Regardless of whether your family’s spirituality is tied to religious ideas or a specific religious tradition, your child has probably developed a concept of God. That’s because God-talk remains a feature of popular culture. Movies depict transcendent beings, stories include references to Judeo-Christian religious practices, and friends and neighbors talk about their personal beliefs. Children take all of this information in and file it under the heading ‘God’.
Children’s perceptions of a God figure also shift as they gain new and different developmental capabilities. Changes in their physical strength and endurance recast their sense of a divine being’s power. More expansive social experience allows for different kinds of reflections on how a God might interact with the world. Changing cognitive abilities also affect critical reflection conclusions about the reality or believability of God’s existence.
Typical age-related developmental changes allow parents and caregivers to make the following generalizations about what children believe about God. Keep in mind that these descriptions assume that children are mostly encountering positive or benign comments about God from close family members, and thus are working out ideas about God that reflect general psychological and spiritual tasks at various ages. In families where God is presented as a problematic concept to be resisted, children may mix in other ideas with these developmentally-driven perspectives.
Birth to three years. God is a real person who lives in a place called heaven or in a house of worship. God provides comfort (like a lovie) and cares for one like a parent.
Three to eight years. God is great in ways similar to superheroes. God watches people all year round (like Santa Claus) to decide who to reward and who to punish. God acts like a magician, making things happen that can’t be explained. God is concerned with reciprocal fairness, i.e. making sure that everyone gets what they deserve.
Nine to twelve years. God is involved in the various systems (ecological, social, political) that shape one’s world. God is like a friend who takes a personal interest in one’s activities. Who God is and how God works are puzzles to be investigated. This is the age when children begin to question the existence of God and look for data to support or refute the idea of God.
Teens. God is a confidant, guide, and counselor. God is especially concerned with one’s personal moral behavior. God seems to operate behind the scene in social systems, but it is hard to know what is God’s activity and what is human activity. Even if teens no longer believe God is a real entity, they will likely attribute these characteristics to the idea of God that others hold.
Spirituality can exist for many people without a concept of God, but our sociocultural experiences with religious concepts mean that talking about the idea of God with children is a worthwhile family activity. It can reinforce family beliefs and affirm children’s engagement with spiritual ideas. It can also encourage spiritual exploration, particularly as children’s development opens up new ways of thinking about and experiencing spiritual beings. Don’t be afraid to ask your child what they think about God. Pose the question, listen carefully, and marvel at their creative ways of interpreting this popular concept for themselves.
*Thanks to A for sharing his drawing.