Somewhere around the age of nine or 10, my eldest daughter, Lucy, voiced her desire to go to a church in our neighbourhood. It was Good Friday, and Lucy wanted to go through the Stations of the Cross. The request was completely out of the blue; as parents, we had provided very little in the way of religious encouragement, and our holidays were far more secular than sacred. But just as suddenly as her churchgoing side appeared, it was soon gone.
A surge of interest in faith, and questions about spirituality in general, are not uncommon as children edge closer to adolescence. It’s part of the long process of identity formation – figuring out who they are, what they believe and where they belong. Children brought up in more observant families may also start to question their own beliefs around this time.
“I was 11 or 12 when I started thinking of religion,” recalls Toronto psychologist Susan Walker Kennedy, president of the Child Psychotherapy Foundation of Canada. “I explored a bunch of different churches. It’s about trying to find who you are in relation to your family, and how you’re unique.”
?It might just be a phase
American developmental psychologist James Fowler identified six phases of faith development in his book, Stages of Faith. In adolescence, Fowler wrote that children start to go through a so-called “synthetic, conventional” stage – which may last a lifetime for some people – characterized by conformity to the authority of the church teachings, the group and its leaders.
Exploring faith or spirituality may also be a way of bonding with peers while differentiating oneself from the family. My daughter, now 19, says her sudden desire to become a churchgoer had to do with our own lack of interest. “I felt bad because we only celebrated religious holidays in the commercial way,” she says. “Plus, church was fun and the stories were kind of cool. I don’t think I ever believed them, necessarily.”
Let children explore their faith
Parents should encourage kids this age to explore their interests, as difficult as that might be in some situations. “Allow them to express what they value in the new religion or activity – why they believe what they do, why they think their faith is important,” says Walker Kennedy. “And remember that this doesn’t mean they’ll stay with it. Most people will end up back where their family is.”
A version of this article appeared in our June 2012 issue, with the headline “Matter of faith” (p. 80).