CYC-Online 57 OCTOBER 2003
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the whole child

The spiritual dimension in Child and Youth Care work

Robin Jackson reminds us that, quite apart from a child or youth's own family and cultural background, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child refers to the spiritual development of children

In seeking to address the subject of the spiritual well-being of children and young people, I may be accused of straying into territory traditionally the preserve of others. But the spiritual well-being of children is not the monopoly preserve of religious bodies. Those working in the child care sector have a responsibility to attend to the spiritual needs of children just as much as their physical, emotional and social needs. If we are to take a truly holistic view of the child, the spiritual dimension cannot be excluded. It is to be hoped that this short article may encourage discussion where there was once silence, and prompt appropriate action where there was once institutional inertia.

I am concerned that our fear of abuse within programs is leading to the creation of an overly cautious environment in which child care management is increasingly resorting to forms of defensive professional practice designed to minimise risk. In this litigious age, when the issue of minimising risks is discussed, more often than not, we are talking about risks to management, not to children! If risk reduction becomes an overriding concern, we will inevitably witness the emergence of sterile and stultifying child care environments in which opportunities for personal growth and development are significantly reduced. Hermetically sealing children in a protective, aseptic cocoon and denying them expressions of warmth, compassion and understanding, whether through touch, speech, facial expression, or gesture must adversely influence their intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual growth.

Perhaps the greatest impact is on the spiritual growth of the child “an area in child care which has been consistently and surprisingly neglected, despite the fact that the right to spiritual well-being is firmly embedded in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Whilst reference to meeting a child's spiritual needs is explicit in only a few clauses, recognition of these needs is implicit throughout the Convention. A clear duty is placed on all relevant bodies to ensure that a child's spiritual well-being is nurtured in the same manner as his or her physical and intellectual well-being. Thus, all carers have an ethical responsibility to recognise and respond to spirituality as it is presented within all human beings and they must be equipped to recognise, understand and deal with this dimension (Jackson & Monteux, 2003).

Placing vulnerable “frequently emotionally deprived “children in institutional environments where staff are either discouraged or not permitted to offer affection, reassurance and comfort is to expose children to a most pernicious form of abuse. In such a setting no kind of meaningful relationship is possible and without that relationship the chances of the child experiencing spiritual growth are negated. The creation of such “care-free” regimes flies in the face of the spirit and intent of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Spiritual well-being, which may have everything or nothing to do with religious belief and observance, is an integral and essential aspect of everyday life. It can be defined as a sense of good health about oneself as a human being and as a unique individual. It occurs when people are fulfilling their potential as individuals and as human beings; are aware of their own dignity and value; enjoy themselves and have a sense of direction; can sense this quality in others and consequently respect and relate positively to them; and are at ease with the world around them (Crompton & Jackson, 2003).

Spirituality has been identified as one of the most important factors that structure human experience, beliefs, values and behaviour; it is that aspect of human existence that gives it its humanness. Spiritual well-being may be nurtured and enhanced in many ways. For example, Margaret Crompton has shown the value of life story books with children in care and the way in which they can help clarify a child's relationship to the world and to other people (Crompton & Jackson, 2003). Margaret presents the case of “Mark” who is a 10 year-old boy with limited verbal skills and poor school attainment. In order to express emotion and to discourage attempts at conversation, “Mark” often resorted to making animal noises. However the illustrations which he drew to accompany Margaret’s typed sheets of their abbreviated conversations, were superb, delicate, accurate and imaginative.

“Mark” had endured a number of moves, from home and between foster homes, with no sense of security or base. Since most of his temporary homes had been near a particular river, they collected postcards of and leaflets about the river. By the time “Mark” and Margaret parted, he had a substantial folder of stories and drawings about and by himself: his life concretised and celebrated. Life story work of this kind has the potential of helping children develop a sense of self, of connectedness with their unstable worlds, of delight in their own achievements and of self-esteem. Through telling stories and drawing, children can develop oral skills which are transferred into conversation. Also since these activities take place in close and sustained proximity to an adult, relationship and communication skills are also developed. Although the first intention of the life story book was to enable “Mark” to cope with any possible transfers, his developing sense of self will have enhanced his spiritual well-being.

Extracts from the United Nations Convention

Article 17: States Parties recognise the important function performed by the mass media and shall ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health.

Article 23.3: Recognising the special needs of a disabled child, assistance extended in accordance with paragraph 2 of the present article shall be provided free of charge, whenever possible, taking into account the financial resources of the parents or others caring for the child, and shall be designed to ensure that the disabled child has effective access to and receives education, training, health care services, rehabilitation services, preparation for employment and recreation opportunities in a manner conducive to the child's achieving the fullest possible social integration and individual development, including his or her cultural and spiritual development.

Article 27.1: States Parties recognise the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.

Article 32.1: States Parties recognise the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.

There is a concern on the part of some that permission to discuss spiritual matters with children can lead to situations where children are coerced into adopting the religious beliefs and prejudices of particular staff members. But as Friesen (2000) has pointed out, responding spontaneously to children's questions on spirituality is different from staff imposing their religious beliefs on the children or initiating conversation on such matters before the children ask for it. It is unfortunate if staff feel afraid to speak with children about spiritual matters because they are fearful of reprisal or being told that it is wrong to engage in such discussion. When a relationship of trust and mutuality develops between staff and a child, it will be natural for them to share parts of their life story with each other and to share what they think is valuable and important in their life. In Friesen's opinion, this is the essence of spiritual care (Friesen, 2000).

What is indisputable is that many care staff feel uncomfortable about discussing matters of a spiritual nature. This may be because they feel professionally unprepared for such a task or have spent so little time in reflecting on their own spiritual well-being! Others may feel that discussing such matters takes them beyond the boundaries of their professional competence and territory. Those responsible for the training of care staff may argue that the absence of any reference in government guidelines to the necessity of addressing the spiritual needs of those receiving care, places no professional obligation upon them to take any action.

There is then an urgent need for care managers and workers to receive appropriate training, on qualifying, post-qualifying and in-service courses. But spiritual care and support does not result from the acquisition and application of a series of techniques and skills, it comes through sharing together and learning from one another. It comes by addressing questions which relate to the value and meaning of life (Swinton, 2001). Discussions are currently under way in Scotland to explore the possibility of introducing into existing social care qualifications a component which recognises, respects and supports the spiritual well-being of those receiving care. Whilst there is no absolute certainty that such a component will be accepted, there is a growing consensus in Scotland that this area, so long neglected, can no longer be ignored.

Until the promotion of spiritual well-being of children receiving care is accorded the prominence it merits, those responsible for managing and working in child care facilities are likely to persist with practices, consciously or not, that inhibit the spiritual development of the children in their care. There is an urgent need, too, to restructure professional practice in such a way that the primacy of relationships is re-established, for human services will only flourish if they are imbued with humanity. As Jackson and Monteux (2003) have observed: “If a more socially responsive, responsible and genuinely inclusive society is to be created, we need to promote, respect and cherish the humanity which resides in every child.”


Crompton, M. and Jackson, R. (2003) Spiritual Well-being of Adults with Down Syndrome. Southsea: Down Syndrome Educational Trust. [In press]

Friesen , M. (2000) Spiritual Care for Children Living in Specialized Settings: Breathing Underwater. New York: The Haworth Press.

Jackson, R. and Monteux, A. (2003) Promoting the spiritual well-being of children and young people with special needs. Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, 2(1), 52-54.

Swinton, J. (2001) A Space to Listen: Meeting the spiritual needs of people with learning disabilities. London: The Foundation for People with Learning Difficulties.

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