Spiritual Development of Children

We have four children so we have been through all the spiritual-emotional issues that come with a variety of children.  One thing that we, as mother/parents, do not consider is the spiritual development of our children.

A twitter conversation between Meredith Gould and I @MeredithGould RT @USCatholic: Why aren't Gen X and Y in church? Ask them... bit.ly/yphT3l and my response: @MeredithGould as for why Gen X and Y aren't in church, they need being feed emotionally, have a priest that does that they will be there

One of the books I studied during my formation for Spiritual Direction: 1994 - 1998, was Professor James W. Fowler, a developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology, was the book Stages of Faith.  In it he describes children's spiritual development from birth to mid-life:
  • Stage 0 – "Primal or Undifferentiated" faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and languages which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.
  • Stage 1 – "Intuitive-Projective" faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche's unprotected exposure to the Unconscious.
  • Stage 2 – "Mythic-Literal" faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic.
  • Stage 3 – "Synthetic-Conventional" faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one's beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
  • Stage 4 – "Individuative-Reflective" faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one's own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one's belief.
  • Stage 5 – "Conjunctive" faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent "truth" that cannot be explained by any particular statement.
  • Stage 6 – "Universalizing" faith, or what some might call "enlightenment". The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.
As a mom I have one son who left the church for years, mostly during his turbulent teens, but came back when he befriended a very warm and nurturing priest who could relate to his issues and not take offense.  A second son who is very intellectual and logical and finds his faith to answer those logically needs to understand the world, he is very Augustine!  Our twin girls, one very active in the pro-life movement, who has issues with the church, especially one priest, but loves her Chaplain in her High School who is warm, nurturing, and understanding; the other twin who accepts her faith as just part of her life.

What is the major component is that the Priest is who cares deeply, nurturingly involved with the people who come to him is the one that young people will see as reflecting God for them. That priest lives, adores and exudes his faith attracts young people, all people by droves.  A priest who lost his desire for his faith will lose younger people because they do not see why they should follow a faith that is dry.  A priest that has issues that blocks him from truly being present will drive young people away because they see themselves as a priestly after thought.  A priest that feels that the priesthood is just another job will drive young people away.  As young people mature in their faith and life and find that what is of importance is the faith and the priest is just a man, then they are more likely to go to church no matter what the priest, until then being feed is important to them.

Love to hear your faith story, your children's faith story.


  1. I don't have a story, at least not yet. I have a two year old and I worry about his spiritual upbringing. I don't know what I can do to nurture it. Is there a book that I can get? Thanks for this blog. It's something I've thought about ever since we adopted Matthew. With the world the way it is now, the chances seem to be that he will not be spiritual, or at least not in a Catholic way. I really worry about that.

  2. Our teen seems to be in Stage 3 or 4. I do believe one has to make one's faith one's own. There needs to be a quest.

    We do insist he attend Mass on Sundays and HDO and we keep the conversation going about his critiques of the Pope, church doctrine etc. But frankly. I have told him he isnt really on the kind of quest I would like to see, where he delves deeper, reads books and had deep converations with people of faith and no faith. It's kind of a shallow rebellion if you ask me.

  3. See my blog at http://nucleusoflife-ordainedpraise.blogspot.com/ where you can use most any Child's First Bible and help your four/five year old develop a personal identity as a follower of Jesus Christ. My son is now on his third journal at five years old. Haven't had time to post them all - but you can get a complete picture of how to do this from what is on my blog now. It is not hard but takes time and patience. My two oldest are in college now and are very serious about their Faith.

  4. Here are two Catholic resources you might like to consider:
    1.) The Spiritual Development of Children,by Dr. Patrick Fagan

    Patrick F. Fagan is the William H. G. FitzGerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at the Heritage Foundation in DC. He trained as a psychologist in Ireland, worked in Canada with children, families and couples and is the father of eight children. For the last 20 years he has worked in public policy on the cultural factors that increase or decrease our capacity to belong to each other and to God. His papers have helped change the debate on these issues in Washington and in academia. His publications are available online at http://www.heritage.org/About/Staff/PatrickFaganpapers.cfm

    James Stenson Parent leadership

    Mr. Stenson is a writer and educational consultant based in Boston. He was co-founder of The Heights School in Washington, DC, and a founder and headmaster of Northridge Preparatory School in suburban Chicago. Using his twenty years of experience with families, he has written Upbringing, Lifeline, Anchor, Compass and other works for parents. He has lectured internationally including Canada, England, Ireland and Australia. His website, which presents practical advice for parents, is www.parentleadership.com. http://www.amazon.com/Compass-Handbook-Leadership-James-Stenson/dp/1594170002


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