Nurturing the spirituality of ‘tween’ youth can help to develop Unitarian Universalist identity as faith becomes practiced with the use of story and ritual. This toolkit is a resource for anyone hoping to nurture the spiritual lives of tweens.
Tweens, defined as youth, ages 8-12, are a group ranging from 12 year old teenage wanna-bes, to 8 year olds not yet there at all.
Most Tweens are in Fowler’s Mythic-literal Faith stage. Children at this stage are able to start to work out the difference between facts and fantasy. At this age children’s source of religious authority starts to expand past parents and trusted adults to others in their community like teachers and friends. At this stage, faith is something to be experienced and children think in concrete and literal ways. Faith becomes the stories told and the rituals practiced.
If a tween has been raised in a faith community, they have perhaps been attending traditional Sunday morning classes since preschool. More often than not, the tween years start to be a time of being pulled into other activities or choosing not to attend at all- thus taking away any chance for faith formation. There can also be some speculation on how much a teachers interventions during sporatically attended Sunday morning faith formation classes affect young people’s spiritual development. I was concerned with the following:
- Are tweens spiritual lives being left untended?
- Do parents and guardians feel prepared to help develop their children’s spirituality?
- What kinds of experiences will folks need to have in order to internalize these ideas?
- How can I create a toolkit that can enhance the lives of tweens, and also deepen their Unitarian Universalist identity?
This notion led me to research Tween spirituality for my Fah’s Fellow Project through Meadville Lombard, and led me down a path to find ways to engage tweens in the work of developing spirituality.
I was concerned with information that would be of use to professional religious educators, ministers, lay leaders and parents.
I also wanted to target not only the self-selected group of people who are already choosing to be a part of a church community – but also those who might not be involved, or able to attend on a Sunday morning.
For my research, I used a variety of sources. First of all, looking at anything available in the Unitarian Universalist world, but also outside into academic work done by religious education researchers and other authors and professionals. I also talking with parents of tweens in my own faith community where I serve as the Director of Religious Education, and of course, spent hours and hours with a group of 11 tweens- both being in practice of spiritual work and then having conversation about the work being done – deciding upon what was working and what could be different or better. I also spent time looking at various curricula already available in order to gain a better understanding of any gaps that might exist.
In interviews with parents/guardians, I simply asked:
- What kinds of supports do you (your family) need to assist with spiritual development of your tween?
- The everydayness of the spiritual – how important is this for your family and for your tween?
Answers were what you might think – families were interested in ways that their tween could experience spirituality in a safe setting that spend time with adults modeling spirituality and enhancing it for their own child. An overwhelming response I received was that parents and guardians feel as though another trusted adult from which to have deep conversations and ask tough questions is invaluable. It was also stated that the everydayness of the spiritual was an important factor.
In a survey with the tweens, I asked questions like what is spirituality? What rituals are your favorite (I listed some examples), do you have a spiritual practice? Why is social justice important? Who are some people in your life, other than your parents and guardians, that you feel safe sharing with? Do you remember stories you hear at church?
Before they answered the surveys at the conclusion of the church year, I defined each of the following for them.
The answers were all over, but within some “I don’t knows” etc, there were some real gems. Some Rituals that were stated were: thankfulness cuddles, minute of silence, stone check in, lighting the chalice, joys and concerns, opening up a gift of pajamas on Christmas Eve as a family. One of the tweens stated, ‘a ritual is something you do in hopes of feeling spirituality.’
In terms of defining spirituality, the tweens most often stated that it is a “feeling” and also that it is something you have when you are connected, or in nature. One students stated that a spiritual practice is something you “do to feel peaceful.” They then stated, “spiritual practice for me is drumming.” Almost everyone stated that “being together” was an important factor in spirituality.
I also contacted other religious professionals to find out how they might be addressing the needs of tweens in their congregations. Everything I heard fit the mold of traditional Sunday morning religious education.
The New Way! – What new or alternative practice did I propose and how did it work?
In the book, Children’s Spirituality: What it is and why it Matters Researcher Rebecca Nye suggests that children’s spirituality can be sidelined, even closed down, by the side effects of our teaching. Jerome Berryman says that in regard to children and youth spirituality, it calls for us to enter into genuine and open relationship with children and youth. I knew that I needed a structure for being with tweens that was different than other approaches used in more traditional Sunday School religious education settings. Researcher Lisa Miller wrote in “The Spiritual Child” that often for the child, inner spirituality and what they learn in religion classes are often thought to be the same thing. They do not reflect upon their own internal spiritual life as separate from what others teach them about religion as a road to spiritual growth. However, as the children enters early adolescence, what they think of spirituality (similar to what they think of music, politics and curfews) starts to separate from the opinions and teachings of the adults and society around them. They must be given the time and space to dive into this work. Researchers Crawford and Rossiter assert that for young people, there are different starting points of interest from which their spirituality seems to emerge including: religion, art, literature and nature. For some the driving force may come from a concern for social justice. It may start with an interest in local issues or in more global ones. Another starting point is strong identification with a particular group of marginalized people and a willingness to take up their cause.
From my research I determined that I would create a case study group including these elements:
- A group of tweens with a co-facilitator and myself as a religious professional facilitating and writing lesson plans
- A time to meet other than traditional Sunday mornings – we chose Wednesday evenings and met every Wednesday from September to the end of May
- A covenanted framework that would become very familiar and that included elements of ritual, spiritual practice, community/trust building as practiced in Circle Process as described by author Kay Pranis, and a focus on stories connected to social justice issues. From here, I further took the UUA Social Justice Statements and connected relevant children’s literature to them.
- I also made the tweens very aware of what it was I was doing, and asked them along the way about the experience.
- From my experience, I now have a toolkit created for anyone to use in order to recreate part of all of this particular framework as well as a resources
Berryman, J. W. (1995). Godly play: An imaginative approach to religious education. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
Crawford, M. & Rossiter, G. (2006). Reasons for Living: Education and Young People’s Search for Meaning, Identity and Spirituality. In M. Crawford & G. Rossiter. Reasons for Living: Education and Young People’s Search for Meaning, Identity and Spirituality: A Handbook (3-20). Camberwell, Vic.: ACER Press.
Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco: Harper.
Miller, L. (2016) The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving. Picador.
Nye, R. (2009). Children’s Spirituality: What it is and Why it Matters. London: Church House Publishing.
Stewart, S. M., & Berryman, J. W. (1989). Young children and worship. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.