A Future of Promise: Shaping Our Assumptions about Youth

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jer. 29:11)

He slumped in his chair leaving no mistake that he thought therapy was a bad idea. If Shawn had his choice, he would be fishing, where there were few expectations—unlike home and school. In fishing, he was far away from a world where he felt lost most of the time. To his friends he was strange, to his parents disobedient, to his teachers “learning disordered,” and to his psychiatrist “Attention Deficit Disorder.” In fishing, Shawn found a way to disappear, explaining, “It’s hard to be hurt when you are invisible.” With symptoms of depression and anxiety, Shawn often was unable to enjoy normal pleasures. Fear, anger, and aggression formed obstacles to appropriate relationships with his peers. His capacity to love failed under the weight of the shame of unmet expectation. Adults in Shawn’s life worried about his future. At times, so did Shawn.

Children Are Created in God’s Image

Questions about the future often shape the present. A person’s self-understanding includes who I have been, who I am, and who I am becoming.1 If each one is born in the image of God, then personal identity emerges—from childhood through adulthood—characterized by a sense of meaning that is rooted in belonging to God. This journey, much like the wanderings of the people of Israel, can be told as a history of spiritual development where the promise of a hopeful future is not determined by one’s talent, opportunities, or efforts, but by the providence of God’s hope-filled future. In Shawn’s case, the future was buried under the present.

The goal of spiritual development is to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. In God’s perfect plan, children are formed under God’s loving and watchful eye. They are born vulnerable and dependent on loving parents within the covenant of Christian marriage. Communities encircle the family, providing support, opportunities, and patterns of righteous living that ensure the safety of all its members. Children are full members in God’s worldwide church, joining with other believers in wholehearted worship that honors God and God’s creation. Whether in dedication or baptism, a child’s arrival is celebrated as a gift entrusted to parent and congregation as a “talent” worthy of their stewardship.2

Spiritual Development

Parents and adults guide children to a promising future by attending to a child’s successful achievements and good character. Spirituality is an important and often overlooked part of this pursuit. In the broadest sense, spirituality refers to human potential for self-transcendence. Philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that this transcendence is evident in the varying personal and social demands that provide us with a meaningful identity.3 Spirituality, understood in this way, implies that a person’s capacity for transcendence is embedded in relationships to others and ultimately to God.

Spirituality prompts us to ponder the “big questions” of existence, morality, meaning, and purpose. Just as the ability to ponder these questions varies with cognitive and social development, one’s capacity to engage spiritually is subject to a developmental process as well. As such, spiritual development—like other aspects of human functioning—is dependent on the existence of developmental “nutrients” such as loving relationships, role models, and opportunities for righteous living. The presence of developmental “toxins” can likewise retard or distort spiritual development.

In a fallen world, children and relationships can be damaged.
Children thrive in developmental environments where parental love, adult support, and meaningful activities provide a context for growth. Lacking these resources, children are vulnerable. Consider how children like Shawn have biological vulnerabilities that predispose them to learning disabilities, impulsivity, depression, and anxiety. Family relationships may be cold or hostile, or the child may simply be abandoned. Communities may lack the basic resources of safe neighborhoods, caring schools, and opportunities to develop constructive life skills. Societies can be damaged by poverty, warfare, racism, sexism, oppression, and violence.

Children need healing within families, communities, and churches.
The insidious nature of sin is passed from generation to generation. Wounded children need special care and attention so that they may be healed. This care includes devoted daily attention and affection from adults who value each child’s God-given intrinsic worth—adults who view the child as God’s promise for a hopeful future.

Without such care, it is almost certain that children will carry into the future the sin that has been done to them. This is especially true for victims of war, violence, and sexual assault. Many children living without basic resources turn to illicit and illegal forms of economic support. Without intervention, such children may not recognize themselves as children of God, bearers of hope, and recipients of God’s promise. Children need to hear about God’s promise to fill their future with hope. For theologian Jürgen Moltmann, “Every child is a chance for the reign of peace and the decrease of violence and power.”4 Children who live in environments that impoverish spiritual development need adults who will see the promise of God’s bright future, a hope rooted in an understanding that God will restore power where there is none and return order where there is chaos. Children need to know that God promises that good lies ahead and that the future is bright because of his Lordship.

Resilience is the normal response of children.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of development is that even those youth who grow up under the threat of adversity and disadvantage respond with resilience. Young people with access to positive resources are more likely to overcome the obstacles they encounter. This tendency toward growth and flourishing is a routine aspect of the “ordinary magic” of development.5 Missing this magic, children may slip from their expected path of development and lag behind in their personal and social achievements.

Strengthening the Developmental Infrastructure

One response to troubled children is to reduce their exposure to negative influences. Parents safeguard their children from everyday toxins, so in similar fashion parents, schools, churches, and communities should seek to isolate children from the risks that result in poor developmental outcomes. Personal and corporate sin leave children widely exposed to a broken world.6 Prevention and intervention efforts in this approach focus on isolating or removing these negative influences, thereby giving primary attention to the problems.

An alternative approach focuses on the resources children need as well as the risks they face. Enhancing the developmental environment of children by increasing developmentally supportive resources increases the likelihood that youth will thrive. Increasing opportunities for constructive activities is one resource that promotes positive development. Others include supportive parental involvement and supervision, a positive school relationship, involvement in religious community, and economic opportunity. Increasing the number of resources in the lives of children likewise increases the likelihood that they will develop along a positive trajectory.

In addition to ensuring that children develop skills and competencies necessary for the future, it is essential that adults pass on values and principles consistent with God’s word. Early Christian writers emphasized that parents and churches were to be “good stewards” of the children that God had entrusted to families and communities.7

Children should be prepared to live in relationship with God and each other in society, brought up in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality, and solidarity. Values should be transmitted with caring, committed mentoring relationships with adults. Children need adults who can be readily available to them and serve as their advocates. Adults need to give their time to get to know and care for children deeply, modeling respect for the child’s parents, cultural identity, language, and values, and for the cultural background and values of others. Children of minority communities and indigenous populations have the right to enjoy their own culture and practice their own traditions and language. They need adult role models who can pass on the cultural traditions that have sustained their people for generations. Finally, children must have time and opportunity to engage in leisure, play, and cultural and artistic activities.

The Role of the Church

The church is a crucial provider for young people: In addition to Christian education, church communities offer mentors, opportunities to serve, and positive relationships with adults and peers. Research shows that children who are actively involved in congregations have more resources and fewer risks than their peers.8 The church can be rich in developmental nutrients when children are valued and given critical roles in God’s kingdom that develop their unique gifts. They learn positive values regarding their bodies, sex, and relationships from parents, peers, and significant adults who model healthy parenting and marriages. A healthy congregation enacts the gospel’s message of love, sacrifice, and forgiveness.

Vital to preparing young children as participants in the next generation is to invite them to become followers of Jesus. Adults must spend time and effort by inviting young people to become disciples of Christ, grounded in his life and teachings, and by communicating to young people that to be Christian requires both a personal and corporate faith. The local church must welcome children and bring them fully into the life of the body. As participants, children can reciprocate by giving according to their gifts and developmental levels (Prov. 20:29). Jesus also teaches that children are to be models of the way we receive God’s kingdom (Matt. 18:3–5). We are not given the opportunity to serve God because of our knowledge, power, or status, but rather we are given the opportunity to enter the kingdom simply because we are God’s beloved children.

1. William Damon and Daniel Hart, Self-Understanding in Childhood and Adolescence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
2. Catherine P. Roth and David Anderson, trans., St. John Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s, 1986), 71–72.
3. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).
4. Jürgen Moltmann, “Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope,” Theology Today 56 (2000): 592–603.
5.  Anne Masten, “Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development,” American Psychologist 56 (2001): 227–38. Masten describes resilience as the ordinary magic of development, underscoring the ready potential of children to adapt and achieve in adverse circumstances. Her observation is in contrast to the expectation that resilience is a rare or exceptional response in development.
6. Cornelius Plantiga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).
7. Nonna V. Harrison, “Raising Them Right,” Theology Today 56 (2000): 469–80.
8. Linda Wagener, James Furrow, Pamela King, Nancy Leffert, and Peter Benson, “Religion and Developmental Resources,” Review of Religious Research 44 2003: 271–84.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Winter 2006, “Psychology and Spirituality.”