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Children’s Spirituality

Whenever I discuss children’s spirituality, I become aware that I say:  “of course, I mean spirituality in the broad sense - nothing to do with organised religion.”  It eventually struck me that I was apologising for religion – that I felt the need to distance myself from it.  Some people may feel sad about this, and probably it is sad.  However, these conversations forced me to think critically about the difference between religion and spiritualty.


Religion brings to mind dogma, doctrine, ritual.  External things.  Things we import from outside of us.  (With religion there can also be a mission to save unbelievers.)


The dictionary defines spirituality as: relating to spirit, or consisting of spirit.  So what is spirit?  It seems to me, that common usage of the word spirit gives us understanding of its meaning.  We speak of someone being in good or high spirits, or alternatively of being in low or poor spirits.  Sometimes we say it is as though someone is possessed by evil spirits.  In all of these examples of spirit, we are speaking of some inner vitality which projects out to touch others.


Notice that we humans consider that something is amiss when someone is in low spirits.  There seems to be inadequate life force in them. If they are our friends, we want to brighten them up.  Inherently we know that to be imbued with spirit is what we want to be, and how we are meant to be.  Notice, too, that when inner energy is there, but is being expressed as an evil force, we want to escape it or change it.  Again, inherently, we know that this is not how things are meant to be.

Spirit is a life force.  It is an inherent, inner force.  Spirit puts humans in relation to what and who is outside.  Human life is never an isolated experience.  A perfect state of spiritswould entail sensitivity to ourselves, sensitivity to the presence, the gifts and the needs of others, and more broadly, sensitivity towards the world – to the spirit of all other beyond.   What I am calling spiritual is this inner life force of the spirit.  


So where do children come in?  Why are children important?  I have just claimed that spiritual life is inherent, inner.  I base this claim on my own experience of 35 years working with children, but also on the work of many other experts who work in the area of children’s spirituality.  Dr David Hay, a zoologist whose work was with six to ten year olds, suggests that spirituality is biologically natural to the human species but that it is very often socialised out of children in Western secular society.1   This is where we, parents, educators - and all who care for the future of our children and the planet come in.   I quote now from Fr Laurence Freeman speaking with Carmel Howard on Encounter on ABC National Radio, 19th Nov., 2006, on the subject of A Child’s Spirit.   Fr Freeman is from the World Community for Christian Meditation.  He said: “Quite obviously if we want to change the world radically we have to begin with the children.”2


This is exactly what my husband and colleague, Philip O’Carroll, and I think.  In our book Start Your Own School we said: “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.  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 generally will 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.”3


This is why we bothered to go through a myriad of hoops and create FCS in 1976.  Little children inherently have a spark – they sparkle; they naturally have a sense of mystery - a knowledge that there is more to life than meets the eye.  How to keep alive this spark, how not to have these innate qualities lost in a materialistic world: this is the challenge for parents and true educators. 

Our personal example is crucial.  We need to, indeed we are responsible, for modelling ways to satisfaction that are not materialistic.  Advertising, which is now frequently targeted at the young, feeds the idea that: one of these, another of those, the latest of this or that will bring happiness.  We have to genuinely believe ourselves that joy lies elsewhere, not in this ticky-tacky.  Usually this requires our giving some time to the child.  Given that we lead busy lives, to give time often means that we are challenged to straighten up our hierarchy of values.  It’s often easier to get a child a distracting toy than to give time.


Some of you might know that I’ve written a literacy method called The Fitzroy Readers.   Because this was originally written just for our school, and because in starting our school the motivation was to keep the child’s spiritual spark alive, many of the themes of the stories are, in fact, what I call spiritual.  I’ll read you a story from the Fitzroy Readers called Jessica, which is exactly on the theme of time instead of toys.4

What we read to children, and what we get for them to read, is important.   There are many wonderful stories; there are also many rubbishy stories.  Be careful not to buy the rubbishy ones, thinking that you have to, in order to get your child to read something.   Toilet humour will always be with us – and certainly with our children – but we don’t have to institutionalise it by buying it in a printed form and serving it up to the children.   This gives it a false value.  Inspirational reading material is an ideal way to advance the spiritual life of a child.   Stories often demonstrate a point more effectively than a lecture on a subject, particularly if it’s an emotional point.   I’ll come back to this a little later.


At this point, I want to reiterate what I said about the importance of our modelling ways of being to our children.  It is no use speaking beautiful theory to a child and then having our actions belie our words.  A perfect example of this is shown in a story called Grandmother’s Table.  It’s from my favourite collection of writings: The Book of Virtues edited by William Bennett.5


What we model is what our children take notice of.   Watch where you put your emotional energy.   If our children see us constantly in affect about a lost sock or scarf, but paying little regard to their pettinesses, rudeness or ingratitude, this, sadly, will become their scaling of values.  Remember, children were not born valuing material possessions – far from it.


Reflect on how important that first baby smile is. Think about how we all really work for it.  This is a far cry from material possessions.  The smile becomes baby’s first act of conscious relating.  We delight in our baby’s joy at making contact with us.  Increasingly we delight in baby’s wonder and joy at the world beyond itself.   We must constantly remind ourselves of the importance of a human’s wonder about the world, about how we can keep our, and our children’s, inherent wonder alive. 


I read recently a comparison between a young child’s and an adult’s number of smiles during a day.  Sadly I couldn’t find the reference when I was preparing this document, but my memory says it was eight hundred smiles for the child but only ten for the adult.   Even if these figures are not correct, the significant point is that the gap was enormous.   What has happened to adults?  Have the practical concerns of the moment, have worry and busyness distracted us unnecessarily from the simple pleasure a child has in the wonder of ‘the now’?


In a world where spiritual values are not readily seen, we must 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 delight in its beauty, our thankfulness for the gifts of the day, our joy in friendship, our valuing of people before things.  Children will see this attitude only if we, the significant elders in their lives, model it.  Then they will dare to be people of the spirit.


Any parents in the blessed position of being able to choose a school for their child, should make this choice seriously.  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 who it is who will be raising him or her 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.


When Philip and I founded Fitzroy Community School in 1976, we were raising our young family.  What we wanted for our own biological children was what we shared with our larger family of school children, because they were there with ours.  How we were raising our own children became the way, together with their parents, of course, that we were raising the school children.   These ideas continue today. 


Our fundamental belief was, and is, the importance of nurturing of 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 values are embedded within the lifestyle of your child’s school because they must be modelled, 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.


Taking up the thread of the value of inspirational stories: Stories give access to the spiritual world.    Stories are usually more powerful than a lecture.  Children frequently sign off if too many words are spoken at them but a story well told will hold them spellbound.  We can tell children that non-material things count more than material things, but in a world where persuasive media incessantly push the line that happiness comes from acquisitions, we need an emotionally engaging story to endorse our contrary and statistically unpopular views.  Little Sunshine 6  is one of my favourites.  This story is also found in The Book of Virtues.  Elsa gives the gift of herself.


Poetry, too, which engages the heart and mind, 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 shows us that this is so: 
              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.”


Contained in this poem is valuable instruction about some important things of life - persuasively and charmingly presented to us.

How The Little Kite Learned To Fly 7 engages us with its example of overcoming fears so that the kite can participate appropriately in kite-life: 


              “I never can do it,” the little kite said

                        …              “I’m afraid I’ll fall.”     


It gives endorsement to persistence, to trying out new things that bring fulfilment to life:


             First whirling and frightened, then braver grown


It demonstrates that we can move beyond fear to experience joy and satisfaction in our achievement:


           “Oh, how happy I am!” the little kite cried,
           “And all because I was brave, and tried.”


We are shown that courage is the ability to act in spite of fears.  Aristotle said, “We become brave by doing brave acts.”


A classic poem, one that I constantly return to, is Daffodils by William Wordsworth.8  


         I wandered lonely as a cloud
        That floats on high …


What a magnificent celebration of the beauty of nature!  Daffodils is an emotionally charged demonstration that natural beauty is enduring food for the soul:  


           For oft when on my couch I lie
                   In vacant or in pensive mood,
           They flash upon that inner eye
                   Which is the bliss of solitude;
            And then my heart with pleasure fill,
            And dances with the daddodils.


Beauty is all around us.  We must not forget to look and to encourage our children to do likewise.  Nature poetry will remind us.  Tiny tots love Daffodowndilly:


           She wore her yellow sunbonnet
           She wore her greenest gown


If we sincerely want our children to retain their inherent spark, to value the spiritual aspects of life, nothing is more powerful than our giving them 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 time 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.  


Please do not think that what I am advocating here is permissiveness.  I definitely am not.  In the 1960s or 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.


Remember that the adults in a child’s life represent the world to the child.  Allow your child to have meaningful relationships with adults you respect and admire.  Their involvement will further your 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 even contribute things that you are not able to give, emotionally and spiritually.  Be generous enough not to be jealous.  


I remember Kevin Ryan, a primary school teacher I had in Years 3 and 4 at the Nyahwest State School.  Kevin died last year.  It was Kevin who talked my parents into buying me my first horse.  The many hours I spent roaming about on horse back, off the beaten track, have deeply contributed to my love of nature and to my faith in myself and the world.  Kevin also influenced my reading, and the choices I made which led me to university.


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 clear to the young people in their charge.  This way, children learn and establish successful relating habits.  Another respected voice, added to the parents’ voices, is powerful.


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 the spirit.  There are very hard lessons for the young person later on, if we do.


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.


To develop spiritually children need free time.   A big fault in child-raising today, therefore, is that children are 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, to invent, time to do what they want to do - not what others, very well meaning others, think they should want to do - space to discover their likes and dislikes – what pleases and displeases them and others. 


And importantly, children need the opportunity to learn to use leisure time.  A child who is constantly structured needs 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, 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?  Be careful about safe-guarding and valuing free time in your child’s life.  Your child will blossom in an environment which values the spirit.  He/she doesn’t need to be force fed.  In fact, children are ultimately undermined if force feeding is overdone.


My final point 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.  It enables us to see that there can be good in the ‘them’.   The spiritual health of our families, our nation and the world is 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.  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.”9 


Rabbi Ascherman believes that even if a perfect peace treaty were to be signed, there’d be no way any treaty could last if people continued to hate each other.   He believes that it is hope that lies at the very core of children’s spiritual development.   Children have to believe that something is possible.  Ascherman believes that we have to provide a model to children, of people who are willing to step outside their normal boundaries to reach to the other side.10


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 or pointless or meaningless, may tip those scales one way or the other, to good or evil.11   Children need to have hope.  They need to believe that it is possible to make a difference, 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.



                                                              Faye O'Carroll

                                                              North Fitzroy, Melbourne.
                                                              1st August, 2009.


1. ABC Radio, A Child’s Spirit, Encounter, 19th Nov 2006 <> at 23 November 2006, p15

2. Ibid. p14

3. O’Carroll, Philip and Berryman, Faye. Start Your Own School  Fitzroy Community School   Melbourne 1980 p29.

4. Berryman, Faye Jessica, The Fitzroy Readers (Reader #30)  North Fitzroy edition 9, 2009.

5. Brothers Grimm, Grandmother’s Table in Bennett, William (ed). The Book of Virtues New York, 1993 ,p 143.

6. Blaisdell, Etta and Blaisdell Mary, Little Sunshine in Bennett, William (ed). The Book of Virtues New York, 1993, p.110.

7. Bennett, William (ed). The Book of Virtues  How The Little Kite Learned To Fly  New York, 1993, p.446.

8. Wordsworth William, Daffodils in Woodward Zenka and Woodward Ian (ed). One Hundred Favourite Poems London, 1985, p.113.

9. Above n, 1, p 12.

10. Ibid.p12

11. Ibid.p13


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