Volume > Issue > The Spiritual Life of Children — Part II

The Spiritual Life of Children — Part II

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | December 1985

I mentioned in the last column a distinct and memorable unease that came over me when the mother of a black child of six going through the daily terror of a mob-opposed desegregation in New Orleans (during the school year 1960-1961) took me aside and asked me why I hadn’t yet “ask­ed” her daughter “about God.” My wife, as she read that column, was rather blunt with me, and I guess I’d better put down, here and now, what she said: “You’re being a little blurry around the edges here! I remember you telling me about that mo­ment — and you thought that Mrs. Bridges was a little loony, or simpleminded and naïve. You laughed at the idea of asking a child about God. You said: ‘I can picture the look on my old super­visors’ faces [the child psychoanalysts who were my teachers during my residency years at the Chil­dren’s Hospital in Boston] when I tell them about my conversations with boys and girls about God.’ You said — I remember — that Mrs. Bridges was quite frightened by the mob, and she was telling…you how frightened she suspected Ruby was, too, by suggesting you talk with her about God.”

There was more — the gist of it being a wife’s clear memory of a husband’s psychological reductionism: if the Bridges family was interested in religion rather intensely, if Ruby was preoccupied in any way with God, then there was a reason for it, and that reason was, ultimately, psychological: a frightened and anxious child calling for God’s pro­tection. Or perhaps the reason was sociological and cultural: the child was the product of a given “sociocultural background,” for whom “religion” and “prayer” and “god” are words or “practices” hand­ed down in keeping with certain “traditions” or “rituals.”

I use those quotation marks to indicate an ab­stract, intellectual mind at work — the social sci­ence variety: my way of thinking as I got to know certain children over two decades ago. To be sure, when I had spent a bit more time with such young­sters and their parents I became a bit more “toler­ant” and “understanding” — so I flattered myself in thinking. I had realized eventually (hadn’t I?) how “useful” it was for the Bridges family to pray, to attend church — how “functional” it was, “psychosocially.” I had decided that certain “supersti­tions” (or to use the word Freud did to describe re­ligion, “illusions”) have at least a passing “value” in the history of civilization — a crutch of sorts for families with very little else on which to lean.

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