Tag Archives: developmental psychology

Spirituality development in youth

This morning, I was a guest in an online course on youth ministry, taught by Megan Dowdell and Betty-Jeane Rueters-Ward, and offered through Starr King School for the Ministry. Megan and Betty-Jeane invited Lane Campbell and me to participate in a conference call, and answer a few questions about spiritual development for teenagers. I took notes on what I said, and below you’ll find my re-creation of my answers to Megan’s questions on spiritual development.

Question 1: How is spiritual development for youth different than for adults or children?

My answer: If we’re going to answer this question within the context of a religious community, I want to begin with theology. We have to go back to theological anthropology, and ask ourselves: What is the nature of human beings?

Within my own religious upbringing — my family has been Unitarian for generations, and we’re now Unitarian Universalists — I always heard a lot about Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw a divine spark within every human being, no matter what age. If the nature of human beings is that they have have some divine spark within them, then we are probably going to say that this divine spark doesn’t develop at all. I’d pretty much agree with Emerson on this point, although I’d probably argue with him about the nature of the divine spark. So I’m not convinced there’s much spiritual difference across ages; certainly, from the standpoint of theological anthropology, there’s no real difference between teenagers and adults. Continue reading

New podcast on faith development

There’s a new podcast up on the Palo Alto Religious Education blog, in which Joe Chee and I discuss faith development and chronological age. We address questions like: –what happens when someone who grew up with no religious upbringing decides to join a Unitarian Universalist congregation? –how can we help childen new to church feel welcome?

And Joe has also put up an online index listing all the religious education podcasts we’ve produced thus far.

Teaching kids how to be religious, part eight: The limits of psychology

Part one: Link

So far, we’ve been using insights drawn from the science of psychology to help us understand how to teach kids to be religious. But psychology only goes so far when it some to religion. Its insights are useful, but we also have to consider theological anthropology, that is, our deeply-felt religious understandings of who persons are and how persons relate to the divine, and/or to something larger than themselves.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I’m going to speak from within my own theological tradition. Specifically, I’ll speak as a Transcendentalist and as a Universalist.

As a Transcendentalist, I know that human beings have the potential to experience something larger than themselves. As a mystical tradition, Transcendentalism isn’t quite sure what to call that something larger than ourselves. You could call it “God,” but for many mystics and Transcendentalists, even that word is too limiting for the overwhelming experiences that can burst in on us unannounced. You could call it “the collective unconscious,” and there would be some truth to that name, but here again the name is far too limited. You might want to say it is that which is highest and best in humanity, but many of us find our transcendent experiences lead us far outside what might comfortably called human. Maybe it’s best just to leave it nameless.

Whatever you call it, that experience of the nameless something that is larger than you are cannot be adequately explained by psychology. Developmental psychology falls short because transcendent experiences can come to anyone of any age or developmental stage. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs falls short because transcendent experiences can come when you are starving to death. The theory of distributed cognition falls short because transcendent experiences can come to people who live in communities that do not value or accept transcendent experiences. From this theological viewpoint, in other words, there is more to human beings than that which is summed up in psychological models.

As a Universalist, I believe that all human beings will ultimately be saved; the corollary to that is that all human beings are of equal value, theologically speaking. Universalism offers a very strong critique of developmental psychology. Developmental psychology says that human beings have to develop over time, which implies that human beings who aren’t yet fully developed somehow aren’t fully human. Defenders of developmental psychology squirm when I say that, and try to deny it — but in order for their denials to be at all effective, they have to acknowledge that developmental psychology presents a very limited understanding of human beings, an understanding which cannot encompass the full range of what it means to be human.

Universalism as I understand it tends to be neutral when it comes to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or the theory of distributed cognition. These models are clearly valid — as far as they go — but they don’t go as far as the Universalist wants to go. The Universalist always winds up with the basic fact that all human beings contain that which is of equal value; the Universalist is likely to agree with George Fox when he said, “There is that of God in every person.”

If you come from another religious community, you’ll likely have your own theological understanding of human beings. I wager that if you think about it, you too will find that the insights of psychology are useful but not sufficient.

To be continued…

Teaching kids how to be religious, part six: Developmentally-based programs

Part one: Link

When many people think of how to teach children to be religious, the only psychological model they use is developmental psychology — and with good reason: developmental psychology is an extremely useful model for planning cognitive and affective learning. Because so much has been written about applying developmental psychology to religious education, I don’t need to spend too much time on it.

The insights of developmental psychology basically tell us to create programs wherein children of the same general age (or same general developmental stage) learn together. In my own experience as a religious educator and parish minister based in local congregations, developmental psychology has helped me to figure out ways to create a mix of good programs for different age groups. The key word here is “mix”: while some religious educators feel they have to rely on just one kind of developmentally-based program, in my experience children are best served by offering a variety of programs, offered either concurrently (in large congregations) or successively (in smaller congregations).

For school aged children, the mix of programs might include closely-graded classes (traditional Sunday school and the Montessori-based “Godly Play”), closely-graded worship experiences (children’s chapel, or in large churches even more closely-graded worship experiences), and other programs like a children’s choir (in larger churches, several different children’s choirs, divided based on physical and intellectual development, will be possible).

For teens, the mix of programs might include closely-graded programs (traditional youth groups, mission trips, youth choirs), youth worship, and closely-graded classes.

As we’ll see in the next installment, these closely-graded programs can (and, I believe, should) be mixed in with multi-age programs.

Next: Distributed cognition

Teaching kids how to be religious, part two

Part one: Link

Here in North America and Western Europe, we have been wholly seduced by Jean Piaget’s understanding of persons. Piaget saw children as little scientists, investigating their worlds as solitary researchers, gradually building up adequate models of how the world works. One of Piaget’s insights is that children develop their little models according to a timetable that is more or less the same for every child. Thus the role of adults is to help children work through the standard development schedule.

Piaget’s insights are extraordinarily useful in classroom settings (although it should be noted that classrooms have been set up according to Piaget’s notions, so there may be something of a tautology here). But in Eastern Europe, Lev Vygotsky came up with another possible insight into how children learn and “develop.”

Living in Russia in the early 20th C., Vygotsky was deeply affected by ideas of collective human endeavor. The West reviled Karl Marx and glorified the extreme individualism of free market capitalism; Eastern Europe and Russia reviled capitalism and glorified collectivism. Unlike Piaget, who was from Western Europe and saw human beings as disparate individuals, Vygotsky saw human beings as part of a collective.

Needless to say, Vygotsky’s research was utterly rejected by the West until the fall of Marxism in Eastern Europe. This was unfortunate, because while much of Vygotsky’s research is now outdated, he did discover one very important thing:– children can perform above their expected level of competence in certain social settings.

In my own work as a religious educator, I have found both Piaget and Vygotsky help me to understand how children learn to be religious. Children do change and develop in certain fairly predictable patterns as they grow older, just as Piaget’s model predicts. At the same time, when you put together a group of children of mixed ages, the younger children can perform above their developmental stage, due to the influence of the older children. The same is true for children who are in a multi-generational setting, such as in all-ages worship services (for example, school age children in certain unprogrammed Quaker meetings can and will sit in silence for the first twenty minutes of meeting for worship).

In the past twenty years, some psychologists in the West have gone beyond Vygotsky’s work, and developed a theory of “distributed cognition.” In this theory, cognition or thinking is distributed through out socially-created objects and institutions. A concrete example of a distributed cognition is an axe:– when you pick up an axe, you are holding the accumulated cognitive insights into how to cut down trees, accumulated by generations of human beings. Yes, someone has to teach you how to use that axe, but there’s a sense in which the axe also teaches you; there’s a sense in which as you learn to use the axe, you gain access to the accumulated wisdom of generations of thinkers.

I still use Piaget’s insights into human beings. But when it comes to teaching kids how to be religion, I also use the insights of distributed cognition. Like an axe, a congregation represents the accumulated wisdom of a certain religious tradition. This is another way of getting at what religious educator Maria Harris said:– curriculum isn’t just what’s written in the text books in the Sunday school, the whole congregation is the curriculum.

To be continued…

Cranky again

Hmm. My evil alter-ego, Mr. Crankypants, is definitely up to something. He has been grinning to himself when he thinks I’m not looking. I have to step out for a minute, and I just know that while I’m gone he’s going to try to post something on this blog. If you don’t like cranky people, best to stop reading right now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(Hah! Thought he’d never leave.)

Mr. Crankypants here, feeling particularly cranky this week. Why so cranky? Well, wouldn’t you be cranky if you started thinking about children and church?

Most religious liberal congregations do not allow children to stay in “adult” worship services. The “little darlings” get sent off to Sunday school, where, presumably, someone educates them into full humanity. What really happens in Sunday school? Most adults don’t know, because they never go near the place; nor do they particularly care.

In “progressive” congregations, children are allowed in with the adults for the first fifteen minutes or so. The children are often put on display, for the amusement of the adults, during “story time.” “Story time” is when the adults pass off dumbed-down religion on the children.

Once the children leave, the adults stay in in the sanctuary. (By the way, what are the adults taking sanctuary from? Mr. Crankypants suspects most of us are taking sanctuary from the children.) The adults sit and listen to highly intellectual sermons. The adults know these sermons must be highly intellectual, because the sermons are too intellectual for children to understand.

For you see, religious liberals are actually pretty much like the Calvinists they claim to have revolted against. Religious liberals, like the Calvinists, feel that children are essentially depraved. Unlike the Calvinists, religious liberals do not feel that children are spiritually depraved. Instead, religious liberals feel that children are intellectually depraved. Because children cannot think as well as adults can, they are not fully human. Because they are not fully human, they cannot listen to sermons. Because they cannot listen to sermons, they must be intellectually depraved. Q.E.D.

Oh, but Mr. Crankypants has it all wrong. It has nothing to do with depravity. It’s just developmental psychology. Hah, hah, hah! silly Mr. Crankypants! It’s not theology, it’s all very scientific!

(Uh, oh. Here he comes, back again. Gotta run…)

What’s all thi– Good grief, what nasty, cranky things Mr. Crankypants has written! I just can’t leave this blog unattended for a minute. Dear, dear. My apologies, dear reader, that you have had to listen to mean old Mr. Crankypants. Tomorrow I’ll have a nice, low-key post on birds to make it up to you.