In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Spiritual Development and Moral Development
  • Spiritual Development and Children’s and Adolescents’ Connection to the Natural World

Childhood Studies Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence
W. George Scarlett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0201


Perhaps no other domain of human development has resisted definition as much as has the domain of spiritual development. Like every term referring to human experience, the term “spiritual” is resistant to definition, in part, because it refers to something experienced personally—a sunset, a newborn’s cry, an act of kindness by a stranger. These and other observables may evoke a “spiritual” experience in one person and nothing more than an interested glance in another. But to abandon the term spiritual because it refers to individuals having their own, personal experiences would be to abandon hope of capturing and understanding profound experiences in the lives and history of humans—including experiences of wonder, awe, moral purpose, and subordinating self to what is experienced as sacred. Furthermore, even if we agree on the meaning of the term spiritual, we are left still with the problem of defining what we should mean by “development.” On the one hand, in studying spiritual development, many have used the term to mean change over time, with expressions of spirituality at different ages given their due and not compared in terms of one being more developed than another. This is how the term is often used within “child studies” and the spiritual child movement—where the aim is to give children and youth their voice and take seriously what children and youth find to be spiritual. The other meaning of development refers to some ordering that defines what we should mean by maturity and to movement toward maturity or some ideal endpoint. This second meaning has often been criticized and discarded by those claiming it locks one into a linear and culturally biased way of understanding spiritual development. The criticism is unfair because in using this second meaning, we see models of development as not necessarily tied to changes over time but rather as providing ways to evaluate the developmental status of persons and actions using explicit criteria for evaluating. And because the criteria are explicit, there is the possibility of meaningful dialogue between those with differing notions of maturity and ideal endpoints. This second meaning is also useful inasmuch as across cultures and across faith traditions, a great many implicitly or explicitly treat subordinating self to that which is “higher,” “central,” or “sacred” as an ideal and as something spiritual. In this article, we will find both meanings being used as we review works whose main function is to bring out the special and valuable expressions of spirituality in childhood and youth (the first definition) and other works whose main function is to understand the emergence (or absence of emergence) of individuals subordinating self to that which is taken to be higher, central, or sacred.

General Overviews

General overviews of spiritual development come in different types, and here, the types represented are the following: an encyclopedia in Dowling and Scarlett 2006; two handbook chapters in separate editions of a major reference for developmental scientists, King and Boyatzis 2015 and Oser, et al. 2006; two edited handbooks on spiritual development in childhood and adolescence, Roehlkepartain, et al. 2006 and de Souza, et al. 2016; two edited books, Lawson 2012 and Yust 2006 (both cited under Spiritual Development and Religious Development); and finally, two journals—International Journal of Children’s Spirituality and Journal of Religious Education.

  • de Souza, Marian, Jane Bone, and Jacqueline Watson, eds. Spirituality across Disciplines: Research and Practice. Norwich, UK: Springer, 2016.

    Here, spirituality is treated within various professions (education, business, health professions, etc.) and within both Western and non-Western contexts. The overarching theme is that spirituality has to do with connectedness to others, to the Earth, and to transcendent mystery. The book is an essential read for understanding how spirituality is talked about in the early 21st century—with its emphasis on individual experiences and individual disciplines and not on any one particular way of defining spiritual development.

  • Dowling, Elizabeth, and W. George Scarlett, eds. Encyclopedia of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2006.

    The encyclopedia provides short discussions of concepts, practices, texts, traditions, and other themes central to religious and spiritual development—a kind of extended dictionary that can be useful for anyone doing research on religious and spiritual development but especially useful for those who do not have a background in religious studies or related fields.

  • International Journal of Children’s Spirituality. 1996–.

    In response to the United Kingdom’s educational system requiring outcomes having to do with spirituality and children’s learning, the journal was created to provide research and a forum for meeting the national mandate and for expanding the meaning of spirituality beyond its older, religious confines. The result has been a commitment to researching children’s meaning making and to children’s rich expressions of spirituality as well as to being more sensitive to cultural differences and to explaining spirituality’s connection to well-being.

  • Journal of Religious Education. 2014–.

    While not focusing specifically on spiritual development in childhood and adolescence, this journal has published influential articles on spirituality in childhood and adolescence—particularly seminal articles expressing the child studies perspective on spirituality.

  • King, Pamela, and Chris Boyatzis. “Religious and Spiritual Development.” In Socioemotional Processes. Vol. 3 of Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science. 7th ed. Edited by Michael E. Lamb and Richard M. Lerner, 975–1021. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2015.

    This latest summary of the field provides an excellent overview of the empirical research focusing on religious and spiritual development, one that separates out research on children from research on adolescents, and one that reflects commitment to explaining children’s and adolescents’ development in multiple contexts.

  • Oser, Fritz, W. George Scarlett, and Anton Bucher. “Religious and Spiritual Development throughout the Lifespan.” In Theoretical Models of Human Development. Vol. 1 of Handbook of Child Psychology. 6th ed. Edited by Richard M. Lerner, 942–998. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006.

    Up until the sixth edition, the Handbook of Child Psychology had never had a chapter on religious and spiritual (R-S) development. This inaugural chapter served, then, to introduce a good many to research on R-S development, but also to introduce the theoretical perspectives guiding that research. The chapter complements King and Boyatzis 2015 by providing more in-depth discussion of seminal works and theories guiding research on R-S development—particularly works inspired by stage-structural, constructivist theories.

  • Roehlkepartain, Eugene C., Pamela E. King, Linda Wagener, and Peter L. Benson, eds. The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2006.

    While the two handbook chapters cited in this section provide summaries of theories and research on R-S development, this edited handbook provides essays written by leaders in the field of R-S development, essays that represent the various topics and themes making up the field. In many ways, this handbook allows a reader to experience the field firsthand—rather than having to rely on a discussion of the field led by a single author or coauthors.

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