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Spirituality of the Child

ISS Reports


A paper given the Institute for Spiritual Studies as part of a joint seminar on children's spirituality held on Saturday the 3rd of September 2011.

Delivered by Faye Berryman-O'Carroll, who is the recently retired Principal of the Fitzroy Community School in North Fitzroy.

Because I've been involved with children for many years I've been led to think about the spirituality of children. My eldest son is 41; I have seven children and 16 grandchildren. As well as this, in 1976 my husband Philip O'Carroll and I founded a primary school, Fitzroy Community School. From working closely with children over all these years, I am confident to say that spirituality is inherent in the child. Indeed, I believe that to say we are human, is to say we are spiritual. Spirituality is an essence of the human person. Spirituality predates religion. Religion comes from the outside - usually imposed on us by the accident of where we were born, or something that later in life we choose to import into ourselves. Religion brings to mind ritual, doctrine and dogma. Hopefully religion safeguards and even enhances human spirituality.

So what is meant by spirituality? The dictionary defines spirituality as: relating to spirit or consisting of spirit. What is spirit? Common usage of the word 'spirit' provides us with its meaning. We speak of someone being in good or high spirits, or alternatively of being in low or poor spirits. We are speaking of a life force, an inherent life force within the human. Spirit is the energizing machine that puts one human person in 'relation' to whom or what is outside of them. Think of baby's first smile, of the joy that we experience when baby establishes a relationship to the outside world with us. Professor Alasdair Vance, Head of Academic Psychiatry at Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital, says that the infant is impelled to relate. If we were ever to achieve a perfect state of spirits it would entail sensitivity to ourselves, sensitivity to the presence, the gifts and the needs of others, and more broadly, sensitivity to the world — to all, both beyond and within the self.

Fortunately, I am not alone when I say that spirituality is inherent in the child. Renowned zoologist, Dr David Hay, whose work has been with 6 to 10-year-olds, suggests that spirituality is biologically natural to the human species but that it is often socialized out of children in Western secular society. Another respected thinker on the subject of spirituality and the child is Father Laurence Freeman from the World Community for Christian Meditation. In 2006 he spoke with Carmel Howard on Encounter on ABC National Radio on the subject of "A Child's Spirit". He said, "Quite obviously if we want to change the world radically we have to begin with the children."

This is exactly what I think. In our book, "Start Your Own School", Philip O'Carroll and I wrote: "We [that is adults] devote a lot of attention to adult politics, trying to create a better world. But every reform is frustrated or perverted. [Think of the current mess we are in over the asylum seekers and the boat people]. The quality of life is not improved because people are the same. What changes people? Well any one adult can recuperate from their childhood if they are determined enough ... but the population will generally behave according to its upbringing. The greatest power over human life is parent power. How you raise a person has a more potent effect on their ability to achieve happiness than any other influence or circumstance."

So here lies the challenge for parents, for all those who work for a child's spiritual well being, and of course for educators who are more than ever now in loco parentis. How do we raise a child well? How do we keep alive the child's innate quality of spirituality? How do we prevent spirituality being socialized out of children in Western secular society?

Our Example

Our personal example is crucial. We must model ways to satisfaction that are not materialistic. We have to counteract the pressure and effect of advertising which is now frequently targeted at the young. Advertising wants to sell products; it feeds the line that the latest model of this, or the latest fashion in that, or another one of those will bring happiness. We are all familiar with the truth of the saying that children will do what we do not what we say.

[Note: Faye then read aloud "Grandmothers Table", a story from The Book of Virtues, edited by William J Bennett, Simon & Schuster, 1993 page 143.]

When children see us expending an enormous amount of emotional energy over the new Adidas runner that they have lost, or getting hysterical about the Kathmandu top that was left in the park, while they notice our paying but little attention to their pettiness, rudeness or ingratitude, they will adopt our scale of values. They will take it directly from us that it is material possessions that we value. I'm not advocating a don't care attitude to expensive things, but since most children seem to lose clothes, we need to think laterally. It's much better for children to see that we have a sense of fun about clothes. Fun is an element of the spirit. Develop the joy of op shop shopping. It's a lovely joint activity and if they lose the op shop clothes it's not much of a drama.

Modelling ways to satisfaction that are not materialistic often requires our giving time. Since most of us lead busy lives, to give time to our children can mean that we are challenged to straighten up our personal hierarchy of values. It's often easier to pay for a child to be distracted by something material than to spend time with them.

In a world where spiritual values are not readily seen, we must model and give our children permission to be spiritual. We do this by allowing them to witness the central place of things of the spirit in our lives: our wonder of the world, our delighting in its beauty, our thankfulness for the gifts of the day, our joy in friendships, our valuing of people before things, the importance we give to sharing events of our day around the dinner table, the time we put aside for peaceful reflection or meditation, the peace and pleasure we gain from gardening, quiet time with a book. Children will embrace spiritual life, and adopt a non-materialistic attitude only if we, the significant elders in their lives, model this way of being. Only then will they dare to be people of the spirit.

The School

There is no doubt that parents are the primary models and the primary educators of the children. Parents have a crucial role therefore. However children spend many of their waking hours at school. Perhaps somewhat by default, schools and teachers have come to play a more crucial part in the children's lives. This seems to be the case. Schools and teachers find themselves central to the socializing of many children.

Anyone in the blessed position of being able to choose a school for a child in their care should make this choice seriously. Since children spend many hours each day, over a period of thirteen years, at school, these years, particularly the primary ones, are significant years in a child's social ethical and emotional development. But remember what Shakespeare said: "All that glitters is not gold." Don't trust the prospectus. Get inside the school if you can. See who will be working with your child. Indeed, when we are talking about primary children, a parent should be looking to see who it is who will be 'raising' their child during these many hours. Make sure you agree with the ethos of the school — not what it says it does, but what actually takes place.

In 1976 when Philip and I founded Fitzroy Community School, our fundamental belief was, and is, the importance of nurturing the spirit of the child. We wanted, and still want, that the children are able to be whole people throughout the day, not little people who have to somewhat sign off and go into another mode as they arrive at school. How the children feel, how they learn compassionate, respectful and successful ways of relating to each other and to all others in the community, how they learn to listen and to speak to others, these are the aspects of development that are crucial ingredients for a spiritual life. Hopefully these are the values of the school that you have chosen for your child, or that you are working in. These values need to be embedded within the lifestyle of the child's day. Teachers have an enormous responsibility because values must be modeled, not just spoken about. If we live a life valuing the spirit, our children will, accordingly, give value to the spirit. If we don't, they won't.

The verb to educate can be defined in two ways. The most obvious definition is the imparting of knowledge to someone without that knowledge. The second meaning comes from the Latin verb educere, to draw out. A good teacher, at different times, teaches according to both definitions. It is the second definition that I want to expand on now. According to this definition the teacher facilitates the student's deeper understanding and expression of innate abilities or knowledge. A good teacher will unlock these capacities, and encourage their expression and deeper understanding. Such capacities include the affective and aesthetic aspects of learning, as well as philosophical enquiry. My argument is that aesthetic and affective development, as well as the ability to enquire and engage philosophically, are necessary conditions for a human life to be lived well — indeed, that they are the actual ingredients of a spiritual life.


Literature provides the parent and teacher with a powerful tool for aesthetic and affective learning; as well, it gives the teacher the opportunity to show the child the value of questioning in gaining a truer, deep-level understanding of a situation or of a person being explored: "Why would someone behave like that? Do you like or dislike the character? What makes you say that? What effect does their behaviour have on others? Do you feel sorry for him /her? Which character in the story is most like you? Which character would you like to be?"

Humans are born with the ability to enquire, but good teachers bring this ability to the light of day. By their own questioning they lead the child to notice the relevance of a particular detail, a word or an action in a work. They bring to the students' consciousness the realization that philosophical enquiry is both relevant and important. At the same time they model which questions are the important questions for the students to ask.

Teachers are able to present works that show their pupils how others have experienced, been effected by, remarked on and responded to the world around them. A story that the children at Fitzroy Community School request to hear time and time again and then discuss ad nauseam is: Diamonds and Toads. It is an old folk tale, retold by Charles Perrault. It is also found in The Book of Virtues, page 112. This story demonstrates dramatically the power of kindness and good, and the ugliness of selfishness and bad. It is essential the children come to understand the power and effect of the words they utter. Jesus taught a similar lesson. One day when he was questioned about what foods people should eat, possibly with the aim of trying to trick him into saying something that would incriminate him with the authorities, he said something to the effect of, "Don't worry about what you put into your mouth, worry about what comes out of it."

Beauty is all around us. Through literature, the children can look at the world with new eyes, and perhaps see for the first time the beauty of a little daisy forcing its way through a concrete crack. They might for the first time notice the extraordinary beauty of daffodils and learn to celebrate the richness brought into our world through the changing seasons. A charming, simple poem to this end is 'Daffodown Dilly'.

She wore her yellow sunbonnet
She wore her greenest gown

Or later

She turned to the neighbour
She shook her yellow head
And she whispered to her neighbour
"Winter is dead!"

It is as though children absorb permission from us to notice, empathise, embrace, and remark on the world at large. If children are exposed to a celebration of beauty, they will celebrate too. Alternatively, but certainly important, it is through literature that we are brought to feel abhorrence toward certain behaviours, to make confident judgements about what is wrong. For example, anyone who has read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment will have etched into their memory the ghastly dream scene when the horse was beaten to death.

Without the teacher needing to preach, literature demonstrates the value of relationships, alertness, sensitivity, kindness and empathy. Sometimes, for example, the importance of empathy is deliberately spelt out as it was by Atticus, Harper Lee's important protagonist in the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus said that humans must learn to walk in another's shoes if they are to understand the other and the workings of human emotion. Sometimes, although not discussed, the importance of empathy is shown through the behaviour of the characters.

Amos Oz the renowned Israeli writer, poet, activist and historian was saying exactly the same thing when speaking with Kirsten Garrett on ABC National Radio on 21 August 2011. He said of all literature: "It makes us imagine other people, put ourselves under the skins of other people." He elaborated further on the habit of putting ourselves under the skins of other people, or at least of putting ourselves in the shoes of other people, that is of being able to imagine the other. He said that when we ask the questions: "What if I were him? What if I were her?", we are experiencing curiosity about the other. Oz says that curiosity is a powerful antidote to fanaticism. He says that the fanatic has no imagination. These are powerful words — and worth reflecting on.

Literature educates us by showing us, and having us identify with, people experiencing the entire range of human experiences and emotions, together with the myriad of reactions that these experiences and emotions elicit. I could go on forever in this vein because literature is my passion — however I won't. In conclusion I'd like to say just one further thing about how literature can bring us to two important understandings: an understanding of the power of religion and to the power of prayer.

About 10 days ago, at our morning assembly that we call The Meeting, I read a story called Scarface. It is a Blackfoot Indian tale, and again comes from The Book of Virtues, page 546. The story is one of several collected under the title of Perseverance. At the conclusion of the story I asked the children if anything had particularly struck them. The answer I expected to hear was something about the honesty of the hero, Scarface. Or, if not his honesty, I thought the children might notice his loyalty, friendship, courage, self-discipline or bravery. However the answer that one of the lads gave was: the importance of religion. I was really quite amazed. The Indian tribe in our story worshipped the sun god. The heroine of the story was unprepared to dishonour a promise she had made to the sun god, so our hero went on a perilous and grueling journey to request that the sun god relinquish her from her vow in order that they might marry.

The discussion with the children that followed touched on the important place that different religions have held for all people throughout time. We discussed the fact that if we had been born on a different continent it is very likely that we would have a different religious tradition. We noted the fact that many peoples admit to a power beyond themselves. Star Wars and the force were mentioned. I am constantly uplifted and surprised by the responses children have to stories. Their responses are a constant reminder to me that I am merely facilitating the expression of knowledge and understanding that they already possess.

Because poetry, too, engages the heart and mind, it can speak for us the lesson we'd like to teach. For example, take Vespers by A.A. Milne in his collection of poetry "When We Were Very Young". Without lecturing on the importance of prayer, the poem reveals it:

Little boy kneels at the foot of the bed
Droops on the little hands little golden head
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

The poem portrays thankfulness for the gift of a day well spent:

Oh! Thank you, God, for a lovely day

It demonstrates care for those in our life:

God bless mummy. I know that's right
Oh! God bless daddy

Oh! God bless nanny and make her good

It shows the importance of our being mindful of ourselves:

And what was the other I had to say?
I said "Bless daddy," so what can it be?
Oh! Now I remember it, "God bless me."

The poem contains important truths — persuasively and charmingly presented to us.

Genuine Time

If we sincerely want our children to retain their inherent spark, to value spiritual aspects of life, nothing is more powerful than our giving them our time. If we value them, they will value themselves. Giving time means giving wholehearted, not distracted, time. Listen attentively — not with half an ear. Allow them to share feelings, even if sometimes you are not comfortable with what they are saying. Take responsibility for your own discomfort. Do not disallow expression of feeling because of your own anxiety. Respond with integrity to their joys, enthusiasms, disappointments, sorrows and angers. The acknowledgement we give to spiritual matters validates the life of the spirit in our children's lives. If we demonstrate that we value and safeguard things spiritual, they will too. They take their cue from us.

Giving our careful attention to the child has nothing to do with permissiveness. Definitely not. In the 1960s and 1970s, when regard for the spirit of the child was rightly brought to the fore, some parents, child psychologists and teachers misunderstood their role in the child's spiritual development. Through fear of crushing the child's spirit, parents and others failed to give boundaries to their children. Children interpret our placing of boundaries as our care for them. I can clearly remember a conversation I had with some school friends when I was about ten. My friends were boasting about how their parents let them do anything they wished. I proudly announced that this was not the case for me, that my parents were very strict. I'm sure my parents didn't see themselves as very strict, but I certainly considered the restrictions they placed on me as care. I was proud to make this claim.

An indulgent parent may tolerate disrespectful, insolent, selfish or over-dependent behaviour, but the wider world finds such behaviour unacceptable. It is important not to mislead the child through fear of crushing their spirit. There are very hard lessons for the young person later on, if we do.

Along the pathway from childhood to adult life, all children are contending, at any given time, with a variety of influences — some of them conflicting. Children experiment with many ways of being. Children depend on the significant adults in their lives to give them authentic feedback on the acceptability, or otherwise, of the behaviours and attitudes they display. It is the responsibility of caring elders to ensure that their responses are emotionally and intellectually coherent to the young people in their charge. This way, children learn and establish successful relating habits. A respected voice, added to the parents' voices, is powerful.

Remember that the adults in a child's life are the representatives of the wider world. Allow and encourage children to have relationships with adults you respect and admire. Such involvement will further the child's spiritual growth. Do not monitor your children's relationships with adults whom you value. They will always enrich your children's lives. They may well contribute things that you are not able to give, emotionally, spiritually and practically: we don't all have all of the gifts. Be generous enough not to be jealous. I'm sure we can all remember meaningful and inspiring adults in our lives, and the important part that they have played in influencing who we are today.

Free Time

To develop spiritually, children need free time. A big fault in child-raising today, therefore, is that children's time is over-structured. They spend many hours a day at school and then are often rushed to a multiplicity of classes after school or on the weekends. I'm sure there is thought to be benefit in all these activities, and I imagine there is, but at what cost? Children need free time to dream, time to invent, time to do what they want to do — not what others, very well-meaning others, think they should want to do, but space to discover their likes and dislikes, and others'.

And importantly, children need the opportunity to learn to use leisure time. Children who are constantly structured come to depend on someone to structure them. They will claim to be bored should the parent or teacher fail to provide some activity or idea for them. The long-term consequences of this are terrible for the child, and for our future society. We are raising pawns — possibly accomplished pawns — but still pawns. Our world needs people who can think for themselves, structure themselves, people of integrity who can judge for themselves what is right and wrong, curious people, people of imagination, spiritual people.

Free time allows children to get to know themselves, and to be seen and known by others. What is this young person like when not being told what to do by others? How can self-discipline develop when the discipline is always being imposed externally? We must be vigilant about safeguarding and valuing free time in children's lives. Children will blossom in an environment which values the spirit. They don't need to be force-fed. In fact, children are ultimately undermined if force-feeding is overdone.


My final point today is that it is important to let a child have hope. Do not blacken, in the child's mind, everything about the world. A child without hope cannot move. Certainly in Christianity, despair is considered a sin because a person in despair cannot reach out to others. The spiritual life is bound up in relationships; the spiritual life is how we relate to the world. Spirit is a motivating force. Hope is central in nurturing good spirits, which allow us to reach out.

Importantly, hope allows us to move beyond the us and them mentality, to reach out and develop relationships with others different from ourselves. It enables us to see that there can be good in them. The spiritual health of our families, our nation and the world is thus underpinned by hope.

During Encounter on ABC National Radio, on 19th Nov., 2006, Carmel Howard spoke with Rabbi Arik Ascherman. He was then the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights. Rabbi Ascherman told of Palestinian parents who insisted on bringing their children to meet him and his group. Some of these parents said to him, and I quote: "Our ten year old child has just seen his parents humiliated in front of his eyes. What do we say to our ten year old when he says to us, 'I want to grow up to be a terrorist.'? We want our son to know that not every Israeli comes with guns to demolish our homes, but that there are Israelis who come to stand shoulder to shoulder with us to rebuild our homes."

Rabbi Ascherman believes that even if a perfect peace treaty were to be signed, there'd be no way this treaty, or any treaty, could last if people continued to hate each other. How can we end this hate? Ascherman believes that it is hope that lies at the very core of children's spiritual development. Hope is a motivating force. Children have to believe that acting in a certain way is possible, and the hope that it will make a difference. Ascherman believes that we, the adults, have to provide a model to children of people who are willing to step outside their normal boundaries to reach to the other side. Only by doing this will children come to believe that it is possible for them to do so too, and then behave accordingly. Ascherman believes that hope allows us to move beyond the us and them mentality because it enables us to see that there can be good in the them. Because there can be good in them, we can have hope for the future.

In his talk on ABC Radio National, on 21 August 2011, Amos Oz was saying much the same thing as Rabbi Ascherman. The main focus of the talk given by Amos Oz was fanaticism. He said that the fanatic sees the world as black and white, good and evil. The fanatic thinks that only those who think and believe exactly as he does are good. The others are bad and must be forced to change, or eliminated. He cannot imagine himself as the other — he has no imagination. Oz involves himself with how it is possible to come to see good in them, how it is possible to realize Ascherman's model of people who are willing to step outside their normal boundaries to reach the other side. As I discussed earlier, Amos Oz believes that literature plays an important role. He thinks that curiosity about the other, which enables us to imagine ourselves as the other, builds bridges between us and them.

Ascherman tells of the image in the Talmud where life is two perfectly balanced scales. We never know whether or when a little act, that we may take to be irrelevant, pointless or meaningless, may tip those scales one way or the other, to good or evil. Children need to have hope. They need to believe that it is possible to make a difference, to believe that a good act has power.

So may our children's lives be rich in spirit and wonder. May they know, and may we remember, that there is more to life than meets the eye.

North Fitzroy, Melbourne, September 2011

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