A Topic That Frightens Youth Work

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Let’s talk taboos.

In the not-too-distant past, cancer was unmentionable, even if someone you loved was dying from the disease. We’ve come a long way, thanks to the work of medical researchers and the loosening of social constraints.

Imagine for a moment a different kind of taboo. Picture a nation in which the only place where young people could be educated was in one institution: schools. Once the school bell rang at the end of the day, it would be considered poor form to talk with students about what they were discovering and how it applied to their lives. Imagine how that would limit young people’s cognitive development.

Yet this is our custom when it comes to discussing religious beliefs with young people outside the walls of the faith community: We have relegated it largely to one institution. Not surprisingly, the flurry of public discourse about religion and politics has pushed some of us past our “comfort zone” in discussing faith.

Equally taboo has been the concept of spiritual development among youth. Some simply equate it with religious development; others see it as unconventional or the “personal” side of religion. Because public discourse has remained largely shunned, we do not even have a shared definition of “spirituality.”

There are signs, however, that social constraints are loosening, which could open a long-neglected field of study into a critical area of human development. What we learn from such studies can help enrich youth workers’ understanding of and relationships with young people, as well as their ability to improve young people’s lives.

Here at Search Institute – where we have long believed that the healthy development of young people includes the responsible pursuit of meaning, purpose and contribution – we’ve been grappling with this question: Isn’t the concept of the spiritual development of young people worthy of deep thought, careful study by the social sciences and philanthropic investment?

And we are not alone in wondering. The authors of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, which reports findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion, note that in discussions and activities about understanding and helping teenagers, one aspect frequently goes “unnoticed, unconsidered, unexamined”: their religious and spiritual lives. The authors found that the 250-plus youth they interviewed were largely inarticulate about their faith and spiritual beliefs. (See “What Teenagers’ Faith Means for Youth Work,” March, at www.youthtoday.org.) Nevertheless, a clear link exists between time spent in religious activities and healthy outcomes for teens.

In addition, the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles is embarking on a study of the spiritual experiences of college students. Early findings show that while first-year students were not sure what they believed, most were interested in examining the big questions about the meaning of life. The study encourages colleges to open up ways for students and faculty to explore spirituality and shed light on students’ beliefs, behaviors and attitudes.

As a social scientist for 30 years who has been deeply concerned about how our society engages with and supports young people, I believe we have done a disservice to them and ourselves by ignoring the powerful influence of spiritual development in youth. I propose that spiritual development is an essential and universal stream of human development, the engine that propels each person to search for connectedness, meaning and purpose. While religion may be the avenue some use to explore these developmental processes, it is not the only avenue.

It’s high time we take off our blinders and rigorously look at how spirituality develops over time in young people, so we can nurture it in positive ways in every sector that touches kids’ lives.

In a nation unafraid of this thing called “spiritual development” and free from this taboo:

• Adults would have a shared understanding and vocabulary of healthy spiritual development and would have identified the pathways to that goal.
• The field of youth development and all youth workers would honor spiritual development as one of their purposes.
• Major funding streams would be available to build our knowledge about spiritual development.
• The fields of developmental psychology, education and social work would focus as much energy on spiritual development as they do on other aspects of the human experience.

How spiritual development plays out, both individually and communally, dramatically informs the best of human behavior (generosity, tolerance, altruism) as well as the worst (slavery, genocide, prejudice). To ignore it or relegate it only to religious institutions is dangerous.

Are you ready to tackle this taboo?