REFUSING to tackle children’s existential questions of life could lead to mental-health problems, the 16th conference of the International Association for Children’s Spirituality heard last month.
The theme of the conference, held at Laval University, Quebec, was “Questioning the Relationship Between Children’s Spirituality and Traditions”.
Although the conference was framed in religious traditions, much of the research came from secular universities.
The association, which was set up in 2006, focuses on the spirituality of the child and young person, and publishes an annual journal.
The conference opened with the question: What is the relationship between spirituality and traditions, and how does each serve the other? The first keynote speaker, Professor Jean-Philippe Perault, from Laval University, spoke on “When the quest is a journey. . . Thinking spirituality, youth, and relations with traditions in contemporary societies.”
The conference of the International Association for Children’s Spirituality
He asked questions about the relationship between modern societies and religious traditions, and on tasks such as discovering “who I truly am”, and how our lives are framed by ageing.
He asked: if awareness of death is what sets humans apart, but we live in a death-denying society, how do we bring the two together? “You can never jump into the same river twice”, he concluded, as the river itself will have changed.
A Skype question-and-answer session was held with a rabbi, Dr Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, from the United States, whose paper, “The strings on David’s harp: religious ritual as container for spirituality”, addressed traditions within a worshipping community.
A keynote speech from Professor Bert Roebben, the chair of religious education at the University of Bonn, was “Traditions are given to us as a loan by our children. How children rediscover and rewrite traditions in European religious education”. He spoke of churches that “answer questions that no one is now asking”, and how children and young people were given the message that they were rubbish, but “[we believe] they are works of art.” He asked how they could be encouraged to tell their stories and feel positive about themselves.
Seminars, such as “Where do unicorns come from, and why does it matter,” by Katherine Carpenter, from the US, and “Like spokes on a wheel: exploring lived experiences of the spirituality of Canadian adolescents”, by Dr Valerie Michaelson, of Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, explored the theme of the conference: the need to listen to children and young people and take what they say seriously. Later in the conference, Dr Michaelson also spoke on the subject of Inuit spirituality, and how it is rooted in the land.
Difficult comments from children should be opened up, the speakers agreed, and the spirituality behind what may seem strange comments should be “unpacked”. If it is not, then children may sometimes suppress profound existential questions of life, leading to school refusal, or mental-health breakdown.