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Teaching kids how to be religious

Originally published on my blog in July and August, 2006. Intended as a gentle polemic to challenge the status quo in the world of Unitarian Universalist religious education.

I/ Teaching kids how to be religious?
II/ Seduced by Piaget
III/ A fundamental mistake
IV/ Three broad models
V/ Safety and security
VI/ Developmentally-based programs
VII/ Distributed cognition
VIII/ The limits of psychology
IX/ Flying in the face of common beliefs

I/ Teaching kids how to be religious?

The very title of this little essay is an absurdity. You don’t teach kids how to be religious, because they already are religious. At least they’re more or less religious, depending on their personalities:– some of them are already quite advanced religiously by the time they’re seven, while others (as the philosopher Richard Rorty admits of himself) are “religiously tone-deaf.”

Absurdity though it may be, I’m forced to talk about how to teach kids to be religious because my denomination, and much of institutionalized religion generally, believes that that’s what you do. My denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has a department called “Lifespan Faith Development.” They want to “develop” kids, just like real estate developers “develop” old farms or woodlots or deserts into housing developments and shopping malls, because houses and malls are the “highest and best use” of the land.

“Lifespan Faith Development” has another fatal flaw:– it uses the term “faith development” as an integral part of its name. “Faith development” was conjured up by James Fowler, and still has a following amongst older male psychologists who began their careers when Fowler first published his book and who still try to do research on how faith develops, psychologically speaking. Problem is, Fowler never adequately defined what he meant by “faith.” To make matters worse, his model posits a highest stage of faith development for which his research found only one representative person; hardly an adequate sample size on which to base an adequate theory.

Still worse, Fowler basically reduces “faith development” to cognitive (and maybe affective) development, ignoring such things as the transcendental experiences which burst in on you unannounced changing you forever in a discontinuous fashion that has nothing to do with his orderly linear “faith development”; ignoring such things as certain slow dragging years of no transcendence which can suck all religion out of you if you’re not careful. But if you really want to know about why faith development doesn’t work, you can read Gabriel Moran’s essays on the topic.

Worst of all, I believe the term “lifespan faith development” allows us to delegate teaching kids to someone else in our religious communities. “Lifespan faith development” implies that you have to know some arcane theories about “faith development” in order to teach kids. “Lifespan faith development” means you should rely on the experts to set up scientific programs for teaching kids. That term allows us to abdicate our responsibility to our children.

Yet it is you and I, not some expert, who teach children how to be religious. And we do teach children how to be religious, regardless of the theory we espouse. Or rather, we don’t teach them how to be religious, we teach them how to handle the religion they already have. We do that in a way that flies in the face of typical Western understandings of the psychological underpinnings of religion, and persons, and faith.

II/ Seduced by Piaget

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.

III/ A fundamental mistake

In my own religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism, we made a fundamental mistake in the way we teach kids how to be religious. Back in the 1930’s, the Unitarians and the Universalists hired Sophia Lyon Fahs as their curriculum editor, and over the next two decades Fahs produced a brilliant series of curriculum textbooks. Brilliant books like The Church across the Street, which introduced junior high students to other Protestant traditions, attracted well-deserved attention beyond the Unitarians and the Universalists. The Fahs curriculum books were, in their own way, works of genius.

But an earlier book co-written by Fahs reveals one of her fundamental limitations as a religious educator. Exploring Religion with Eight Year Olds (1930), written by Fahs and co-author Helen Sweet Firman, tells the story of one Sunday school class over the course of a year, through a teacher’s journal and careful analysis of that journal. It, too, is a brilliant book, well worth reading even today; today’s religious educators can still learn from the progressive educational philosophy and pedagogy, the assessment techniques, the tradition of close observation of individual children.

Yet something is fundamentally wrong with the book:– the Sunday school class described in the book is a closely-graded class in a laboratory Sunday school that is not affiliated with any congregation, or even with any specific religious tradition. Fahs had completely divorced children’s religious education from the traditional multi-generational institutions of congregations and wider religious traditions. The children are influenced by each other, by their own inner thoughts and memories and inclinations, and by their teacher; it is an extreme form of individualism, which works pretty well but which leaves out big chunks of religion.

Fahs was not the only one trying to take religious education in this direction. The Universalist Angus MacLean was headed in the same direction, and in his book A New Age in Religious Education he tells churches to take the kids out of the worship service and drop them into closely graded Sunday school classrooms that look exactly like public school classrooms. That was the trend throughout liberal religion and mainline Protestantism in the mid- to late-20th C.: separate the kids from the adults, to the end that the individual development of individual children is nurtured and encouraged.

This was a brilliant idea, but it didn’t really work. Religious educators within liberal religion, and Christian educators within mainline Protestantism began to notice that once kids grew up, they didn’t stick around. “Oh well,” we said, “kids just naturally drift away when they’re in their twenties.” Liberal religion and mainline Protestantism began to decline in numbers, due in no small part to the fact that 80% or 90% of our kids drifted away and never came back.

We said this was “natural,” while turning a blind eye to the fact that other religious groups, like the Mormons, managed to hang on to a higher percentage of their kids. “Oh no,” we said, “we don’t want to be coercive like the Mormons, we don’t want to force our kids to stay in our religious tradition.” We ignored the fact that we were actively training our kids into an extreme individualism that encouraged them, even forced them, to leave us.

We also conveniently ignored the fact that our religious education was built on a deep-held assumption that we really didn’t want our kids to stick around. I had been an active youth leader in my church in my teens. When I tried to go back to my home church in my mid-20’s, I found there wasn’t a place for me. Indeed, I was subtly but actively discouraged from attending church:– many people ignored me at worship services, I was never invited to join a social group or a committee, it was made quite clear that there was no place for a single, childless young man in his early twenties in that church. The idea of closely-graded classes went beyond the Sunday school up into the adult religious community, and there was no “class” for twenty-somethings.

Fortunately for me, a few people like Hrand and Toby and Doug and Kay made sure I felt welcome; and my parents let me join their ushering team so at least I had some role in the church. Hrand, Toby, Doug, and Kay ignored the precepts of “lifespan faith development,” which seems to predict that twenty-somethings will go off and explore other religions. They, and others like them, realized that there were young adults who wanted to belong to that church. Intuitively, they also realized that some of us desperately needed the distributed cognitions built into that church, to help us deal with what was going on in our individual lives.

Contrary to the precepts of developmentalism, not everyone fits into a closely-graded religious education class. Not everyone thrives by being limited to contact solely with other persons of his or her own age. Given that we lose up to 90% of our young people, I’d hazard a guess that most people do not thrive under the precepts of “lifespan faith development.”

IV/ Three broad models

That still leaves us with the problem of how to teach kids to be religious. Given the limitations of the “lifespan faith development” approach, should we jettison it and try a completely new model? If so, which model? Or can we find a less drastic approach?

I’d like to suggest a less drastic approach. “Faith development” — or, as I prefer to call it, religious development — does have useful tools for us to place in our toolboxes. But developmentalism cannot be the only approach we use to teach kids how to be religious; nor can it even be the primary approach. Those of us who are concerned with religious education, spiritual growth and exploration, and religious development can’t limit ourselves to one approach or one way of doing things. We have to consider a range of models and methods for teaching kids how to be religious.

I’d like to consider three broad models and methods for teaching kids how to be religious. These three models and methods are all firmly rooted in congregational life. They are not mutually exclusive, but represent an ecology of mutually interdependence:– which is to say, you can’t do one without the other two. Each of the three grows out of the insights of psychological theory and research. Each of the three has implications for religious professionals, lay leaders, parents/guardians, and for kids.

The three models and methods can be summarized as follows:

(1) Safety and security. Drawing on Abraham Maslow’s model of the hierarchy of needs (and other models), physical and emotional well-being must be secured.

(2) Developmentally-based programs. Drawing on the insights of Jean Piaget and related developmental psychologists, the psychological development of individuals is nurtured.

(3) Distributed cognition. Drawing on the insights of Lev Vygotsky and theorists of distributed cognition, the whole congregation is understood as teaching kids how to be religious.

I’ll look at each of these three models, and their associated methods, in the next three chapters.

V/ Safety and security

Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote extensively about what he called a “hierarchy of needs.” It’s really a basic, common-sense insight: you have to have enough food to eat and water to drink before you start to worry about structure and order in your life, you have to worry about order and security in your life before you worry about having human community, you have to have human contact and community before you worry about self respect and respect of others.

All the above are what Maslow termed “deficiency needs”: you have to have them in order to survive, and if you are deficient in one of these needs, you have to make up that deficiency before you can meet the needs higher in the hierarchy. For example, if you are starving to death, or can’t breath, you have to make up those deficiencies before you can worry about self-esteem. Maslow visualized this hierarchy of needs as a pyramid, with a broad base of physiological needs at the bottom, narrowing to a point at the top.

According to W. Huitt (2004 ["Maslow's hierarchy of needs," Educational Psychology Interactive, Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved 21 July 2006 from]), the apex of the pyramid of needs has “growth needs” that go beyond the four deficiency needs:

According to Maslow, an individual is ready to act upon the growth needs if and only if the deficiency needs are met. Maslow’s initial conceptualization included only one growth need–self-actualization. Self-actualized people are characterized by: 1) being problem-focused; 2) incorporating an ongoing freshness of appreciation of life; 3) a concern about personal growth; and 4) the ability to have peak experiences. Maslow later differentiated the growth need of self-actualization, specifically naming two lower-level growth needs prior to general level of self-actualization (Maslow & Lowery, 1998) and one beyond that level (Maslow, 1971). They are:

5) Cognitive: to know, to understand, and explore;

6) Aesthetic: symmetry, order, and beauty;

7) Self-actualization: to find self-fulfillment and realize one’s potential; and

8) Self-transcendence: to connect to something beyond the ego or to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential.

This psychological model, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, has obvious implications for teaching kids how to learn to be religious. Most obviously, you have to start with the lowest levels of the hierarchy of needs. Children must have the following, in the following order:

  1. Water to drink, food to eat (you may have to supply food if the child’s family cannot give them adequate food), clean air to breathe (a problem in old or poorly-ventilated buildings), a place to void wastes, etc.
  2. Safety including physical safety (building must be safe and secure) and emotional safety (adult leaders must behave appropriately), order and structure, behavioral and other limits, etc.
  3. A human community to which they can belong, and feel welcomed in.
  4. Respect of others, and self-respect.

Once the congregation helps children meet these needs, we can go further and help children get to cognitive learning, aesthetic appreciation, realizing their own potential, and achieving transcendence. A common mistake that many religious educators make is to try to start with cognitive learning, while ignoring safety. When it comes to teaching kids how to do religion, in my experience as a religious educator and minister I find myself spending perhaps half my time at the first two levels: making sure the physical plant is safe and secure, making sure adult volunteers know how to provide emotionally safety and appropriate limits. Then I spend another third of my time at the next two levels: building community and helping create an environment where children can respect each other and respect themselves. Only then do I get to cognitive, aesthetic, and other needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has some real problems and limitations. In one glaring example, self-transcendence can burst in on persons who are starving, or who are experiencing emotional or physical abuse — if you want to use God-talk, God does not necessarily wait for you to be well-fed before manifesting.

In spite of the limitations, I find Maslow’s psychological model of a hierarchy of needs has helped me at a practical level far more than any theory of developmental psychology. To ignore the hierarchy of needs is to assume that every child you try to teach comes from such a privileged background that you can ignore basic survival needs.

VI/ Developmentally-based programs

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 chapter, these closely-graded programs can (and, I believe, should) be mixed in with multi-age programs.

VII/ Distributed cognition

In previous chapters, I mentioned that the theory of distributed cognition shows how children can perform beyond their expected level of competency by being placed in social situations that contain distributed cognition. To put it more simply, a human institution like a congregation has in it the wisdom of the ages, which is made accessible to anyone who is a part of that human institution.

In terms of practical application, I think of distributed cognition as creating healthy congregations as a container in which formal and informal teaching and learning becomes far more effective. To put it another way, religious education theorist Maria Harris has said that the whole congregation is the curriculum. Thus at a practical level, what we want to do is to tweak the congregation so that we allow distributed cognition to happen — we allow children to soak up the wisdom of the ages.

This kind of thing happens in the best schools and universities. We all know of schools where children seem to soak up learning from the moment they walk in the door; and we all know about other schools where even good teachers can’t seem to teach children anything. The same is true of universities, some of which seem far more effective at teaching their students, regardless of the efforts of individual professors.

You can watch this happen in healthy congregations that have the children in for all or part of the worship service. For example, in 2004-2005 I served as the interim associate minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois. When I arrived, we decided that children would attend the first twenty minutes of every worship service with their families. Prior to that, children had not attended worship in that congregation. Parents reported that their children quickly learned the congregation's doxology and covenant, i.e., they memorized what lay at the heart of that congregation; we then made sure that we discussed the meaning of the doxology and covenant in Sunday school. Generally speaking, I felt that children learned as much or more about how to be religious in those twenty minutes, than they learned in fifty minutes of their closely-graded traditional Sunday school classes.

In the spring of 2005, we tried a different experiment in that Geneva congregation. Rather than offering traditional Sunday school classes, we offered a program loosely based on the “workshop rotation” model of Sunday school. We rotated mixed-aged groups through the various workshops, in order that children of different ages could learn from one another. In another experiment, during the Saturday evening worship service, when there were very few children present, we had one group that included children from age four to age eleven. In both these experiments, younger children were able to perform beyond their level of expected competency, because of the influence of the older children. At the same time, because the older children wound up mentoring and even teaching younger children, they, too, performed beyond their expected level of competency. Finally, parents/guardians reported a higher level of satisfaction with the children's programs in evaluations.

From these and other real-life experiments, I conclude that relying solely on closely-graded classes (e.g., classes containing only eight-year-olds or only eleven-year-olds) places real limits on how much religious competency children can gain. So here are some suggestions for utilizing distributed cognition to help children perform beyond their expected level of religious competency:

For school-aged children, the mix of programs might include multi-generational activities (common worship experiences, social events, intergenerational choirs) along with mixed-age programs for children (workshop rotation, and special projects such as young people’s choir and plays) in addition to closely graded classes containing only one age group.

For teens, a mix of programs might include multi-generational activities (common worship experiences, social events), chances to mentor younger kids (teaching Sunday school), opportunities to be mentored by adults (formal mentoring programs), and opportunities to participate fully in the adult community (serving on committees and boards, helping run programs) in addition to closely graded programs such as coming of age programs and youth groups.

VIII/ The limits of psychology

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.

IX/ Flying in the face of common beliefs

I began by saying that the very title of this essay — “Teaching Kids How To Be Religious” — is an absurdity, because you don’t teach kids how to be religious — because they already are religious. Yet at the same time we all know that we do indeed have to teach kids how to be religious. They may be inherently religious, but we know that we also have to teach them how to be religious. I think I can be a little more precise in that statement: Children, all persons, are inherently religious; but children, and all persons, can only be fully religious within community.

Saying something like this flies in the face of common beliefs in the West, particularly in the United States. Here in the United States, we trumpet our idea that each human being is an individual unto himself or herself; we proclaim that like the cowboy gunslingers of our national mythos we can only rely on ourselves; we assert that, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, we are all self-reliant; we say that in religion — as in the free-market economics which represents our highest values — individuals, not families or communities, are the primary unit.

Here in the United States, religious education has been reduced to developmental psychology; it has been reduced to “lifespan faith development.” In this reductionist model, we have one primary method for teaching children how to be religious: we separate them by age, and teach them from a curriculum based on their “developmental stage.” We have become extreme followers of Jean Piaget, going far beyond the assumption that children are like little scientists who figure everything out on their own. If a child fails to live up to our expectations, we label them “developmentally delayed” and imply they are somehow less than fully human.

I find it sadly ironic that religious liberals bemoan the evils of development — housing developments that drive out family farms, economic development overseas that kills off local economies, etc. — while in our own congregations we “develop” our children. No wonder our children do not return to our congregations when they get older:– the contradiction is too much to stomach.

Years ago, John Westerhoff asked the question, “Will our children have faith?” in his book with that title. We have not yet learned how to teach our kids to be religious, and we are still asking that same question. If we are going to answer that question, we have to get beyond our limited, reductionistic models and methods for teaching kids to be religious.

And when I say “we,” I mean you and me:– not denominational officials, not ministers or professional religious educators, not parents, but everyone who considers herself or himself a person of faith. We have to abandon our overly individualistic notions of what it means to be religious, acknowledging that religion has to take place in a community that includes human beings and the transcendent (and probably other living beings too, but that’s a topic for another essay). When you say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual, and that’s why I don’t go to church [or to temple, or whatever],” you are being overly individualistic, you are maintaining an attitude that will diminish the human community that nurtures individuals into faith, and therefore you are indirectly but in a very real sense preventing children from learning how to be religious — to be blunt, you are being selfish, and you are killing religion. You and I cannot delegate the teaching of religion to someone else, hiding behind the insights of psychology in order to do so:– “Children learn best in Sunday school classes, taught by paid teachers, so I don’t need to get involved.” The very fact that you and I are religious (or spiritual, if you prefer that term) means that we are teachers of religion, and we had better shoulder that responsibility.

Teaching kids to be religious is a complex task, one that cannot be reduced to one sentence. Yet when we look at how and why we are failing our children, maybe we can sum that up in one sentence: We are not taking responsibility, as a whole community, for our children. Fortunately, you can change that situation: show up, take responsibility, learn how to teach our kids to be religious.

Copyright © 2006 Daniel Harper. All rights reserved.