When parents name a child, they do so with high hopes that the name will somehow influence who that child becomes. If they choose a family name, they imagine that the positive characteristics associated with that person will also show up in the namesake child. If they select a popular name, they may think that name will help their child ‘fit in’ to society. If they use a creative spelling, they may expect their child to be as creative as the name they bear. Names and identities are seen as interchangeable, especially when children are young.
Identity development, however, is more complex than just growing into a name. It is a complex dance between self-determination and social expectations. Children don’t just experience themselves as little ‘I’s. They also learn quite quickly to see themselves through the eyes of others. And this is as true of their spiritual identities as it is of any other aspect of their being.
Developmental psychologist Onnie Rogers says that children’s identities have many dimensions. On the one hand, they label themselves: I’m a girl. I am Latina. I’m athletic. I’m Jewish. Rogers calls these examples of private regard for the self. On the other hand, children also pick up labels from their social context: I am an illegal immigrant, I’m a tomboy, I’m a good helper, I’m disruptive. These are examples of public regard, says Rogers, and such labels can be as powerful in shaping children’s identities as the attributes children assign themselves.
So what does this mean for children’s spiritual identity? Well, it means that how we talk about spirituality and religion affects their ability to see themselves as spiritual or religious.
Share information about diverse kinds of spirituality. If we only describe spiritual practices as calming and quiet, then children who are boisterous will have a harder time seeing themselves as spiritual. Introducing children to spiritual practices that involve movement (e.g. walking a labyrinth, body prayers) as well as those that require stillness helps all children see that they can be spiritual people.
Temper comments about others’ public practices. If we criticize public displays of religious adherence (such as the wearing of a hijab or a prominent cross tattoo), then children will balk at displaying their faith in public. Rogers explains that children look to their communities to provide a script for what is appropriate behavior. Blanket disapproval of others’ outward signs of faith sends the message that spirituality should remain hidden or private. A better approach is to acknowledge the spiritual or religious message in others’ actions and wonder with children about why a person might choose to display their faith publicly.
Group norms and expectations are an important part of shaping children’s spirituality. However, children do not just listen to what they are told about their immediate community’s ways of practicing faith. They also pay attention to the implicit messages their community and the media share about a variety of faith traditions and spirituality more generally. Thus, we need to consider what messages we want to communicate to children about spirituality as a human trait, offer a diverse picture of spiritual activities, and temper our critique of others’ traditions to reflect our overall commitment to human flourishing.