Children, religion, and spirituality

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 11 minutes

Most children attending a public school in New Zealand will remember their religious instruction sessions, a.k.a. Bible in Schools. It was usually held on a Friday - when both students and teachers were in high anticipation of the weekend - and it usually involved a local church volunteer telling stories about God.

Up until last year, this practice was still upheld in nearly 25% of New Zealand’s secular state primary schools. For an hour a week - or 20 hours per year - school children were instructed in some form of non-syllabus Christianity, as permitted by the Education Act. The church-led content was not based on the school curriculum in any way. It was simply an hour of preaching, with perhaps a few games or songs, and often led by unpaid volunteers.

Providing these classes was up to a school’s board of trustees and the principal. The Churches Education Commission was usually behind sourcing volunteers from local church

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 11 minutes

Most children attending a public school in New Zealand will remember their religious instruction sessions, a.k.a. Bible in Schools. It was usually held on a Friday – when both students and teachers were in high anticipation of the weekend – and it usually involved a local church volunteer telling stories about God.

Up until last year, this practice was still upheld in nearly 25% of New Zealand’s secular state primary schools. For an hour a week – or 20 hours per year – school children were instructed in some form of non-syllabus Christianity, as permitted by the Education Act. The church-led content was not based on the school curriculum in any way. It was simply an hour of preaching, with perhaps a few games or songs, and often led by unpaid volunteers.

Providing these classes was up to a school’s board of trustees and the principal. The Churches Education Commission was usually behind sourcing volunteers from local church communities, volunteers who were not required to have teaching qualifications.

But in 2020, Kiwi parents decided they’d had enough of this Christian influence. Besides the fact that New Zealand is a multi-faith country, almost half of our population identifies as having no religion. Parents argued that teaching Christianity in school was religious favouritism and that religion should only be taught in an objective, academic format.

After much government lobbying, The Education and Training Act was altered. Now, schools can only hold religious instruction on an opt-in basis only: students are automatically ‘out’ of the classes unless they choose to participate.

Is religion important for children?

In many countries, organised religion plays a major role in daily life. Faith is a cornerstone of the culture and community, and religious practices are believed to foster morality and guide social behaviour for both adults and children. Religious beliefs provide answers to questions about life and death, relationships between people and how they live in the world, and concepts of good and evil. The major religions all have their own philosophies and ethics, and these are transmitted to children by their family, school and society so that they may continue these traditions.

In essence, many parents believe that to introduce children to religion is to set them on a path to being good.

Of course, the way a particular religion is practised – and transmitted – varies enormously from culture to culture. Children who are born into a particular faith are expected to subscribe to their parents’ beliefs from a young age; rarely are they given the choice of ‘opting out’. Many religious practices begin at birth and continue throughout their life.

Here’s an insight into how different religions might be practised throughout a young person’s life.

Judaism

Jewish boy

Jewish baby boys undergo Brit Milah – the ceremony of circumcision – at just eight days old. This ceremony symbolises the covenant that God made with Abraham. At the age of 13, Jewish boys celebrate their coming of age with a Bar Mitzvah.

Girls of Reform and Liberal Jewish communities may have a Bar Mitzvah at age 12.

Both ceremonies mark the child’s responsibility for following the mitzvot (Jewish laws) themselves, which involves reading from the Torah.

Islam

Male circumcision after birth is also strongly encouraged in Islam. The ritual dates back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad and is believed to prevent a boy’s clothes from becoming soiled during prayer (which would nullify the prayer). Muslim children are encouraged to begin praying at the age of seven, and enforced with discipline from age ten: They are also expected to practise Sharia rituals and to follow Islamic customs, such as fasting (apart from very young children). Both prayer and fasting become obligatory from puberty.

Muslim girls

Muslim girls are not obligated to pray, fast, or wear the hijab before puberty, but it is expected after she starts menstruation. In Malaysia, Muslim girls spend years preparing for their 11th birthday and their celebration of Khatam Al Koran. This prestigious ritual involves their reciting the final chapter of the Koran before friends and family.

Catholicism

Catholics hold many rituals throughout a child’s life to mark their ties to the Catholic Church. Baptism is an important Sacrament that symbolises the cleansing of the soul by immersing it in water, marking the child’s initiation into the Catholic Church. The First Holy Communion at age seven marks the first reception of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The Confirmation ceremony is held at around age 13 and completes the process of initiation into the family of Christ. The rituals involve the laying on of hands as well as anointing with holy oils. The child will also choose the name of a saint to be added after their own name.

Hinduism

Hindu boy

Hindus may hold a coming-of-age ceremony for boys called upanayana, otherwise known as the sacred thread ceremony. The young man is presented with a sacred thread that initiates him into society, symbolizing the transfer of spiritual knowledge.

Buddhism

In some Theravada Buddhist countries, it is common for a young boy to become a monk for a short period as a kind of ‘passage’ into adulthood. Serving as a novice monk also shows their gratitude for his parents’ care. In some Southeast Asian contexts, living in the monastery may also be a means for a boy to gain his education.

Is faith good for children?

In New Zealand, and in many other Western countries, being ‘not religious’ has become a specific identity. While we may agree that churches and other religious organisations have some positive contributions to society, we would rather our children learned about them in an objective way only.

But then along comes some research that shows religion is actually good for children, particularly in their developmental years.

Scientists have found that educating children on religious concepts can help them learn to behave ethically, not only during childhood but as they grow up. What’s more, religion can support mental health well into adulthood.

In a recent study from the University of Texas, sociologists found that children’s psychological adjustment and social competence could be positively correlated with certain religious factors (Bartkowski, 2019). In addition, religious communication between parents and children was linked to positive development characteristics. These findings have supported previous research that suggested children who have been raised with religious or spiritual practices tend to have better mental and emotional health.

But the researchers did point out that there are many ways to pursue well-rounded development, and religion is only one avenue. Head researcher John Bartkowski stated: “If it takes a village to raise a child, religion occupies an important place in that village. But it certainly doesn’t have a corner on fostering positive developmental trajectories for children. In fact, religion may be best paired with other community resources such as academically oriented school clubs and activities.”

In another study involving around 5,000 people aged between eight and 14, researchers examined how attending religious services or praying and meditating on their own affected a child’s mental health as they grew up. They found that those who attended religious services at least once a week during their childhood or teen years were about 18% more likely to report being happier in their 20s than those who never attended services. These people were also almost 30% more likely to do volunteer work and 33% less likely to use drugs in their 20s.

The interesting part, however, was that attending services was less important than how often a person engaged in prayer or meditation in his or her own time. Children and teenagers who prayed or meditated every day were found to be more satisfied with their lives and better able to process emotions. They were also more forgiving and compassionate than those who never prayed or meditated, and less likely to use drugs.

In other words, the positives of being religious are not exclusive to the religious. Rather, it is those who engage in spiritual practises – such as prayer or meditation – who tend to be happier and less likely to suffer from depression or substance abuse later in life.

Whether praying to God, Allah, or simply meditating in a quiet space, there are proven benefits to engaging in mindful practice; indeed, possibly far more than any child could gain from Bible in Schools.

The wonderful thing is that both the religious and the non-religious can reap these benefits. Spirituality, at its essence, can be entirely an individual practice with no specific goal other than to nurture a sense of peace and purpose. The concept of ‘being spiritual’ – which is at the heart of every religion – is a means of making sense of the world around you.

Religion is an enormous topic, and one in which I do not claim any expertise. But I think many will agree that kids everywhere can learn about spirituality, faith, hope, and morality both with and without religious ideology. We all can.

 

 

Source: Mixed Blessing: The Beneficial and Detrimental Effects of Religion on Child Development among Third-Graders, mdpi.com

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