ROBERT COLES is sitting in his spacious office at Harvard
University sharing thoughts on his latest book, "The Spiritual Life
of Children" (see review on this page). Casually dressed in a
well-worn crew-neck sweater, Dr. Coles speaks about the impact of
You've said that for decades you shied away from the issue of
spirituality in children. What is it that allowed you to finally do
this research and write this book?
I think I finally realized that there was a spiritual side of me
that was craving for expression - going way back to my early
interests in religion and theology. I was educated in the secular,
materialist world of the West and part of me had to struggle with
that world in order to gain the personal freedom and the
professional freedom to do this kind of work with children.
I emphatically did not want to turn this into yet another
instance of social science reductionism. I wanted to treat this
phenomenon with the dignity, and the worth, and the respect that it
deserves. To do so, I had to come to terms with my own profession of
child psychiatry and psychoanalysis.
This is the first of your more than 50 books to make the New York
Times Bestseller List. How do you explain that?
I think this book strikes a chord in the minds of ordinary people
all over the country of various backgrounds who are interested in
religious and spiritual matters for themselves and for their
children. Perhaps it's interesting for such people to see a secular
psychiatrist like me struggling with these matters as he tries to
understand what he's learned from children who are also struggling
with these matters.
Were you surprised at the intensity of the spirituality you found
in these children?
Very much so.
People often think of children as being very much engrossed in
the materialism of the age.
Maybe we don't listen to our children carefully enough. I was
surprised and maybe I should take that as a lesson yet again that
children have a lot to teach us. It's remarkable and I think all of
us who are teachers and who are social scientists and who are
interested in human beings ought to pay heed. I wish this culture
would generate further efforts on the part of all of us to
understand spirituality in children and maybe in adults too.
What do you think we, as adults, have to learn from children?
I think that what we have to learn is that (spirituality) is a
big part of ourselves. These questions about the meaning of life and
the purpose of life and these efforts on the part of children - and
all of us - to understand what this world means, ... where we're
headed, and why we're here are the fundamental existentialist
questions of humanity. If we're not asking them - or if we're not
paying attention to those who do ask them - then I think this is a
measure of our moral and spiritual decline as individuals and maybe
even as a people.
You talk about the spiritual and the religious life of children.
What do you see as the distinction between the two?
Well, when I think of the religious life of children, I think of
their attendance at church, synagogue, and mosque. When I talk about
the spiritual life of children, I talk about the inherent interest
that children have in spiritual matters and the capacity to reflect
upon spiritual matters. …