A child’s development in the areas of faith and spirituality happens in much the same way, with one big difference: Once a shirt or sock is outgrown, the child will never wear it again. There is no going back when it comes to physical development. However, in other areas of growth that are not so visible to the eye, there is much traveling back and forth, lapsing and relapsing and changing and reversing. Rather than growing in a linear fashion with huge leaps forward, a child grows in faith and spirituality through a spiral that circles round upon itself many times before the child takes a giant leap forward.
Understanding this back-and-forth nature of emotional and spiritual growth can be reassuring to parents who naturally feel frustration at the child who does not seem to “act her age.” It can also help to assuage any fears that the child is not developing normally. It is normal for a child to seem generous and giving one day and selfish the next. It’s all part of the evolving nature of the inner self. Thinking of the overall process and the growth that happens over a lifetime can help put these frustrating relapses into perspective.
Physical growth opens the door to moral, ethical, and faith development; with larger brain capacity a greater understanding of concepts such as compassion, justice, and gratitude becomes possible. These advances in morality may then promote faith development, which can lead to greater ethical understandings that govern behavior.
For example, unlike most adults, young children do not routinely question their thinking because they are completely unaware that others can have a different perspective. This means that perception and feeling are more dominant than thought at this age; young children will use external cues to determine what is right and what is wrong. It is only later, with greater physical maturity and life experience, that children are able to recognize relationships and even to logically link together the chunks of knowledge they possess, thereby allowing them to understand different perspectives. As their faith development expands to include ideas of justice, fairness, and compassion, their ethical development begins to center around following rules and regulations instead of expecting punishment and reward.
Therefore, those parents who neglect the faith development of their children lose an opportunity to stimulate their moral and ethical development. What is right, what is fair, and what is just—these concepts are all intricately linked with beliefs about the meaning of life and the purpose of our existence. Since children (and even most adolescents) look to their parents first and foremost in shaping their morals, ethics, and spirituality, it behooves us to be intentional about sharing our beliefs with our children in order to shape their own developing sense of self.
What moral and ethical issues have you had to address with your children? What frustrates you the most about the inconsistency of your child’s moral and ethical development? How have you resolved issues of fairness and equality in your family when elementary age children insist on equal treatment despite differing circumstances? Please share some of your experiences.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).