Spiritual Lessons That Children Teach

By Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 1991 | Go to article overview

Spiritual Lessons That Children Teach


Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 his work.

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. …

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