As a child psychologist with a particular passion and speciality in spirituality, particularly spiritual formation, I was very excited to review Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May’s Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey. This book discusses the results from multiple projects exploring childhood Christian spirituality. Before thinking it may be boring, allow me to assure you that it’s not. While it could definitely be used in an academic setting (the publishing house emphasizes that), it really is meant for laity, not academics.
I recently began a spirituality group as part of my organization’s child partial hospitalization program for psychiatric problems. This book was helpful in developing some activities to initiate discussion on spiritual topics. However, it really is meant for a parents and church-based ministries rather than therapists. And it is focused on Christian spirituality. So if you’re looking for ways to explore the spirituality of atheist children, this book is probably not what you’re looking for (although I would also argue it’s techniques could be altered for the appropriate spiritual context).
Stonehouse and May begin their tome by beautifully introducing their passion for developing child spirituality and discussing their research methodology. It’s detailed enough to moderately satisfy those of us with a critical eye on methodology (their more detailed appendix helps), but does not get bogged down in academic technicalities so as to lose readers of the intended audience. They then wisely move into beginning to tell some of the stories of kids’ responses to various prompts. I think it was wise for them to begin this way because it emphasizes that children can and do talk about deep spiritual concepts… when given the opportunity. I can vouch for this in the groups I have run. In fact, as I discussed on my blog, I think children are just as sophisticated as many adults. What often seems to happen is that we, as a society, do not develop children’s spiritualities, so as adults, we are essentially stunted at the childhood developmental level.
Stonehouse and May do not make this argument, but I saw continued evidence for this as I read the stories. The child participants are often more willing to ask questions than most adults. They are also able to more vibrantly verbalize their experiences with God and Christ. In fact, their desire to truly be with God far surpasses the desire of most adults I know (including myself).
From this foundation, they continue to tell stories, weaving in various techniques to stimulate spiritual discussion and also challenge children to grow. These are the techniques that are both useful for research and are incredibly practical for use in homes, churches, youth groups, schools, etc. At the core of many of the practices is a concept of reflective engagement, the idea of letting the children meditate and contemplate spiritual ideas for themselves. Some are done with others, some individually. While some people may think children may not be able to do this, Stonehouse and May’s anecdotes passionately prove otherwise.
While this book is intended to help people develop children’s spirituality, I think it has just as much potential (if not more potential) to help form adult’s spirituality. In fact, several of the reflective engagement practices are conducted with the whole family or in dialogue with adults. It is meant to let everyone experience God together, in a true corporate worship experience. And then seeing the innocent and pure love of Christ cannot not affect the adult hearts that have been hardened by cynicism, pain, and suffering. Truly, we will learn from the children.