In her book, “The Soul of Education”, Rachael Kessler wrote:
Many classrooms are ‘spiritually emtpy; not by accident, but by design. We decided to exclude the spiritual dimension from education because we adults couldn’t agree on what ‘it’ was or how to teach ‘it’. LIberals fear that ‘fundamentalists’ will sue them as ‘New Agers’ if they introduce a spiritual dimension in to the classroom. Christians fear that secularists will paralyze their efforts to provide spritual guidance to children in schools. Other religious groups are often not even included in the conversation. Collectively, we reached a standoff, and our children have been the losers.” (Excerpt Here)
It’s no secret that I’m passionate about supporting the development of the whole child. Not just producing performances of cognitive skills like well-practiced parlor tricks or churning out “cute” crafts that the child has little to no real ownership of, but supporting real, intentional development of the whole child.
Whole. Well-rounded. Healthy, and complete.
Many times, as I’ve outlined the strands of whole child development and education, I’ve used fairly typical categories:
- Cognitive Reasoning, Math, and Logic
- Language & Literacy
This seemed to encapsulate the majority of the learning and development that a healthy, whole, balanced child would experience in the early years of childhood.
But, as a spiritual and religious person myself, I felt something was missing. When I tried to think of the aspects of developmental support a child would receive in an ideal, intentional, well-rounded environment, there seemed to be a hole.
Could there be room for spiritual development as well?
I’ve seen spiritual development as something that has been important in my own development and it’s something I’ve actively and intentionally promoted in the development of my own children, but could it be a universal domain of human development?
Clearly, this is a topic where people begin to tiptoe.
The intersection of spirituality and academia can be tenuous.
For Dr. Kenneth Miller, a practicing Roman Catholic, as well as a biologist at Brown University, the issues of science and the soul, are separate. When asked (as he frequently is), “As a scientist, what do you say about the soul?” his reply is consistent. “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.”
But what if your science is actually the multidisciplined pursuit of understanding what makes us thrive as humans? If your question is, “what do children need to grow up healthy and whole?” Can we really omit the spiritual all together? Can we truly address mind and body without the soul?
Back in my university days, I remember one of those rare moments where, right in the middle of a book by Dr. James Garbarino (professor of human development at Cornell University at the time — now at Loyola University), I found an academic writing about the importance of protecting the human soul.
It struck me and has stayed with me for almost two decades since reading the book.
Dr. Garbarino (whose ecological perspective was certainly influenced by his graduate mentor, Urie Bronfenbrenner himself) has focused his career on what causes children and teens to become violent and what can be done to help them. In that study, he has – among several other factors – emphasized the importance of spirituality. In Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (*affiliate), Garbarino wrote:
Recognizing the reality of the sacred self is the foundation for understanding human development as something more than a matter of engineering, plumbing, chemistry, and electronics. Far too few social scientists take this into account in their professional work, but many recognize it in their personal lives.”
Reading this excerpt again, decades later, feels like an encapsulation of my own tendency. While I wholeheartedly recognize the importance of spiritual aspects in my personal life, I have often seen it as being just that. Personal.
As Rachael Kessler wrote in the quote that opened this post, another reason spiritual development, or the development of the soul, is often omitted from education and academia and professional endeavors in general, is because we simply can’t agree on definitions.
One thing that must be made clear — both to begin to establish personal distance and acceptable definitions — is that spirituality and religion are not the same thing. One might grow spiritually through the construct of a religion, but religion is not spirituality itself.
While I highly value the specific religious context where I personally find spiritual growth, I know that a definition of spirituality or spiritual development must apply not only in that context but in a variety of contexts. If spirituality is universal to all of human development, it must benefit all children, whether their ecological context is Catholic, Protestant, Unitarian, Mormon, Baha’i, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Agnostic, or otherwise.
With this universal perspective of spiritual development, I prefer this definition:
Spiritual development is the process of growing the intrinsic human capacity for selftranscendence, in which the self is embedded in something greater than the self, including the sacred. It is the developmental “engine” that propels the search for connectedness, meaning, purpose and contribution. It is shaped both within and outside of religious traditions, beliefs and practices.” (Benson, P. L., Roehlkepartain, E. C., & Rude, S. P. (2003). Spiritual development in childhood and adolescence: Toward a field of inquiry. Applied Developmental Science, 7, 204–212.)
Connectedness. Meaning. Purpose. Contribution.
Spiritual development is the engine that drives the search for these critical pieces of a whole and healthy human experience.
Clearly, as with every domain of development, there is some overlap. Just as experiences that contribute to language development may also contribute to social-emotional development or motor skills, experiences that promote spiritual development will have overlap as well. I see this most commonly happening with the domains of social and emotional development as well as with creativity.
But spiritual development seems to offer something more than these traditional categories. Something larger than self. Something transcendent. Spiritual development can fill the gap.
Dr. Garbarino has noted this gap. In his twenty years of interviewing violent offenders — most of them murderers — he has observed:
Of all the things I found in common among the kids I interviewed who had killed, spiritual emptiness was perhaps the most common thread…(A) spiritually empty kid is in jeopardy. First, because a spiritually empty kid has a kind of hole in his heart and that hole must be filled with some sense of meaningfulness.”
Again, Garbarino isn’t suggesting that kids need to practice a specific religion — or religion at all. But he has asserted that ignoring spiritual needs is as damaging as ignoring physical, nutritional, emotional, and intellectual needs.
So, how do we define those spiritual needs in a universal sense?
When I put together my Developmental Guide (downloadable here), I decided to stop ignoring this important piece of whole child development. I included spiritual development as one of the strands and outlined a few basic guideposts for development in the preschool years. As with the other strands of development, this list isn’t exhaustive, but represents a breadth of experiences indicative of healthy development.
Here are a few items listed on the Developmental Guide, which I found to be supported by my study and observation, and also applicable universally, regardless of specific religious or cultural ecology.
- Feels and recognizes love in human relationships.
As with many domains of development, spiritual development begins with healthy human relationships. Feeling and recognizing love from and for others is a basic need that contributes greatly to spiritual development.
- Feels and recognizes beauty in nature.
There is a growing body of research supporting the need for nature in healthy human development. This goes beyond the scientific study to the wonder and grandeur and the soul-filling recognition of something greater than one’s self.
- Beginning to recognize and take part in applicable rituals (songs, prayer, meals, worship, mindfulness/meditation, etc.) appropriate to age and family/community culture.
Rituals provide grounding in the developmental process. These rituals may be rooted in a religious structure, such as regular church worship and prayer, but may also be found in songs, meditation practices, or community celebrations.
- Basic recognition of a positive relationship within concepts larger than self (God, Universe, Humanity, Nature, etc.), though very basic at this developmental stage and dependent on ecological context.
Being a part of something greater than self can be a recognition of Deity, of the greater humanity, or of the world around us. Seeing purpose beyond ourselves contributes to a greater sense of meaning and connectedness.
- Familiar with cultural/moral stories (biography, lore, scripture, etc.) relevant to family’s spiritual culture, though during early childhood their interpretation may be more fanciful than intended in the original telling.
Stories are a connecting tie between the individual and a culture. Whether those stories are part of a family history, scripture, or lore, these stories convey cultural meaning and communicate a child’s place in it. Developmentally, children will understand and retell these stories in different ways as they grow and mature.
- Increasing understanding of moral right/wrong, with motivation moving from extrinsic to intrinsic (progressing from avoiding trouble, to being “good”/”nice” person, advancing later to ethical integrity).
Spiritual development contributes to a child’s moral compass. While in its early stages of development, this understanding is simply the difference between being a “good guy” or a “bad guy”, moral comprehension eventually expands into a broader understanding of personal integrity.
The concept of spiritual development is certainly a growing pursuit. What observations and questions would you add to the topic?
Download the Developmental Guide here.
Learn more about Spiritual Development in this podcast episode.