What Do Children Understand About God?

AM Note: While I began this post with a personal anecdote, the remainder of the piece is based on the work of scientists studying child development. Because a few people have asked about citations, I'm including a few sources at the end of the piece; it's not a complete list of my reading on the topic, but it does include some of the key work.

Every Sunday, you can find me in church. The only reasonI won't be there is if I'm sick or out of town. My particular church, a smallCatholic parish, is a blast and a half (you'll have to trust me on that), and Ilook forward to the priest's sermons: I always appreciate his thoughtful takeon God and the moral issues of the day. But, lately, I must confess that I'vebeen a little distracted (Sorry, Father).

Instead of paying attention to the service, I find myselfwatching the young children scattered throughout the pews.

I know that children understand the Bible stories. Theyquickly master the religious ceremony: they know when to say "Amen"or be quiet. And toddlers point to a statue of Mary and authoritativelyexplain, "That's Jesus's mommy."

But I'm fascinated when I see kids – four and fiveyear-olds – clasp their tiny hands together, then solemnly bow their heads inprayer. While clouds of doubt occasionally darken my countenance, the faith ofthese children seems comparatively effortless. And I wonder:

What do kids understand about God?

Jean Piaget – the Swiss early pioneer of childdevelopment – concluded that children were incapable of having a true conceptof God; they just thought of Him as a supersized, magical version of theirparents. But more recent research is suggesting that Piaget was underestimatingkids.

Children as young as four understand that a prayer isqualitatively different than a wish – that it's a special kind ofconversation between them and God.

It's around that same age that kids show someappreciation of divine omnipotence and omniscience. They can explain to youthat a person made a car or a pizza, but it was God who made the mountains.

By five or six, they understand that, even though Mommiesare very smart, God knows things that Mommies can't know. And they have afluent enough mastery of that principle, that they can predict God's superiorknowledge in novel circumstances.

School-age children believe that God is in direct controlof their lives – much more so than adolescents or adults.

Interestingly, specifics of the religious culture don'tseem to matter. Five year-old Mayan kids are just as adept at explaining God'somniscience as Christian kids living in New Yorkor Michigan.

95% of American parents profess a religious affiliation,and many of them say that their religious beliefs directly impact theirparenting.

But the science says they have it backwards. It isparenting which dictates children's vision of God.

When parents are more supportive of a child's autonomy– giving her a sense that she is control of her own life – a child ismore likely to see God as a more forgiving God. God is an authority figure tobe respected, but He is less fearsome.

On the other hand, if parents are extremely strict andpunishing – dictating every moment of a child's life – their childrenare more likely to believe that God is punishing, angry, and powerful. Girlsare more affected by this dynamic than boys, and the way Mom disciplines hasmore of an affect in this direction than the way Dad does.

And for children who have extremely strainedrelationships with parents – or when a parent is absent from their lives– scholars have found that children in those relationships increasinglythink of God as a surrogate parent. God as the Ultimate Father Figure. Theyendow God with the traits of an idealized version of the missing parent –someone who is caring, attentive, and highly involved in their day-to-daylives. He's an understanding, patient confidant, always there to offerencouragement and support.

While those kids may be missing a parent's influence,most adolescents are struggling to get out from under a parent's authority.Teens' need to carve out a domain under their own control is very real. Andthey bring their frustration with their parents to their relationship with God.

In a recent study by ClarkUniversityprofessor Lene Arnett Jensen, conservative Protestant adolescents had some verymixed things to say about God.

The God of Adolescents is judgmental, disapproving, andunforgiving. He isn't very loving. His supernatural gifts are akin to those ofthe Devil. On the whole, adolescents seem more negative – almost hostile– to God than at any other time in their lives.(Sounds to me like their God is a crossbetween a parent, a popular Mean Girl, and a college admissions officer.)


on kids' understanding of omniscience, Barrett et al, "God's Beliefs vs. Mother's...," Child Development, vol. 72, no. 1, pp. 50-65 (2001)

on adolescents' perspective of God, see: Jensen, "Conceptions of God and the Devil Across the Lifespan: A Cultural-Developmental Study of Religious Liberals and Conservatives," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 48, no. 1., pp. 121-145 (2009). See also Good and Willoughby, "The Role of Spirituality versus Religiosity in Adolescent Psychosocial Adjustment," Journal Of Youth Adolescence, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 41-55 (2006)

on prevalence of belief in God in the US: See Salmon, "Most Americans Believe in Higher Powers, Poll Finds," Washington Post, June 24, 2008, p. A02 (reporting on a Pew Foundation report) (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/23/AR2008062300813_pf.html)

on children's views of God corresponding to parenting:

de Roos, "Young Children's God Concepts...," Religious Education, vol. 45, no. 1, pp. 57-71, et seq. (2006);

Dickie et al., "Mother, Father, and Self: Sources of Young Adults' God Concepts," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 36, pp. 25-43 (1997)

Dickie et al, "Parent-Child Relationships and Children's Images of God," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 36, pp. 25-43 (1997)

Boyatzis et al, "Survey and Diary Data on Unilateral Transmission...," Review of Religious Research, vol. 44, no. 3, pp. 252-270 (2003)

Nelsen and Kroliczak, "Parental Use of the Threat 'God Will Punish..." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 23, pp. 267-277 (1984)