interesting Newsweek post: "What Do Children Understand About God? "

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Newsweek: "What Do Children Understand About God?"

Saturday, August 29, 2009 11:21 AM
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Every Sunday, you can find me in church. The only reason I won't be there is if I'm sick or out of town. My particular church, a small Catholic parish, is a blast and a half (you'll have to trust me on that), and I look forward to the priest's sermons: I always appreciate his thoughtful take on God and the moral issues of the day. But, lately, I must confess that I've been a little distracted (Sorry, Father).

Instead of paying attention to the service, I find myself watching the young children scattered throughout the pews.

I know that children understand the Bible stories. They quickly master the religious ceremony: they know when to say "Amen" or be quiet. And toddlers point to a statue of Mary and authoritatively explain, "That's Jesus's mommy."

But I'm fascinated when I see kids – four and five year-olds – clasp their tiny hands together, then solemnly bow their heads in prayer. While clouds of doubt occasionally darken my countenance, the faith of these children seems comparatively effortless. And I wonder:

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What do kids understand about God?

Jean Piaget – the Swiss early pioneer of child development – concluded that children were incapable of having a true concept of God; they just thought of Him as a supersized, magical version of their parents. But more recent research is suggesting that Piaget was underestimating kids.

Children as young as four understand that a prayer is qualitatively different than a wish – that it's a special kind of conversation between them and God.

It's around that same age that kids show some appreciation of divine omnipotence and omniscience. They can explain to you that a person made a car or a pizza, but it was God who made the mountains.

By five or six, they understand that, even though Mommies are very smart, God knows things that Mommies can't know. And they have a fluent enough mastery of that principle, that they can predict God's superior knowledge in novel circumstances.

School-age children believe that God is in direct control of their lives – much more so than adolescents or adults.

Interestingly, specifics of the religious culture don't seem to matter. Five year-old Mayan kids are just as adept at explaining God's omniscience as Christian kids living in New York or Michigan.

95% of American parents profess a religious affiliation, and many of them say that their religious beliefs directly impact their parenting.

But the science says they have it backwards. It is parenting which dictates children's vision of God.

When parents are more supportive of a child's autonomy – giving her a sense that she is control of her own life – a child is more likely to see God as a more forgiving God. God is an authority figure to be respected, but He is less fearsome.

On the other hand, if parents are extremely strict and punishing – dictating every moment of a child's life – their children are more likely to believe that God is punishing, angry, and powerful. Girls are more affected by this dynamic than boys, and the way Mom disciplines has more of an affect in this direction than the way Dad does.

And for children who have extremely strained relationships with parents – or when a parent is absent from their lives – scholars have found that children in those relationships increasingly think of God as a surrogate parent. God as the Ultimate Father Figure. They endow God with the traits of an idealized version of the missing parent – someone who is caring, attentive, and highly involved in their day-to-day lives. He's an understanding, patient confidant, always there to offer encouragement and support.

While those kids may be missing a parent's influence, most adolescents are struggling to get out from under a parent's authority. Teens' need to carve out a domain under their own control is very real. And they bring their frustration with their parents to their relationship with God.

In a recent study by Clark University professor Lene Arnett Jensen, conservative Protestant adolescents had some very mixed things to say about God.

The God of Adolescents is judgmental, disapproving, and unforgiving. He isn't very loving. His supernatural gifts are akin to those of the Devil. On the whole, adolescents seem more negative – almost hostile – to God than at any other time in their lives.  (Sounds to me like their God is a cross between a parent, a popular Mean Girl, and a college admissions officer.)


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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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