Child and youth care (CYC) is a professional field focused on the care and nurture of children and youth, which currently includes concern for spiritual development in its approach to children and youth.
The field, which is international in scope with strong European roots (where it is sometimes called psychoeducation) combines concern for the both the educational and developmental needs of children. CYC work, which may be located in schools, hospitals, jails, youth centers and clubs, churches, care agencies, residential settings, and so on, focuses on the healthy development and best interests of children and youth. CYC draws on a number of operational principles:
1. The growth and development of children and youth is central to understanding them in the context of their life space or environment. Children and youth are always embedded in contexts that include their familial, social, cultural, and political circumstances and history which shape their lives.
2. Children and youth need to be viewed from a perspective of social competence rather than from a pathology-based orientation. They have skills, insight, and understanding based on a range of positive and negative experiences.
They are always making choices and negotiating for the best outcomes for themselves, and need responsive care in the midst of their daily lives, and especially in the face of conflict, distress, and difficulty.
3. In order to meet children and youth in the midst of their lives, child and youth care workers develop therapeutic relationships with them and their families, engaging in direct day-to-day work with children and youth in their environments.
Children live their days in family, personal, public and institutional settings and CYC professionals go into those environments to support and accompany children.
In the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (1989), spiritual development is acknowledged as an area of childhood development worthy of protection. Articles 17, 27, and 32 call for both standards of living that would allow, and legislation that would protect, children and youth from economic exploitation that would prevent them from experiencing healthy physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development. Note that religion is protected under separate articles that include other elements of education, cultural heritage, and practice. As well, competency standards established in North America for CYC professionals reflect these assumptions and list spiritual development as one of seven areas of development that CYC workers are expected to be aware of as foundational knowledge for their practice.
It is clear that children and youth can and do have spiritual experiences, beginning in their younger years, often without the explicit awareness or support of adults, and that those experiences can and do affect their ways of perceiving the world and being in it. Because children live in families and cultures, they may also have particular religious traditions that shape them and their ways. They may have spiritual experiences and develop spiritually with or without a religious context. Some children's spiritual experiences may be private and internal, and not dependent on religious content, knowledge, or context. Other children may have a close relationship between their spiritual experience and their religious understanding of that experience.
This distinction is important for CYC workers who are employed in a wide range of settings where they must work with children and their families in culturally appropriate and sensitive ways that respect family traditions, including religious beliefs, while being concerned for the healthy spiritual development of children and youth. Professional ethics require that a particular religious or doctrinal position must not be presumed or imposed on the child, youth, or family, and that at the same time the CYC worker responds to the family respecting their existing religious or nonreligious position.
Attention to spiritual development in CYC is currently hindered by the lack of readily available materials and research to support a knowledge base for practice and in the training of CYC professionals. Only the most recent life-span development texts include references to spirituality or spiritual development, and confusion persists that tends to equate religion and spirituality.
Research in the field is beginning to show that children and youth, from early in their lives, have a wide range of intuitive and beyond-the-self experiences that can have significant impact on them. Because children are, for the most part, living in environments where those experiences are ignored, belittled, or denied, they have not been given the opportunity to express, interpret, and integrate those experiences into their developmental processes.
Questions are being raised about the impact of significant childhood life experiences that are not given space in a child's life. There is concern that suppression of these experiences may either sever children from confidence in their own perceptions and experience, or cut them off from a wider range of emotional experience rendering them less sensitive to others and perhaps to their own needs. The concern is that this may be making them vulnerable to a range of higher-risk behaviors harmful to either themselves or others. If healthy development requires attention to spiritual processes and experience, it is the responsibility of CYC professionals to broaden their understanding of the lives of children and youth to include spiritual development, and to create safe nurturing environments where children can explore and express their spiritual selves.