Spirituality and Children’s Wellbeing

Understanding Spirituality: Spirituality has been a very fluid notion. There are multiple, shifting, open, and contested definitions of the term.[i] Take two contrasting definitions as an illustration: the first is from a non-religious perspective, and the second is a religious approach. From a non-religious perspective, spirituality is concerned with the awareness a person has of those elements in existence and experience which may be characterised as inner feelings and beliefs.[ii] By contrast, from within a religious or faith tradition, spirituality is concerned with everything in human knowledge or experience that is connected with or derives from a sense of God or of gods.[iii] The non-religious definition is too broad, which makes spirituality roughly equivalent to anything important for the moral and value characteristics of a person’s life. This would mean that any view about the meaning of life and about the nature of morality would be regarded as spiritual. In comparison, the religious definition appears to be too narrow as it rules out any conception of spirituality that is not theistic. There are many variations in the ways we understand the spiritual in between these two conceptions, but none alone is sufficient to address the depths of human spirituality.

At the same time, there has been a shared recognition that spirituality constitutes the dimension of human experience through which we are connected to something that is beyond ourselves, for some, it is God, or the gods, for others, it is the divine, sacred. Here we simply use the term the transcendent to capture the spiritual. In this light, we may argue that spirituality signifies a special kind of connection with the transcendent. We stress the word ‘special’ here because not all connections need to be characterised as spiritual, an example of which is some ritualisitic connections that are more likely to be cultural rather than spiritual. To distinguish, the spiritual is best conceived as a particular kind of connection that makes the transcendent a part of human life in an especially intimate way. For example, if that connection became part of one’s self-identity, then this would count as spiritual. If the nature of one’s consciousness were altered through contact with the transcendent, then this would be characterised as a spiritual connection. If the way that one loves and cares for one’s self and other people were transformed by such a connection, then it would be considered a spiritual connection. If it were to change fundamentally how one does one’s work, and serves the community, then this would also be described as a spiritual connection.

Understanding spirituality in this way, we can see that it is through spirituality that we not only connect to the transcendent, we are also connected more deeply to ourselves, to each other, to all living beings in nature, and to the universe. In living out these connections, each person can become more acutely and self-consciously aware of one’s self as an ‘I’, or a ‘soul’. Equally, in appreciating, taking delight in, and valuing our spiritual essence, the wonder and mystery of life, we can express and experience love, joy, goodness, and peace in the world. Thus spirituality is an indispensable aspect of human flourishing, or well-being.

Understanding Well-Being: As already discussed, human life consists in a recognition of the existence of the transcendent, and one of the characteristics of the good life is a special connection with the transcendent. Human flourishing is enabled and further enriched by such spiritual connection, which in turn nourishes ethical values as the pillars of our communities and societies. This spiritual dimension of human’s being presupposes that humans are bearers of values whose dignity and intrinsic worth should be respected and appreciated equally regardless our ethnic, social, cultural, religious, gender, sexual, and other differences. Viewing human’s being and our life as non-instrumentally valuable is paramount to understanding our well-being.

Well-being involves our being well and living well physically, emotionally, cognitively, relationally, identity-wise, and spiritually. This means that there shouldn’t be some aspects of human life omitted from an account of well-being. As a person must be perceived as a whole-person, these facets ought to be considered in an integral way. Additionally, well-being concerns the person whose life it is and should be understood from the perspective of the person who is living it as such. Hence well-being comprises the following four dimensions:[iv] (1) All the relevant aspects of human life, including our experiences, activities and processes; (2) Meaningful relationships and connections with oneself, others, world, and with the transcendent; (3) Our appreciation of these as non-instrumentally valuable; (4) Our self-conscious awareness that our life as a whole is meaningful and worthwhile (including our past, present and future). Indeed, it is the synergy amongst all these facets of human life that constitutes our well-being.

Through the lenses of this four-fold framework, we can see that spirituality is an indispensable aspect of our well-being. First, spiritual activities, processes and experiences are clearly among those that are integral human life, such as worship, meditation, as well as contemplation of the transcendent. Second, the spiritual connection we have with ourselves, others, the world, and the transcendent is paramount to a rich relational experience. Third, spirituality pertains directly to our capacity to appreciate the valuable aspects of the experiences, activities, processes, and connections that comprise our lives. For instance, some traditions claim that spiritual awareness is much wider and much more alive than normal waking consciousness. Fourth, spirituality enables our conscious self-identification as beings of dignity who are embedded in both the transcendent and the immanent dimensions of life. Clearly, our spiritual state of being also enables us to radiate love to others and in the world.

The Importance of Childhood Spiritual Development and Well-Being: Bringing our understandings of spirituality and well-being together, we can see that both accounts underscore spiritual development as a key to human flourishing along these well-being domains. Education and schooling should thus be sites where children, caregivers, teachers and others in the community nurture each other’s well-being, and co-create the good life together.

In addition, children’s spiritual well-being be key to their human flourishing. To highlight what we have already discussed, a child’s well-being involves a sense of living well and being well in an all-round way as a human being. It happens when she experiences fulfilment of her human potential as a whole child, including engaging in full and meaningful activities and enriching experiences, being aware of her own dignity and intrinsic value as a spiritual being; taking delight and feeling joy in being herself;  having a sense of direction in life; appreciating similar qualities in others and respecting and relating lovingly and caringly to them; and feeling peacefulness, belonging, and at home in the world around her. In other words, spirituality is that aspect of human existence that gives it its humanness. Spiritual development is hence extremely important to a child human becoming through nurturing her self- and other- awareness, and self-consciousness, and enriching her spiritual connection with the transcendent.

Early childhood is a critical time to nurture children’s spiritual growth because spirituality is both an inherent human inner quality, and an unfolding quality through intentional cultivation, relational enrichment, and education, formal, informal and non-formal. A fuller and richer nourishment of a child’s spiritual core depends on the proactive recognition of the child as a spiritual being by parents, other caregivers, community members and wider society. This awareness is the basis for the child’s spiritual qualities and connection with the transcendent to blossom, and is the foundation for adults around the child to foster, encourage, and guide the child’s spiritual well-being and human flourishing.  

Spirituality has long been identified among the most important factors that structure human experience, beliefs, values, attitudes and actions. Thus, all religious and faith actors have an ethical responsibility to recognise and respond to spirituality as it is presented within all human beings and they can be educated to be equipped to understand and engage with this dimension in children’s development. Likewise, educators and caregivers must take spirituality seriously, and must prioritise the child’s spiritual development from early childhood on, and take all opportunities to nourish their own spiritual growth.

[i] See Bone, J. & Fenton, A. (2015). “Spirituality and child protection in early childhood education: a strengths approach”, International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 20(2), 86–99

[ii] See, for instance, UK Department of Education and Social Service’s account 1977

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] This account of well-being is developed in Thomson, G. & Gill, S. (2020). Happiness, Flourishing and the Good Life: A Transformative Vision for Human Well-Being, London: Routledge