The Spiritual Origins of Childhood

By Thomas Armstrong

Children. Who are they? Where do they come from? Questions like these are generally not asked in this culture, except by children themselves, seeking answers to their own origins. The answers that are given by parents, teachers, and other adults in society usually have to do with conception, the processes of gestation, and physical birth. Yet these explanations say nothing about the origins of consciousness. They refer simply to material and biological events.

Each psychological school has a different idea of the infant world. To the behaviorists, it is a tabula rasa or "blank slate" upon which life's events are to be inscribed as the child grows. To the Freudians, it is a mass of libidinal impulses and urges which need to be tamed and channeled in the course of development. To the cognitive psychologists, including Piaget, it is a bundle of primitive sensorimotor structures which will eventually evolve and mature into abstract thinking in adolescence. Each of these models views the child as emerging from less into more.

Assuredly these perspectives leave something out. What is omitted is that part of childhood which Wordsworth talked about in his famous "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood":

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, / And cometh from afar: / Not in entire forgetfulness, / And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home: / Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

If children are indeed travelers from another place, then in order to fully understand them, their moods, their habits, and their ultimate needs in this world, we should have at least an inkling of where they came from. And naturally, to understand them in this way is to understand ourselves and our own origins as we have all traveled the same route through infancy to our present adult state.

Theosophical writers see the child's nature as an immortal spiritual soul descending into a material physical body, having passed through many levels of experience on the way to birth. To the Sufi mystic also,

the infant that is born on earth brings with it the air of heaven. In its expression, in its smiles, even in its cry you hear the melody of the heavens. The Sufi point of view is that an infant is an exile from heaven, and that is why its first expression on earth is a cry. -- Hazrat Inayat Khan

There are some recent stirrings within the academic and scientific community which show the beginnings of an interest in these matters. Thomas Verny, a Canadian psychiatrist, has reported in The Secret Life of the Unborn Child on several scientific studies which reveal that the child in the womb experiences far more than was previously thought possible. Several psychologists have performed studies where adults were brought back to the time of their birth and before, and reported vivid memories which were later corroborated by parents, doctors in the delivery room, and others. Perhaps the most fascinating research of all is that being done by Ian Stevenson, a University of Virginia psychiatrist, who has interviewed scores of children from around the world who have reported memories of past lifetimes. After collecting their memories, he traveled to the villages they reported having come from in their previous existence to verify their stories. In many cases he discovered startling accuracies in their "memories" of other lives. Stevenson's research, recorded in academic papers and books, promises to reveal a whole new dimension to child development studies.

This new perspective can help account for certain things about children which contemporary psychology and medicine seem unable to satisfactorily explain. Certain dreams, fantasies, and "stories" which children tell may in fact be accurate reports of experiences they have had on nonearthly levels of existence. Stevenson has pointed out how the notion that children have come from other lifetimes helps to explain why they sometimes have fears, prejudices, or preferences which can't be accounted for in terms of anything that has happened to them in this life, and why parents occasionally have a strong attraction or repulsion with regard to one of their children. He suggests that this may have to do with the fact that they had a particularly close or stormy relationship in a previous lifetime.

This broader perspective can help parents to "let go" of their children and allow them to grow according to their own unique rhythms and patterns of growth. It gives empirical support to Kahlil Gibran's famous statement about children: "They come through you but not from you."

Most spiritual and religious traditions agree that we are here on earth for a purpose and that children need to be helped to develop their egos and assisted in coming to grips with this earthly existence. Yet at the same time, children have a need to "remember" their spiritual origins to help sustain them through the trials and difficulties they may encounter while here on earth. Children have an instinctive memory of "other" worlds. This may not come out as explicitly as the past-life memories reported by Stevenson, but it does take form in every child's fascination with fairy tales which often are allegories that describe the structure of these "other worlds" from which the child has descended. It is also revealed through play, dreams, and other forms of imaginative and artistic experience.

The arts, storytelling, music, and other forms of holistic and spiritual education help children to learn the "rules of the game" without having to sacrifice their visions of an earlier existence. If parents would speak to their children in the language of myth and fairy tales, through the medium of dance, music, and art, as well as from their spiritual understanding of life's mysteries, then they could help them to "remember" and at the same time to find a place for themselves in this sometimes strange and alien world.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press. Excerpted from Mothering, Summer 1984, with permission. Mr. Armstrong is a doctoral student in East-West Psychology, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco.)

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