Reference Work Entry

Handbook of Child Well-Being

pp 1171-1207

Religion, Spirituality, and Child Well-Being

  • Kurt BangertAffiliated withWorld Vision Institute for Research and Innovation Email author 


In this chapter, child well-being is related to the concept of spirituality. Spirituality is addressed both as a recent social phenomenon and as a new field of research. To prepare for a definition, spirituality is first distinguished from religion and religiousness before an attempt is made at giving a core definition and a comprehensive definition. Spirituality is then related to the concepts of spiritual development, spiritual education, and spiritual well-being, and the question is asked: How can spiritual well-being be measured – and achieved?

Spirituality is a fairly recent social phenomenon that may be a reaction to the trend of secularization and the turning away from traditional religion. There may also be a kind of counterrevolution against the tide of materialism and economic rationalism which led David Tacey to speak of a “spirituality revolution” (Tacey, D. (2004). The Spirituality Revolution. The emergence of contemporary spirituality. London/New York: Routledge).

In child research, too, there has been a surge of interest in spirituality and spiritual well-being, as can be seen by recent publications on the subject, accompanied by efforts to involve children as experts on their own spirituality. Children seem to have a natural, even inborn, spirituality, regardless of their being religious or not.

There seems to be an ambiguity with regard to the relationship between spirituality and religion. “There’s religion, and there’s the spirit,” Robert Coles quotes his own son as saying (Coles 1990, p. xvii). While some people see spirituality overlapping with religiousness, many others see a clear distinction between the two. Hence, this chapter investigates in what way the two concepts overlap and where they differ. The key to sorting out this problem may be in a person’s genuine experience – call it religious or spiritual. That experience is said to be an encounter with transcendent reality – or, at least, with a reality that is beyond the self.

Researchers have struggled to arrive at a consensus with regard to a definition of spirituality. This chapter looks afresh at the definitional problem. It takes a close look at an important survey on children’s spirituality, drawing lessons from it in order to approach the definitional problem. As a core definition, this chapter follows Benson et al. who describe spiritual development as “the process of growing the intrinsic human capacity for self-transcendence in which the self is embedded in something greater than the self” (Benson et al. Applied Developmental Science 7:204–212, 2003). But this chapter also goes a step further in offering a comprehensive definition involving the following six components: (1) congregational grounding or embedment, (2) relationship with others (family, friends, peers, and neighbors), (3) relationship with oneself, (4) relationship to a transcendent reality, (5) values and convictions, and (6) sense of responsibility. Such a broad, all-encompassing definition is deemed necessary not only to honor the holistic nature of spirituality but also to ensure that spirituality can be understood as positively contributing to children’s well-being.

Lastly, in order to ensure spirituality actually does have a positive effect on children’s well-being, this chapter looks at how spiritual well-being can be defined, achieved, and even be measured. Spiritual well-being is defined as the contribution that spirituality (the capacity for self-transcendence) can make toward the fulfillment of a child’s unique potential. It is also assumed that only by measuring spiritual well-being on the basis of well-defined indicators will we be able to document the positive effects of spirituality.