Meaning, Values and Spirituality in Children and Youth

Submitted by admin on 14. December 2013 - 17:59

Symposium on Meaning, Values and Spirituality
in the Development of Children and Young People

The Centre for Social Pediatrics, Cantonal Hospital of Winterthur, Switzerland, in collaboration with the Club of Rome, organized a scientific Symposium on Meaning, Values and Spirituality in the Development of Children and Young People on 5-6 December 2013. The Centre, as part of of its daily work with children, young people and parents, as well as in discourse with experts, frequently focuses on the question of values and ideals, and how these are communicated. What are the reference points for adolescents? What are their wishes and aspirations? Who are their role models; what are their guiding principles? In childhood, it is usually the parents that communicate purpose and values. But when dealing with the challenges of our globalized world, adults also sometimes experience insecurity, asking “What it’s all about?” – material independence, happiness, love, faith, knowledge…? Can faith – a spiritual foundation – help children, young people and adults find fulfilment and contentment?

The symposium was of particular interest because it provided a scientific perspective on many of the issues being addressed by the International Environment Forum, although the focus of most speakers was Europe rather than the whole world. The multidisciplinary perspectives from sociologists, psychiatrists, theologians, educators, and even a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, highlighted some key issues about religion and spirituality in the modern world and the challenges ahead. The decline of interest in the environment among young people noted by some speakers is of particular concern. The following paragraphs provide a synthesis of the main points. A full report and list of speakers is at


Values are what people wish to have, what is important, anchored in emotions. They can be discussed but are not easily challenged. In principle they determine action (but not always), since putting values into action is difficult. The system of values arises in small group or family situations, forming a personality, and sometimes drawing on tradition. There is a reward in following values, and breaches can cut off friendships. Small group values produce private harmony with a partner and friends, but also responsibilities. A personal identity is formed through social rules, and includes creative and emotional dimensions. The world of business or work has its own values and laws. Supplementary or optional values can include those of the consumer society and lifestyle, and an overarching awareness expressed as religiousness or spirituality, as well as ecological and health consciousness. Old people see religiousness as tradition, while young people turn more to ecology and health. There can be social commitment, but politics has no appeal. Values are usually stable in the short term, but not in the long term. In the last 30 years, there has been a decline in overarching conceptions and an increase in consumption values; social commitment is declining and tradition increasing.

Each generation has its own values orientation. In England, after the baby-boomers (born 1945-1960) with their counter-culture, freedom and authenticity, and Generation X (1961-1981) of pop culture and consumerism, Generation Y (1982-2001) has grown up with the information technology revolution, climate change, terrorism and the credit crisis. They show a clear decline in the Christian worldview, as faith is not passed on by their parents. In their benign worldview, their core value is relationships, and their goal is happiness (shallow or deep). What is important is being oneself through individual effort, to grow to a happy ideal, which is meaningful as it is. Life is basically ok, and there is no need for searching, for spirituality. Secular ethics (relating to others, making the right choices) are important, but spirituality is formative rather than transformative. Bad things can happen, so you turn to popular culture to provide information, but it is difficult to admit failure or acknowledge problems. If you are unhappy you are excluded, so you keep it inside. In the faith of Generation Y, there is no room for God, but an immanent faith in family, friends and self, requiring authenticity and being true to oneself. There is occasional mild speculation on the “big questions”. There are still fragments of Christian culture. Prayer is culturally available, but God is not obligatory. Prayer is used for petitions, confession, gratitude and dealing with shame. One first turns to family and friends, with prayer only a weak backstop.

The genesis of a value orientation depends on the group. For those with religiousness, a strong personal God leads to strong values, social commitment and a strong family. Those with a vague religion turn more to the environmental aspects. For other groups, religion has no effect. A good family life is important at all ages, while the importance of a good partner emerges at 18-20 years old. Friends and identity are important sources. For self-responsibility versus conformity, the importance of independence increases up to age 21, then decreases. There is a desire to develop imagination and creativity and to discover one's own feelings. For secondary virtues, the acceptance of social roles increases, while respect for law and order declines after 21. The importance of tradition shows a major decline from 12 to 25, as does a belief in a traditional God. There is a decline of religiousness, with only fragments of spirituality remaining. Belief in hard work has increased greatly, probably due to increasing competition for jobs, but with an instrumental concept of economically-competitive performance. The importance of a high standard of living declines with age. Tolerance of other opinions has decreased in the last decade, and there is a resistance to militant ideologies. Environmental awareness has collapsed; youth have lost interest in the topic, which is mostly defended today by those over 60. With respect to the conditions for religion to play a part in modern life, a release from superstition can permit spirituality to assume any form, with more free spirituality. The intensifying social networking is creating more loyalty, and there is still a need to find a real value in life.


Why did religion evolve? While religions refer to revelations from God, a scientific/anthropological view notes that all cultures have constantly-evolving religious systems. Religion is a human phenomenon not observed in animals, and an expression of human needs. The symbolic expulsion from paradise and separation from God took millions of years, as man developed reason and evolved self-awareness, intentionality, and the ability to understand and to influence the state-of-mind of other people. Self-knowledge comes at a high price, as we become aware of the dangers and unavoidable death. We feel expelled from innocence and ignorance (Eden). This created the need for re-bonding (religion), thinking about a higher power that can read your mind, and thus the breeding ground for religious systems. A baby starts with full belonging, then forms a personality and separate identity, but isolation is the end of the world. Religion provides paths to transcend the self, as part of nature and life, with rituals, dance, music and worship services, to acknowledge that we belong to the community, to God. There are two forms of awareness: self-interest and belonging/connectedness. Religion is part of our relationship to the world.


Religion is a part of culture, in interaction with other social systems, a process of communication using a system of symbols and world views with normative functions. It provides a connection between a community and its individual members, legitimizes the distribution of power relations, and provides an identity through affiliation or exclusion. There is a tension in religion between innovation and tradition. Religion is a complex system to communicate and integrate at multiple levels, based in a culture and society. Today religion is rooted in democratic systems and regulated by the State to ensure religious freedom.

Religions are by far the most sustainable organizations in the world, persisting for thousands of years. Yet today everything that is beautiful, moving or spiritual is replaced by data, while meaning is not communicated by numbers, but by narrative. Our values consciousness or subconsciousness is passed on in ethos. The ecological and climate change crisis with a linear time line to apocalypse simply paralyzes action. We discuss what to do and how to do it. The values questions are why? Why care? Why show charity, defend the weak? Why be committed? Why keep going?

Diversity is important, with a need to develop a sense of self-worth in a pluralist world. North-west Europe is the exception, not the norm, where faith values are seen as negative strait-jackets and GDP ignores values and faith. We never hear about values enhancement. The Chinese are reconnecting with religion, since community values have survived there only in faith. There is a hunger among the young (under 35) for change about spirituality (not religion), with an emphasis on values and morality. How do we help young people to find their way among many stories, religions, ideologies? Diversity moves the planet, not uniformity; we should celebrate diversity, being proud of our own tradition but open to others. We should draw on the powerful narrative forces of art, poetry, religion, and sport, with celebration, not a dirge, and bring romance into economics. There is no environmental psalm book or joke book; a sin book does not work.

Among the young, religious world views are being replaced by secularization, individualization and relativism, but youth want experience that will give them a values orientation. Growing children have questions, like about death and dying, that religion can help to answer. At puberty, faith may be caught between poles or contradictions: power-powerlessness, justice-injustice, meaning-lack of meaning.

The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child includes a right to spirituality, so religion is a fundamental human right for children.


The concept of God is an interpersonal event, both real and imaginary, and an emotional and intellectual challenge, that can identify support and help in life. Conceptions of God are always changing and remain unfinished. People with secure childhood attachments see God as loving, caring and close, while those with insecure attachments feel unworthy of God's love, see God as remote and cannot relate. To educate children positively about God, an infant starts with primal trust in the parents. By the second year, God shows mercy but has both sides. At 3-5 years, God should integrate their reality, with language and words, so they can think for themselves. In primary school, children can understand shades of grey, different forms of God, and relative justice. Puberty is a time for guiding without indoctrinating, a positive approach without hidden commitments. The ideal belief is a search for God that never ends, with a concept always evolving and moving (or it will fossilize).


Values and spirituality are important for children. Values are things that are part of a good life, that provide points of reference. Children should have examples of love, and practicing values, with the possibility to fail, stumble, and learn from it.

The consumer society is a danger for children, with a globalized and commercialized world of brutal and erotic advertising, with profits for the few, and many losers. Naive inexperienced children cannot resist these pressures and suffer badly. They become passive consumers, dependent financially and with their motivation undermined. The omnipresent pressure to consume is reflected in the screens everywhere forcing us to consume visually. Radio, TV, computers are saturated with advertising. Morality is gone, with everyone fighting everyone. We are victims of attention theft, forced to watch, leading to hyperactivity and pathological multitasking. We should not play this game, which undermines society financially and morally. The remedy is to communicate creativity to young people, how to do things themselves without instructions or manuals. Give them space to win the self-confidence of having done things themselves. Create independence, free will and responsibility.

With the separation of Church and State, religious interest is vanishing. In modern secular life, there is no instruction of children in religion, certainly not in northern and eastern Europe, less so in Catholic countries. Yet the cultural significance of religious traditions is part of general education. Peaceful coexistence and tolerance are threatened by ignorance of religions. Today there is no right belief, and for some any belief is fundamentalist. Theological intolerance has gone, although sects require isolation to uphold their truths.

One option is instruction in religion and culture as part of the primary school curriculum. The presentation of major religions can be neutral and informative, not a call to belief. There is no religious indoctrination, and teachers do not have to be believers. Children are not educated to a faith, and are not penalized for not believing in God. There is no clash of cultures. Godlessness is not important in a non-believing society, but immigrants bring in their faiths, so they must be included in education. Spirituality has not disappeared; the questions remain, and religious experience is part of education.


There is a clear connection of religion and health, with religious people psychologically and socially healthier, from a strong basis for self-esteem, better coping strategies, and the social support of like-minded people. Faith helps those who strongly believe it will help them, similar to the placebo effect, or a nocebo effect if you believe in a punishing God. A meta-analysis on physical health shows that religiosity/spirituality reduces mortality by 20%, even 30% for women and those with more organizational activity.


While there are extreme cases of religious and spiritual abuse, these risks can be managed and should not be an excuse to exclude all discussion of religion with children. There is a danger of indoctrination or spiritual abuse, where a punishing, sanctioning God leads to guilt; and of subjection to a religious dogma, where religion may trigger or be drawn into depression, psychoses and other mental disorders. Religious or spiritual abuse can overload and switch off the natural tendency to empathy. Some religious groups use hypnotic space, internal focussing or guided affective imagery to leave people open to a guru's suggestions which can lead to dangerous dependence. Also children whose parents hold radically-different views of religion may be traumatized by the tension, especially if the parents separate.

A full report and list of speakers is posted on the IEF web site at

Last updated 14 December 2013