A psychiatrist explores children's spirituality

January 13, 1991|By Anne Whitehouse

THE SPIRITUAL LIFE OF CHILDREN. Robert Coles. Houghton Mifflin. 358 pages. $22.95. Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard, is renowned for his sensitive and compelling studies of children, as well as for his wide-ranging essays, memoirs, biographies and literary studies. In the five volumes of "Children of Crisis" and in "The Moral Life of Children" and "The Political Life of Children," he elicited children's beliefs and examined them, and in so doing also examined adult ways of perceiving and understanding childhood.

His newest book, "The Spiritual Life of Children," is a fascinating illumination of a particularly elusive subject -- spiritual life as connected to and as distinct from religious life. This is a subject of intense personal interest to Dr. Coles, and one that he approaches with curiosity, respect and awe. In contrast to orthodox psychoanalysis, Dr. Coles sees spirituality as a positive, creative force that helps us to cope with the problems and perplexities of our lives.

Dr. Coles' approach is humanistic. He is less interested in formulating "psychodynamic" theories than in revealing a vast spectrum of responses, and the similarities and differences between them. In preparing for this book, Dr. Coles and his family interviewed children of Jewish, Muslim and Christian (Catholic and Protestant) backgrounds in religious schools, public schools and private settings. They spoke with children whose parents are agnostic or atheist, and with Hopi children. They sought out children of different social classes and nationalities. Some children were interviewed briefly; others Dr. Coles worked with over a period of years.

"Each child becomes an authority, and all the meetings become occasions for a teacher -- the child -- to offer, gradually, a lesson. My job is to listen, of course, and to record, to look [at the pictures done], and to try to make sense of what I have heard and seen" -- so he describes his method. The conclusions he draws and the discoveries he makes have to do with finding "the connections between a religious and spiritual life and other aspects of his or her [the child's] day-to-day existence."

What makes this book such engaging reading is Dr. Coles' ability to convey his sessions with these children as dramatic encounters. He describes his struggles to encourage the children to speak and their struggles to answer him as well as they can. He records his frustrations and exhilarations, his uncertainties about how to proceed and his moments of inadequacy in addition to his experiences of understanding and enlightenment. These provide a context to what these children say and make the book more than a series of children's pronouncements, eloquent though they may be.

Dr. Coles sees the Bible and the Koran essentially as inspirational stories, "exciting their [children's] minds to further thought and fantasy and helping them become more grown, more contemplative and sure of themselves." In contrast to Freud, he sees the "illusion" of religion "not as a lie or as a form of self-delusion" but as "the mind's search for mean

ing . . . aimed at the penetration . . . of the many layers of truth." The voices that Dr. Coles has gathered in this book testify to the fact that "children ask the eternal questions more intensely, unremittingly, and subtly than we sometimes imagine."

Among the children raised in the world's three major religions, he notes the differences of emphasis that are the essences of these faiths. For Christians the theme is salvation. As a 12-year-old East Tennessee boy says, "The Lord and us, we're all in this together: us hoping to be saved, and Him wanting to save us."

The Jewish emphasis is on ethical actions, or "righteousness." "We are the people who gave the world the Ten Commandments, and we must never forget that, and we must always remember them," says a 12-year-old boy in Massachusetts preparing for his bar mitzvah. Muslim children emphasize submission and obedience to God's will, often using warlike imagery.

In his stress on the consolations of spirituality, Dr. Coles perhaps neglects the repressive effects religion can have, on children particularly. While he observes that children "may well puzzle over religious and spiritual matters in progressively more subtle ways" as they grow older, he rejects applying a developmental model such as is used to understand moral growth to matters of faith. Indeed, in rendering the "highlights in what I have been privileged to hear," Dr. Coles reveals how much we can discover from children, particularly as they confront the injustices of life and the terrors of death.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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