An infant has no sense of permanency – that’s one reason why they can play “peak-a-boo” forever; their brains are not developed enough to understand that you haven’t really disappeared behind the hands covering your face. A young child cannot understand that taking that candy from the store is an immoral act; hence you have to tell him that he’ll be punished if he does it. In other words, our brains develop over time and with it comes our ability to understand right and wrong. What about our religiosity? How does it develop?
Needless to say, this too is a subject of debate among social scientists. There are those who say that kids have an innate sense of spirituality and can be at ease with it in a way that many adults are not. Ever talk to a young child about the coming of the Mashiach (the Messiah), for example? They feel it and can sing about it in ways that make many adults uncomfortable. Robert Coles, a renowned child psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard wrote movingly about The Spiritual Life of Children and the profound sense of transcendence they can have. Others, however, have spoken about looking at spirituality as something kids develop over time, much like stages of intellectual development. For my own part, I think there is a happy medium in between.
On the one hand, children can have very rich internal lives. Consider, for example, their ability to wonder and be amazed by the world around them. As one researcher noted: “Wonder includes a constellation of experiences that can involve feelings of awe, connection, joy, insight, and a deep sense of reverence and love. Surprisingly, the reports of wonder from contemporary children are often indistinguishable from those of the great mystics of the world for whom wondrous moments provided a touchstone and a beacon for the spiritual life that was to come.” (Hart, T. Spiritual experiences and capacities of children and youth. In The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Children and Adolescents. Roehlkepartain et al ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2005.)
It pays to remind ourselves that little kids can achieve this kind of spirituality, that it is authentic and deeply felt and worth nurturing. In fact, there are those who say that the human species is hardwired for this kind of experiencing of the world. And yet, as they grow older, they seem to lose some of that excitement. What then happens to it over time? The answer according to one school of thought is that the adult world is uncomfortable with this kind of language, with God-talk in particular, and so over time kids quickly learn to not speak about such things or not speak about them in a particular way. And so their sense of wonder and amazement, their perceptions of a world that goes beyond themselves are quashed or repressed, waiting to struggle to emerge at some point in the future. For some of us, that didn’t happen until the year in Israel, or when we had our own children or even later. Some of us are still waiting. But why should it have to be that way?
Instead, we should be encouraging young children to speak of God and appreciate life and experience joy. Even if they do not yet quite understand what we mean by God, we can certainly focus on their emotional lives, about qualities such as love and faith and trust, the same emotions that we hopefully bring to our religious lives as adults. A child who is below the age of 5, let us say, need not be overly inundated with the rules of halakha, the demands of Shabbat or bentching or kashrut, complicated abstract notions or words or rituals that do not have the same meaning for him or her as they may for us. Instead, how wonderful it would be if they would come to see Shabbat as a time for special treats and quality time. How special it would be, as one Israeli educator noted, if instead of insisting that our daughter come to the table and sit for all of birkat ha-mazon, we instead invited her to say thank you to G-d in her own words for the meal that she just ate. How valuable it would be if instead of forcing my young son to keep mitzvot that are difficult for him, I instead worked on training him to postpone gratification in general.
I have heard the same story in the name of a couple of rabbinic leaders including Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and Rav Elchonon Wasserman who were allegedly asked by the parent of a two year old when the child’s religious education should begin. They replied, “You are two years too late.”
Some parents think that really young children are not yet capable of spiritual experience or understanding. Others just don’t even think about it. Still others may want to but just feel that they are not able. But the truth is that, given children’s natural capacities for seeing life as it truly is, we need not always be concerned about how to parent more spiritually. Sometimes it is enough to allow the child to take the lead and it becomes our task to follow, without cynicism, without shutting down the conversation, but by following with the same openness, curiosity and naiveté of our children. In doing so, we not only teach them what it means to be religious, but they also teach us that we still have so much to learn.
If you have a story about a young child’s belief, please share it or any other comments at email@example.com
Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than thirty five years who currently teaches full-time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefila Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.