Spiritual Lives All Their Own
Since the publication of Robert Coles's The Spiritual Life of Children in 1990, academic interest in how children view God has burgeoned. Secular and Christian researchers alike have found that children have spiritual lives independent from the influence of their families and other social factors. Donald Ratcliff, the Price-LeBar Professor of Christian Education at Wheaton College, has studied the topic for three decades. He has written and edited a number of books, including Children's Spirituality: Christian Perspectives, Research, and Applications, and most recently, ChildFaith: Experiencing God and Spiritual Growth with Your Children (Wipf and Stock, 2010). Ratcliff spoke with CT associate editor Katelyn Beaty about how parents can guide their child's spiritual growth while acknowledging his or her choice.
In the introduction to ChildFaith, you write, "Don't consider this book a prescription for successful spiritual nurture." Why the disclaimer?
Personal experience. My wife and I have three wonderful kids, and we tried many different things to influence them spiritually. But they each made choices and continue to make choices. There is influence, but there is no cause and effect.
We celebrated the Old Testament holidays in our home. My wife and I thought, This is great. Our kids are going to dive right into the Scriptures. And it worked well, for a couple of years. Then our oldest son said, "Dad, we're not Jewish. Why should we do this Jewish stuff?" I realized that, while we had done our best to make it connect, it didn't. So after talking with our other kids, we felt we could back off of the holidays.
We have to be sensitive to where kids are, and adapt to where they are to the extent that we can.
Wouldn't some say that approach is too child-centric? Don't parents have the final say in what their kids are taught?
Yes. But God doesn't do it that way. God works with us individually. Some of us go to more exuberant services, and some to churches that are more traditional. I think God allows and to some extent encourages that diversity, because there are lots of ways to praise him; there are many ways to honor him and serve him.
Every now and then, I would talk to my kids individually. "What do you think about our bedtime practices with Scripture?" My kids were almost always upfront, saying, "I just don't get into that" or, "I really like that."
Was I abdicating my authority? I don't think so. I think I was encouraging honesty. And we really need honesty in order to keep from encouraging kids to put on masks of spirituality.
What role does the local church play in helping parents raise children?
Churches need to realize that kids are not the church of the future; they are the church of the present. The church is not merely to reach the adults, but to reach the entire body of Christ. That doesn't mean that you have to meet together all the time. I think there is a time for people to separate by ages. Still, I do like multigenerational services.
Churches also need to recognize that children are capable of ministry. In my book, I talk about some 4-year-olds I have worked with. There are four or five tasks that are customarily done in church, and I thought they could learn how to do those with one another. So we encouraged them to take the offering, to preach a short sermon, and so on. When it came time for one little 4-year-old to preach, she said, "Girls don't preach." I didn't know how to respond. So I said, "Well, imagine that girls can preach." And she went up and did a wonderful job.