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How Do Praying Children Imagine God?

Psychologists want to figure out what five-year-olds are thinking as their heads are bowed in (ostensibly) solemn prayer.

“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings,” the Psalm goes, “You have established strength.” And, indeed, there is a forceful purity to the prayers of children. Or so it seems from the outside. But, the truth is, adults struggle to understand what five-year-olds are thinking when they bow their heads in (ostensibly) solemn prayer. Do children have any meaningful conception of god? Do they understand prayer, or is it nothing more than mimicked behavior? Can a child possess faith?

Fatherly reached out to Jesse Fox of Stetson University and Daniel Gutierrez at the College of William and Mary, two experts who have published studies on child psychology, religion, and prayer, to find out what’s actually going through your kid’s mind when he petitions the heavens.

When do children begin to think about God? How does this develop over time?
Jesse Fox: This happens very early, as soon as kids are able to verbalize god. That might be the thing that starts people off—learning the vocabulary. Obviously there’s a strong familial component to that. If you, as a parent, talk about god or about prayer, then eventually kids are going to start to pick up on that as they’re learning to verbalize their environment, and they begin to develop mental models of what each word means. As they grow older and their cognitive abilities become more complex, they begin to think about God in more complex ways.

Daniel Gutierrez: Most likely, your perception of God is different at 16 than it is at 35 and not because your faith wavers, but because you cognitively develop. As you grow older, you grasp more of the great mystery. Children get the rituals and rules pretty quickly [but that doesn’t mean they’ve cognitively developed enough to understand the meaning]. I remember that when my daughter was four we thought it was the cutest thing that she’d pray before bed and say, “God, please help me” because she’d then stop and talk back to herself. “Ok, Jessica.”

Is the notion of a God too complex for a child, developmentally, to process?

Jesse Fox: Kids are very concrete; it’s hard for a kid to understand that God is with you, but you can’t actually point to God in the room. It makes a lot more sense for a kid to think about god as a father, because there’s a father in the room, even if that means they can’t understand all of the nuance. That’s why [protestant theologian Millard] Erickson believed parental bonds and attachment to a parent is the first experience of religion that children have and that, through parental experience, we begin to form our first mental models of what god is.

When a five year old prays, what is he or she thinking about? Do we have a clear idea of how the God they picture might be different than the god pictured by adults.

Jesse Fox: If a child is praying as a way of requesting something, in large part that’s probably mimicking the ritual of seeing parents ask for something from God. We tend to start off fairly egocentric in life, although it’s also not uncommon for adults to pray this way. But what people are hoping to do is move from a fairly commodified or transactional way of interacting with god—I’ll pray so you give me something, a five-year-old asking for a bike. The shift [from childish prayer to mature prayer] is when they can balance their own needs with the needs of others in prayer, recognition that asking for a bike doesn’t make other people’s lives better.

Daniel Gutierrez: Another way of looking at this is that the kid has found God, someone who loves him, and to whom he can turn and ask for something. You don’t ask for something from someone who you think is going to beat you for asking. I ask when I think I’m valued enough to receive. When my kid asks for something, I’m happy they had enough trust in me to come and ask for it. Of course, part of [a child’s prayer] is also egocentrism. You think you’re the center of the world, so even God looks at you and thinks “that kid’s got it together”.  

Do we have evidence of children grappling with faith or an afterlife?

Daniel Gutierrez: I have a friend who used to work in pediatric oncology and the amount of spiritual experiences she had with those children is amazing. I’m not going to speak to it but, from a clinical perspective, I see it all the time. Children are trying to make sense of the world.

Jesse Fox: There’s a considerable body of evidence that children have spiritual experiences. I don’t think that’s really debatable. First of all, every child is more or less aware of the concept of finitude, mortality—every parent dreads the conversation about the pet that died. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that very young people have these spiritual experiences surrounding life and death. At the same time, the quality of these experiences interacts with their environment, which is part of the ongoing debate about how much of this is innate and how much is culturally shaped. The reality is that it’s both—we know from looking at near death experiences that how people experience near death does seem to take the shape of their culture and society. Parents shaping a child’s experience of god seems to be very foundational.

Are children capable of more faith or spirituality than adults?

Daniel Gutierrez: I think all faith traditions have this idea of coming back to the faith of the child. Mindfulness, being a curious observer again, that un-depraved way of looking at the world. Is that an intelligent faith? It’s a blind faith, not sophisticated. But a child still has that faith early on.

Jesse Fox: As we grow older we become more spiritual. Part of the reason why this happens is because we observe our environment, see things die, and realize that one day we will die, and as we go closer to that reality in age, less and less of the world becomes trivial and more and more of the world becomes ultimate. Our consciousness shifts from the trivialities of praying for a bike to asking, “What does my life really mean?” It’s not necessarily easier to have faith as you approach death, but it does make faith more salient.

Does a child’s exposure to imaginary worlds through fairytales and stories influence or inform faith?

Jesse Fox: We tend to equate spiritual thinking to magical thinking. Children think magically, about things that don’t exist. Imaginary friends, fairytales. There does seem to be that kind of process in children. Magical thinking is also “the god of the gaps”—something happened, and there’s this mysterious magician who made it happen. The reality is that spiritual experience is not about explaining something beyond your power to explain, it’s about recognizing the limitations of your own rational thinking. To equate spirituality to magical thinking is, I think misguided.