We seem to live in a very child centered culture in North America. However, some sociologists suggest that our culture, that values strength and self-sufficiency and that rejects human weakness and vulnerability, is one that fosters indifference or contempt for children. Bunge, (in The Child in Christian Thought), suggests that our popular literature “tends to depict infants and young children as pure and innocent beings whom we adore and teenagers as hidden and dark creatures whom we must fear.” I would suggest that we, as participants in this culture, also underestimate the significance of children’s spiritual experiences. What do I mean?
Spiritual development seems to parallel language development in some ways. We know that children’s early nonsense sounds and imitations of the language they hear around them is a necessary step on the path to speaking coherently in words at first, then sentences. I believe that children’s spiritual development is similar to language development – much more is happening than we can know. If we only base our judgments of children’s spiritual development on what they verbalize back to us, then we are missing a complete picture of the child’s faith life. While we cannot have the kinds of discussions around conceptual and abstract worldview issues with younger children that we can have with teens or college age students, that fact does not mean that the development of worldview is not happening in younger children. They, like babies with speech development, simply cannot cognitize or articulate what they perceive, but worldview is being formed nonetheless. The fact remains that those, who over the course of history have studied when children are spiritually formed, recognize that by age 14 most of the work has been completed, i.e. children’s spiritual identities have been largely formed by this point in their lives.
Children often have a more limited range of foods that are acceptable to their taste buds. We might say their sense of taste is more acute – as we age we eat a wider variety of foods, possibly due to the dulling of our taste buds. I wonder if the same isn’t true with children’s and adult’s spiritual “taste buds”? Jesus suggests that we need an innocent and wholly dependent “living in this moment” faith like little children – unhindered by the skepticism that life has imposed, a complete dependence born of a lack of self sufficiency, and a complete sense of trust in the Father. Those of us who have worked with children are aware of the blessing of clarity and sense of the kind of “seeing” that young children can bring – stopping us in our tracks to wonder about God. Their spiritual sensitivity is a gift to us, part of our being “reborn” to see the beauty of Christ in all things.