The interest in personal or individual experience has also led to the uncovering of what has been called the spiritual life of children. It is quite difficult to come into immediate contact with the spiritual experiences of young children simply because children are often lacking the expressive means and especially the language to describe such experiences. Yet the narratives on childhood produced by adolescents or adults often allow-at least for some-a retrospective understanding of children's spirituality. Systematic collection and analysis of such narratives as well as refined interview techniques that permit respective dialogues with young children consistently support the understanding that children do have religious or spiritual experiences and that such experiences are not just due to the influence of a specific type of nurture to which they were exposed in their families. Rather, the ways in which children experience their social and natural environment seem to imply something like a transcendent overtone or dimension that accounts for the religious or spiritual interest of children.
What is most telling in relation to the difference between religion and spirituality in childhood is the observation that many narratives entail a conflict at the point when children, after a certain age, come in touch with institutionalized forms of religious instruction or worship. Even after several decades, people recall the deep disappointment that they suffered when their own religious or spiritual needs and experiences were not addressed by religious institutions or by religious education in school and when the religion presented to them there remained foreign, distant, cold, and meaningless for them. This kind of experience seems to create a permanent split between personal spirituality and official or institutional religion. Researchers aptly describe the contemporary situation in Western countries as a "spiritual marketplace." Through popular culture and the media, children and adolescents are exposed to the influences of this marketplace from early on. Even television advertisement has come to include elements of spirituality, for example, by attaching the promise of deep personal fulfillment to products like cars or perfumes. Offers of psychological help and self-improvement are another case in point. The spiritual marketplace has many things to offer, new possibilities for personal development but also dangerous forms of addictive and exploitative practices. The varieties of spiritual offerings in the marketplace worry many people-not only the representatives of the traditional religions who observe the flourishing of nontraditional types of personal or spiritual life but also psychologists and social analysts who are concerned about the potential abuse of people's credulity. Not everything that toots itself spiritual has to do with spiritual interests-often it is a purely commercial and mundane matter. And not everything leads to personal growth and to the fulfillment of deeper needs but only fits the needs and interests of commercial enterprises.
Distinguishing between religion and spirituality in childhood and adolescence is helpful to the degree that this distinction allows for a new openness and appreciation in respect to young people's needs and longings, their creativity and independence that are not always addressed by the religious institutions in an adequate manner. The distinction becomes shallow, however, when it leads to the uncritical acceptance of whatever appears spiritual while everything religious is considered dated and meaningless. Both, theories of religion and of spirituality, must include a critical potential and critical attitude toward both, the abuse of religion and spirituality, especially concerning children and youth who may not yet be aware of the ambivalences to be encountered in this field full of fascinations.