Part one: Link
Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote extensively about what he called a “hierarchy of needs.” It’s really a basic, common-sense insight: you have to have enough food to eat and water to drink before you start to worry about structure and order in your life, you have to worry about order and security in your life before you worry about having human community, you have to have human contact and community before you worry about self respect and respect of others.
- Physiological needs — air, water, food, warmth, sex, voiding wastes, etc.
- Safety needs — safety, security, stability, protection, structure, order, limits, etc.
- Belonging needs — human relationships, family, community, membership in a congregation, etc.
- Esteem needs — respect of others, and self-respect
All the above are what Maslow termed “deficiency needs”: you have to have them in order to survive, and if you are deficient in one of these needs, you have to make up that deficiency before you can meet the needs higher in the hierarchy. For example, if you are starving to death, or can’t breath, you have to make up those deficiencies before you can worry about self-esteem. Maslow visualized this hierarchy of needs as a pyramid, with a broad base of physiological needs at the bottom, narrowing to a point at the top.
According to W. Huitt (2004 ["Maslow's hierarchy of needs," Educational Psychology Interactive, Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved 21 July 2006 from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/regsys/maslow.html]), the apex of the pyramid of needs has “growth needs” that go beyond the four deficiency needs:
According to Maslow, an individual is ready to act upon the growth needs if and only if the deficiency needs are met. Maslow’s initial conceptualization included only one growth need–self-actualization. Self-actualized people are characterized by: 1) being problem-focused; 2) incorporating an ongoing freshness of appreciation of life; 3) a concern about personal growth; and 4) the ability to have peak experiences. Maslow later differentiated the growth need of self-actualization, specifically naming two lower-level growth needs prior to general level of self-actualization (Maslow & Lowery, 1998) and one beyond that level (Maslow, 1971). They are:
5) Cognitive: to know, to understand, and explore;
6) Aesthetic: symmetry, order, and beauty;
7) Self-actualization: to find self-fulfillment and realize one’s potential; and
8) Self-transcendence: to connect to something beyond the ego or to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential.
This psychological model, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, has obvious implications for teaching kids how to learn to be religious. Most obviously, you have to start with the lowest levels of the hierarchy of needs. Children must have the following, in the following order:
- Water to drink, food to eat (you may have to supply food if the child’s family cannot give them adequate food), clean air to breathe (a problem in old or poorly-ventilated buildings), a place to void wastes, etc.
- Safety including physical safety (building must be safe and secure) and emotional safety (adult leaders must behave appropriately), order and structure, behavioral and other limits, etc.
- A human community to which they can belong, and feel welcomed in.
- Respect of others, and self-respect.
Once the congregation helps children meet these needs, we can go further and help children get to cognitive learning, aesthetic appreciation, realizing their own potential, and achieving transcendence. A common mistake that many religious educators make is to try to start with cognitive learning, while ignoring safety. When it comes to teaching kids how to do religion, in my experience as a religious educator and minister I find myself spending perhaps half my time at the first two levels: making sure the physical plant is safe and secure, making sure adult volunteers know how to provide emotionally safety and appropriate limits. Then I spend another third of my time at the next two levels: building community and helping create an environment where children can respect each other and respect themselves. Only then do I get to cognitive, aesthetic, and other needs.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has some real problems and limitations. In one glaring example, self-transcendence can burst in on persons who are starving, or who are experiencing emotional or physical abuse — if you want to use God-talk, God does not necessarily wait for you to be well-fed before manifesting.
In spite of the limitations, I find Maslow’s psychological model of a hierarchy of needs has helped me at a practical level far more than any theory of developmental psychology. To ignore the hierarchy of needs is to assume that every child you try to teach comes from such a privileged background that you can ignore basic survival needs.