Children’s Resistance to Spirituality

An Interview with Dr. Annemie Dillon

Children, like adults, vary in their attraction to spirituality. Some revel in many different kinds of experiences, from mouth-gaping amazement at a rainbow to empathetic support for a friend and marching alongside family members for social justice. Others prefer particular spiritual practices, such as meditation, serving others, or hiking a nature trail. And some resist the whole idea of spirituality, perhaps because they are not drawn to the particular forms that the adults around them are endorsing. Professor Dr. Annemie Dillon, who studies children’s resistance to spirituality, offers some insights and advice into this phenomenon.


Karen-Marie :
Welcome. I’m Karen Marie Yust, and my colleague, Erin Riebel and I are talking with Professor Dr. Annemie Dillen, who teaches Pastoral and Empirical Theology at the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium. One of her interests is children’s resistance to spiritual ideas and practices.

Thank you so much for being here with us, and I’m wondering: why are some children resistant to spirituality?

That’s a very interesting question, because I start from the assumption that, in principle, every child or every person could be open for spirituality, and that’s what many people would say, but of course, it doesn’t mean that everybody is really open or experiencing spirituality on every single moment or in his or her life. So there might be resistances, there might be reasons why this principle, theoretical possibility of every single person, is not put into practice and why there are also differences between people and between children in experiencing spirituality. One of the reasons I would say that could explain why children are resistant has to do with the environment in which they are growing up, in which they are living.

Of course, if there is not much nurturing of spirituality in that environment, it might be difficult for children to experience spirituality, and maybe there might be negative messages about everything related to spirituality as well, or there might not be time, space, and so on. It might also be that children live in a culture, in a context in which spirituality is considered as something strange, weird, not really present, and so on. So we do have, of course, cultures in the world, where spirituality is something very present, very alive, and we have other cultures where it’s considered as something strange, weird, or people don’t really know how to relate to that as well, so the general cultural context plays a role as well.

I do think there’s also quite a lot related to the individual history of every single child, so what the child has experienced so far. Also, little children have a history, and some children might be traumatized, might have experienced violence, neglect, or all kinds of difficulties, maybe even the death of someone. Of course, in those situations we sometimes see in general that some people find support in aspects of spirituality or religion sometimes, but for others it might be a reason to say, “No, I am closed to all this.” That relates to something more, maybe consciously, but very often also unconsciously. So all these kinds of bad experiences do not really help in general, and that happens as well in the life of children. So there might be many ways why children are not always as open as one could expect.

You mentioned, Annemie, that a lack of nurture in the household could be one of those reasons. How can parents and caregivers be attuned to their children’s expressions of spirituality?

What’s important for being attuned to children’s spirituality is, first of all, to consider children as human persons as everyone else, so children are basically not that different from adults, and they are very similar in many, many ways. Of course, there are differences, but there are also many differences between adults themselves, so there’s a huge variety. I would say the most important message for all adults or caregivers to get attuned to children is to take care of the individual person, because every child is different, to listen to what this child needs or what this child wants to say, or how he or she behaves, reacts, and so on and so on. So that’s one thing. Considering children as similar to adults, of course, also means that it’s very important to make the messages not too easy. Okay, not too difficult either, but the same is true for adults in their experiences of spirituality.

It shouldn’t be for very little ones. If you deal with ten-year-old kids, you shouldn’t treat them as if they are two, but you should also not make things too complicated. For parents or for adults in general, it’s very important to value the children in their competences and to believe that they have something to say, that they can understand things, that they can experience things. I do think it’s very important also for adults to try to ask questions, deeper questions. If children express something verbally, with their body, or in their behavior, it’s very important that adults do not just take everything for granted or do not just neglect it, but that they try to understand, because if you see or hear something, it might be a way to deepen it and to learn what the child really thinks or experiences. And so, it’s very important for adults to be curious as well, so to try to understand and to ask deeper questions, which are not just yes or no questions, but really to understand what’s going on.

Then, a last thing I think that’s very important is to consider children and their spirituality as valuable for that moment, or in other ways, it’s not just something that children have to learn for later. So getting attuned to children and their spirituality means considering it as something that’s important for the children at that moment, and not just as something they have to learn for when they are adults or, let’s say, 22 or something. But the way in which they express it, the way in which they experience it, they might learn more or they might grow a little bit, for sure, but it’s so much more than just a learning process. It’s something that is valuable for them at that moment. The expressions of it might sometimes seem to be a bit strange for some adults, but yeah, that’s mostly really okay, so there’s no bad or wrong. In most cases, it’s very important to value what children express at that particular moment, because it probably matters a lot in their life.

So I think you mentioned that idea of deepening the conversation through questions, but what are some other ways that parents and caregivers can foster their children’s spirituality?

There’s, of course, much more than only talking. There’s of course playing. I think play is a very important aspect for children. Children can experience spirituality in all forms of play, because play is doing things without clear purpose or aim. It’s being in the moment and having joy. There might be some similarity with spirituality, but of course there are also all kinds of games or ways in which children can play together, with adults, and so on, where you can also somehow include spirituality, because you experience things or you speak about texts in a play. I used to play biblical games with my children when they were younger, so then of course you have a kind of words which you can then discuss, and then you have, of course, something to speak about, but play as such, in all ways, is very important.

I would say, basically, it can be experienced everywhere and in all kinds of things. Parents can do the very obvious things, as lighting candles with children. How many children like to burn a candle or to light a candle for someone? It might be praying if that’s in their experience and their culture, but of course, making arts, playing theater, or maybe reading books or reading poems, all kinds of novels, maybe sometimes also religious stories. That might all help to make time to be together, to experience that there’s something more. To experience, of course, this connection with oneself, the connection with the other, the connection with the larger world, and the connection with the transcendent, with God, and all these kinds of activities.

This might be experienced, and it’s very important that there’s not just one way to nurture spirituality, because it depends on the child, and it depends, of course, also on the adult, because not everything fits for every adult, nor for every child. So it’s important, I think, to offer different ways to experience something of spirituality. And also, there’s sometimes it’s good to experience things on your own, especially sometimes silence might be something that people prefer to experience on their own or together. By walking in nature, for instance, might also be a way to experience this connectedness. For some, it might be translated into religious language as well. People might experience it as something referring to creation, for instance, or to the beautiful art that they have received, but for others, it’s just this connection with nature. It depends, of course, on what exactly is understood by spirituality.

The term is used in many different ways, of course, all over the world and in different contexts, but the bottom line is there’s not just one method, and it’s very important that people explore a little bit what works best with that particular child. Because even in families, it might be very different. Also, between partners, if there are two parents or two caregivers also, there might be huge differences among them. Not everyone is involved in the same way, and also not every child is always involved in the same way, and that’s okay. So I don’t think it’s good to push it too much, because then the resistance might grow, of course. And so, it’s important to offer things that somehow fit for each person, and that might develop over time. It’s not because something is really nice to do or to explore at a certain moment in life, that when a child gets older, it’s still the same. So yeah, I would argue for lots of diversity here.

I appreciate your emphasis on finding what fits for both the child and for the parent or caregiver, and then exploring together in ways that really nurture both. Thank you so much for spending time with us today, Annemie. We really appreciate your insights into children’s resistance to spirituality, and also ways that parents and caregivers can provide nurture for spirituality.

Annemie :
Thank you.



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