be awkward to ask a child if she attends religious activities regularly. However, despite a controversial history and the potential for religion to propagate hatred towards others, for the vast majority of the world’s children, being part of a religious community seems to bring with it some advantages.

I’ll leave it to clergy to tell us why a child needs religion for her spiritual development. What I’m concerned about is whether participation in religion helps children cope better during times of stress at home, school, or in his community. In this regard, the answer appears to be “Yes”, though I’m not sure it’s the religion itself that saves children as much as the assets children access when practicing their religion. This is an important distinction that needs to be made. Children who don’t participate in any religious activities can do just as well as their religious peers as long as they find somewhere in their lives the same supports children find inside religious institution.

Here’s what I see and hear from children around the world. When a child, family, or community are facing stress, like Hurricane Katrina, a tsunami in Japan, a flood in Alberta, violence in Syria, or a parent’s unemployment in Detroit, a religious community can provide resources that are difficult to find elsewhere. There are seven resources that appear to coincide with religion:

1) Relationships: Congregations, no matter where a child finds them, do what any good community should do: expand the child’s network of adults and peers. While parents are important to a child’s development, during times of crisis children need a much wider weave of relationships. A religious community is not only there to offer support, it also conveys to the child he is valued.

2) Identity: We know ourselves by how others see us. And being known by our religion can for some children provide an anchor, especially during periods when they are confused by their choices. Though I do not believe a religious affiliation should limit a child’s choices (in fact, I encourage my clients and my own children to experiment with many different religious and spiritual expressions to find the one that fits), all healthy affiliations bring with them a sense of who one is and hopefully, a positive self-expression. All children need the opportunity to show others they can be the competent caring contributors to our communities that we want them to be.

3) Power and control: While religion may ask for submission, the children I meet who are the most resilient exercise power over the decisions that affect them. For many children, religious activities give them the chance to make decisions, even if that decision is only whether to participate wholeheartedly in the practices of their faith. I particularly like the rites of passage offered by religious congregations. It’s these moments that give children the chance to assert they are becoming older and can accept a more adult like role in their communities. That is an important source of personal efficacy.

4) Social justice: I am admittedly biased towards religious experiences that model for children tolerance and love for others. Our religions can be sources of great inspiration. They can also breed intolerance based on the flimsiest of beliefs that are grounded in a dark and ignorant past. I prefer instead to see the way religious orders reach out to the most vulnerable and shield them from hatred and exclusion, advocating for change. Children who are witnesses, and participants, in such acts of generosity are much stronger people as a consequence.

5) Part of that advocacy is also ensuring children have all their needs met. Whether it is a school for orphans in South Africa, fundraising for a shelter for homeless families in New York, or providing counselling to victims of an act of terror, religious communities provide for the material, emotional, and spiritual needs of children in very concrete ways. Children who have enough food, safe schools, adequate housing, and access to mentors are children who will be much more resilient.

6) A child who experiences a sense of belonging, or cohesion, is a much healthier child able to withstand stress. Belonging means more than relationships. Belonging is the sense that our life matters to others. That is one message common to all religions and a powerful source of security for children with complex needs.

7) Rituals and holidays, all part of a child’s culture, bring the satisfaction of routine and the sense of predictability and belonging that I’ve mentioned above. Culture can mean many things, and is often invisible when we are part of the majority. Still, culture is shown through religious practices. Like ink in water, religion colors our perception of the world and helps guide our decisions.

All seven of these aspects of healthy child development can come from religious activity. What is interesting, though, is how these seven factors interact. As one finds relationships through a congregation, one also experiences a sense of belonging and even an identity associated with inclusion. One might feel older through a rite of passage like a bar mitzvah, and the routine and predictability of daily prayer can give a child facing war the sense that at least one part of her world is predictable.

Those children in that Nepalese monastery seemed to have found a safe place to grow. Though they may have preferred to be home, the structure and safety, and religious instruction from caring monastics, seemed to be helping them through what might otherwise have been a difficult period of separation. In a context like that, giving a child access to a religious community brings with it the promise of more resilience.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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