When it comes to deciding what information about spirituality to trust and what to doubt, children acquire useful skills quite early in life. Infants as young as 8 months pay attention to their interactions with parents, siblings, and other caregivers and prefer to receive information from those who seem most reliable. Toddlers observe varying degrees of competence and consensus among the adults around them in deciding what information to accept as trustworthy. A healthy skepticism, or what researchers call ‘selective social learning’, is thus present from a very early age and honed through childhood experiences.
Being spiritually skeptical is valuable because it leads children to cautiously evaluate information and recognize the conditions under which it is appropriate to doubt vs. trust something they are told. As children learn and grow, they shift from primarily relying on basic experiences of another’s competence or incompetence to factoring in other cues, such as intentions and motivations. Altogether, researchers have found more than a dozen different factors that help children decide whether trust is warranted or doubt is a better response.
So what prompts children to trust a spiritual source or discount it as untrustworthy?
The most important factors are the familiarity, accuracy, expertise, and reliability of the person sharing the information. Children are inclined to trust spiritual information that comes from people with whom they have an existing relationship or who look like them (their ‘in-group’). This means they are also inclined to distrust information from those they see as ‘outsiders’. However, if familiar people have proven inaccurate or inconsistent in the past when sharing information about spiritual topics, then outsiders who demonstrate expertise and reliability over time are seen as more trustworthy.
Children also test ideas about spirituality in terms of how well they connect with their life experiences. Hearing someone tell a traditional religious story without linking it to contemporary childhood undercuts trust in the significance of the story. Children want to know why a story or a ritual matters for their lives. If they receive such information, they are more likely to trust that the story or ritual is meaningful.
Adult investment in ideas and practices, communicated through emotional signals, confidence, and language cues, bolsters trust. When parents and caregivers share about their own spiritual experiences, children check whether their emotions match their words. Children also listen for phrases like “I know” instead of “I think” or “I guess”, which signal confidence. However, skepticism increases when children sense that adults are trying to persuade or trick them with trite (“a smile is a frown turned upside down”) or distorted (“mindfulness is easy”) information.
Perhaps most surprising is how quickly peers factor into spiritual trust and skepticism. Even in the preschool years, children look to their playmates for reinforcement of spiritual practices. Adults are still important for providing new information about spirituality, but peers provide necessary confirmation that an idea or practice is worth embracing long-term.
The bottom line: if you want your child to be open to spirituality, then you and other adults close to your child are most likely to be the people trusted to share spiritual information. Try these approaches to build on that trust:
- Tell your child about your spiritual values and practices.
- Be honest about what you know and do not know.
- Connect spiritual stories and ideas to real life.
- Let your true emotions show.
- Find a few other families who share your spiritual perspective so that your child has peers to help on their spiritual journey.