Browsing the Book Mill shelves Monday afternoon, I found a small pile of treasures to bring home. One of them is Robert Coles’ book, The Spiritual Life of Children, which feels like a natural flow from the book I read on the airplane to and from Amsterdam, Composing a Life by Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead, which had been a gift from Liana several years ago, and took on new meaning as I read it the second time around. It turns out Robert Coles was a friend of Erik Erikson, whose wife was featured in Composing a Life, small world perhaps, but one I am entering with curiosity, the world of those who study and write about people and how they live and grow..whether from the point of view of anthropology, memoir, and biography, like Catherine Bateson in Composing a Life, or from the point of view of a medical doctor, child psychoanalyst, and field worker studying the lives of children and layering his experiences and observations with literary and poetic interests, as Robert Coles does in his books, of interest to me right now, The Spiritual Life of Children.

I took time to read before bed Wednesday evening after working with the children, again yesterday morning in a coffee shop before my afternoon kid time, at bedtime last night, and again this morning, just before the children arrived in the day care to start the day. It’s sinking in slowly, but what I wanted to write about this afternoon is how the book is helping me think about the day with children. Mostly, as I’m a slow reader, I have read the Introduction and the first chapter, which help me to frame Robert Coles’ thinking and the timing of this book in his lifetime. What interests me is that this book came relatively later in his career..and was inspired in part by a comment when he was searching for the next project, by Anna Freud, who suggested Coles look back at some of his earlier work, in which he had interviewed children around the world in an attempt to understand their moral thinking, how they coped in crisis situations, and the cultural contexts in which they lived. When Coles and his wife looked back at their earlier work, at collections of children’s art and conversations, they found many missed references to children’s interest in spirituality, which lead Coles to want to devote study and a book to this aspect of children’s development. Coles was not a religious man, though his children, at his wife’s organization, did attend religious education classes, and Coles seems interested in the impact that had on his family. When he tried to secure support for this new project, he found it more difficult to get backing to explore this topic, perhaps given who he is or the nature of the topic..and while he eventually did, this makes me think the book is a labor of love, rather than a book aimed at commercial success. In any case, I’m glad I found it.

Today’s conversations and explorations with the children remind me how much of children’s lives are devoted, as Cole says, to making meaning of the world and trying to understand our place in it. The children respond to the basic elements, the sun, sand, water, wind, light and shade, hot and cold, with renewed awareness each day. When the sun came out at breakfast time, one three commented that we would now need our “sun suits”. Another child was concerned he didn’t have one. A third commented that she has a swimming suit, which allowed the second to tell us about his swim suit, a sweater and shorts, just like his dad’s. The impulse to make sense and meaning, to create a coherent narrative for the immediate experience of the day, drives the children in ways that make the world fresh for me.

Later, at lunch, the children noticed that the room had darkened, and as young children often do, asked who had turned off the lights. I remarked that the cloud had gone over the sun, but wondered if that had any meaning for the child.

On our walk to the park, the children were happy not to need their jackets, proud I might say. They walk bolder the first few days without them, swinging their arms at their sides, running powerfully from one stopping place to the other for the running game. As soon as we began to walk, we saw we were surrounded by flowers, first purple ones on a low wall, then bright yellow forsythia on the corner of that wall, then pale pinkish white on the magnolia across the street, even green on a maple down the way. The children find this worth shouting about, look, purple! yellow! AND GREEN! The world is new each day for them, in one way or another. At two and three and four and even five their experience of seasons is still brand new, worth commenting upon and rejoicing over in full force.

At the park, the baby only eats rocks and sand and sticks and leaves. I spend the entire time taking them from his mouth. The twos wonder why he does this, as they no longer do and don’t remember when they did. I explain that putting things in his mouth is the baby’s way of learning about the world. Tasting things, feeling them, holding them in his hands and mouth tell him what they are all about. Some might not call this spiritual, but it is certainly a drive for the child to make meaning, to find out how the world works, to identify more clearly his place in it, even what he likes and what he doesn’t, to gauge his relationship to others. When I say Yucky as he lifts the leaves to his mouth, he smiles, takes it out, says something I feel sure is an attempt at “Yucky.” At pickup time his mother tells me he is doing something similar in German with her, responding to her use of the German word for yucky by pausing before putting something in his mouth..nice to see these early forays into language are developing in bilingual parallel!

The older children are fascinated, now the earth has thawed, with digging in the sand. One girl fills a bucket for what seems to me like hours, then places sticks all over the top of the sand. Another girl comes and identifies it as a birthday cake. The first girl agrees. The children pretend all the time to make fires, laying sticks on the ground in piles. I wonder at how many have seen this done by adults, how much of this impulse comes from within. Several children sit in a circle and dig and dig and dig, making a large hole in the middle of their circle, filling buckets, but mostly digging a hole. Children will do this for hours, days, seasons..digging holes to where and for what? I still don’t know, but they all do it, year after year after year.

Robert Coles talks of children’s impulse to create monsters, witches, and other evil creatures as a way to make sense of the bad stuff in the world, not so much as an immature impulse, but as a way to create a story to account for what might not be rational. He talks of children living in poverty or war as they wonder how a god, who perhaps their parents talk about and believe in, could allow the suffering that they see. Children do seem to come with an innate sense of fairness, and many, it seems, can recognize, perhaps more easily than many adults controlling the world, when things are not as they should be, when a group of people is not getting their fair share, or a particularly heavy load of bad luck is hitting one part of the world or another.  It seems reasonable that a witch or a superhero might be an easier way to manage this dilemma than explaining how an omnipotent god or powerful humans could make things as they are.

I haven’t gotten far in the book. I hope to keep reading. Knowing me, I may not make it to the end. I do expect the book to feed my work with children and for my work with children to enrich my reading of the book.  It makes me wonder, when I read about Herbert Coles revisiting his earlier work, and finding, when he did, that he had missed opportunities to talk with children about their spiritual beliefs, what sorts of conversations lie ahead in the book I’m reading and in the work I do, as well as what opportunities I’ve missed thus far in my own thirty years of working with young kids.

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