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Education & Development

Child spirituality

Updated Thursday 1st December 2005

Janet Seden explores the importance of understanding children’s spiritual needs

The needs of children have been well researched in the psychological and sociological disciplines. Those who live and work with children can draw on a wide spread of knowledge for assessing and meeting children’s needs across a range of areas:

  • physical and developmental needs
  • cognitive and learning needs
  • social and environmental needs
  • emotional and affectional needs
  • behavioural presentation.

Government guidelines assist social workers considering the needs of children looked after by local authorities across a range of these fields (health, education, identity, family and social relationships, social presentation, emotional and behavioural development, self-care skills). They also require assessments to think about each child in the context of their particular family and community.

This helps practitioners to assess what appears to be universal to children, to understand individual differences, the relationship of behaviour to context, the influence of neighbourhood, cultural background, social and economic situations. A holistic approach to children’s needs balances genetic and environmental factors and considers the transaction between biological and environmental needs.

The spiritual needs of children

It can be argued that all children also have an inherent spirituality which should be considered to achieve a truly holistic picture of developmental needs. As John Bradford puts it:

’For a human being, especially a child or young person, to have a full quality of life, spirituality in all its aspects must be nurtured and affirmed. For children or young people who have been marginalised or who have suffered deprivation in every way, the need for such nurture and affirmation in human spirituality is all the more pronounced’.

Children’s spiritual needs can be considered in terms of what may be universal (or innate) and in terms of what might be expressed through religious persuasion or affiliation to a faith community. Children appear to have an inbuilt curiosity about the world, which expresses itself in wonder and awe; in questions about where they came from; and the meaning of death.

Children appear capable of moments of intense joy, but can also experience extreme imagined terror and fear. Children’s literature and stories in diverse cultures enable children to confront, reject and come to terms with fear and monsters, both from within and without.

The runaway success of the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling may also indicate the way children need to engage with magic, mystery, terror and fantasy. There is a message in the books for parents too about nurturing children’s spiritual and imaginative life, fostering the creativity which helps them to manage the adversities of life and build emotional resilience.

The success of Harry Potter may also indicate the way children need to engage with magic, mystery, terror and fantasy

Hay & Nye, writing from an educational research perspective, suggest that spirituality is innate in children. The features they identify in children's spirituality are presented by Margaret Crompton as:

  • sensing a changed quality in awareness;
  • sensing values, ideas about good and evil or what matters;
  • sensing mystery, wonder and awe;
  • sensing meaning or insight or connectedness.

This ties in closely with humanistic concepts of spirituality which embrace:

'aspirations, moral sensibility, creativity, love and friendship, response to natural and human beauty, scientific and artistic endeavour, appreciation and wonder at the natural world, intellectual achievement, physical activity, surmounting suffering and persecution, selfless love, the quest for meaning and values by which to live.'

Thus there appears to be an expression of spirituality which might be appreciated and nurtured in every child.

The spiritual and religious rights of children

The rights of children to be treated as citizens are found in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Spiritual and religious rights are explicitly mentioned and include the right to freedom from discrimination in respect of status or beliefs; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Children can expect adults to meet responsibilities towards them to promote their physical, mental, emotional, and social development, including their spiritual needs, according to their developmental ages and understanding and the relevant cultural expression of those within their faith communities.

Spirituality and morality

All children have a capacity for forming moral judgements. Carl Rogers believed that children and adults are able to reach their full potential as people if the core conditions of warmth, empathy and positive regard are met. This perhaps suggests that children need their spirituality and moral development nurtured by empathic adults.

Spirituality, morality, religion and ethics are closely linked. Most religious belief systems have concerns about the sanctity of life, respect and care for the family, community and others. This may be enshrined in a moral code, or practices connected with food or dress or festivals. Much of this practice will be positive for a child, giving meaning to births, coming of age, marriages or deaths in the family.

Many people turn to religious beliefs and rituals to help them through times of stress or to celebrate a transition. Children who belong to faith communities need to have such practices continued when away from home. While the abuses of religion and the strife caused by sectarianism cannot be denied, a religious belief or affiliation can provide support and/or inner resilience in times of difficulty.

Neglect of childrens' sense of truth, justice or mystery may leave them expressing their terrors and pain in ways which society may find unacceptable. Anger and despair can be expressed outwards, as violence towards others, or can be turned inwards onto themselves, which can result in depression or self-harm. It is therefore important to respect and nurture general spiritual qualities in children and young people rather than to leave a vacuum, which may have unwanted, sad and in some circumstances, tragic consequences.

The spiritual dimension of children's development is part of a holistic understanding of the needs and rights of children, young people, families and communities.

Taking it further

The books and articles mentioned here are:

Caring for the Whole Child
John Bradford, The Children's Society.

Children, Spirituality & Religion
Margaret Crompton, CCETSW

Children and God
David Hay, in The Tablet, 74 pages 1270-1

Spiritual development from Children Religion & Spirituality
Rebecca Nye R, pages 2-6

The Oxford Book of Nineteenth-Century English Verse
Edited by John Hayward, Clarendon Press

On Becoming a Person
Carl Ransom Rogers, Houghton Mifflin

Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak, Harmondsworth / Penguin.

S Webster
Positive News No15, Winter/Spring

Home is Where We Start From
Donald Woods Winnicott, Harmondsworth/Penguin.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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