Spiritual Lessons That Children Teach

ROBERT COLES is sitting in his spacious office at Harvard University sharing thoughts on his latest book, ``The Spiritual Life of Children'' (see review on this page). Casually dressed in a well-worn crew-neck sweater, Dr. Coles speaks about the impact of his work.

You've said that for decades you shied away from the issue of spirituality in children. What is it that allowed you to finally do this research and write this book?

I think I finally realized that there was a spiritual side of me that was craving for expression - going way back to my early interests in religion and theology. I was educated in the secular, materialist world of the West and part of me had to struggle with that world in order to gain the personal freedom and the professional freedom to do this kind of work with children.

I emphatically did not want to turn this into yet another instance of social science reductionism. I wanted to treat this phenomenon with the dignity, and the worth, and the respect that it deserves. To do so, I had to come to terms with my own profession of child psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

This is the first of your more than 50 books to make the New York Times Bestseller List. How do you explain that?

I think this book strikes a chord in the minds of ordinary people all over the country of various backgrounds who are interested in religious and spiritual matters for themselves and for their children. Perhaps it's interesting for such people to see a secular psychiatrist like me struggling with these matters as he tries to understand what he's learned from children who are also struggling with these matters.

Were you surprised at the intensity of the spirituality you found in these children?

Very much so.

People often think of children as being very much engrossed in the materialism of the age.

Maybe we don't listen to our children carefully enough. I was surprised and maybe I should take that as a lesson yet again that children have a lot to teach us. It's remarkable and I think all of us who are teachers and who are social scientists and who are interested in human beings ought to pay heed. I wish this culture would generate further efforts on the part of all of us to understand spirituality in children and maybe in adults too.

What do you think we, as adults, have to learn from children?

I think that what we have to learn is that [spirituality] is a big part of ourselves. These questions about the meaning of life and the purpose of life and these efforts on the part of children - and all of us - to understand what this world means, ... where we're headed, and why we're here are the fundamental existentialist questions of humanity. If we're not asking them - or if we're not paying attention to those who do ask them - then I think this is a measure of our moral and spiritual decline as individuals and maybe even as a people.

You talk about the spiritual and the religious life of children. What do you see as the distinction between the two?

Well, when I think of the religious life of children, I think of their attendance at church, synagogue, and mosque. When I talk about the spiritual life of children, I talk about the inherent interest that children have in spiritual matters and the capacity to reflect upon spiritual matters.

So do you think that all children have a spiritual life - whether or not they have a religious life?

I've never met a child who in one fashion or another doesn't have a spiritual life. There's always that side in children that prompts them to ask questions like, ``Why am I here?'' and ``What does this life mean?'' and ``Where will I go after I am no longer here?'' and ``What does it mean to be a human being?'' Those are fundamental questions that I think every child, at one point or another, tries to come to terms with.

How much of an effect do parents' views have on their children?

Substantial, but not as much as I, frankly, thought. Substantial in the sense that obviously parents influence children in the way they think, in the questions they ask, and of course in the answers they receive. But I was very surprised to find that children spend a good deal of time sharing some of their spiritual concerns with one another and learning from one another. When someone like me starts prompting the children, you better watch out because you can be flooded with responses.

Did you come away from this research with new views on theology?

I think in a way this experience of years of work with children and their spirituality has put me more in touch with the spirit of religion rather than the practice of religion. With the wonderful power of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, with the moral simplicity and great spiritual beauty of Jesus and his life, with the wisdom to be found in the Biblical tradition, a wisdom that I find again and again echoed in the thoughts and remarks that I've heard from these children and introduced to readers in this book. Thoughts that, frankly, strike me as [being as] telling and as compelling as anything I've ever read in a theology book - maybe much more so....

I've been enormously moved and affected by this experience, even more so than by any I've ever had.

What do you hope readers take from this book?

I regard myself as an intermediary between children and the readers. And I hope the readers of this book can get some sense of the texture, and subtlety, and nuance to be heard in children as they reflect upon these spiritual and religious matters and some sense of the creativity and vitality that one also learns from working with them as you go over their drawings and paintings, which I think is a very important part of that book.

Did you find any generalizations to be made in the way children conceive of God?

There are some generalizations. For instance, one of my sons worked in Europe with children in Sweden and in Hungary and Italy and then across the Mediterranean with children of Islamic faith in Tunisia. He noticed that in the minds of these children God moved from a blond-haired, blue-eyed creature to a rather dark-haired, dark-eyed creature. It was fascinating to notice this as he moved from north to south in Europe. I don't think this will surprise many of us as we stop and think about it. We attribute to God what is familiar to us as well as what is strange and mysterious.

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