Rebekah A. Richert is an Associate Professor of Psychology, and director of the Childhood Cognition Lab, at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on the cultural and social-cognitive dimensions of children’s understandings of religion, fantasy, and media. Richert’s latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, examines how prayer practices and instruction shape children’s concepts of God and supernatural causality. On a recent afternoon, I spoke with Richert about her current work and its implications.

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Steven Barrie-Anthony: Your research looks at how children develop their understandings of religion, fantasy, and media. Why religion and fantasy?

Rebekah Richert: There are parts of our psychological experience that are captured by our religious beliefs, by our imagination and creativity, our fantasy lives, that are rarely able to be tapped into when we look at other more basic types of psychological processes. I’m interested in trying to understand some of the bigger and more abstract types of thought processes that we develop. And a way of doing that is studying how we think about abstract meaning-laden systems like religion.

SBA: You often focus on the influence of cultural factors on children’s developing social interaction. Many cognitive development researchers deemphasize culture and social interaction, or bring it up, as you’ve written, as affecting the content but not the structure of cognition. Will you say more about the position you take?

RR: Some researchers are interested in understanding the overall developmental function of something—like, why does our memory develop the way that it does? And why do we see patterns in memory development occurring similarly across different people and points and time and cultures? Those kinds of questions lead researchers to deemphasize individual differences and cultural processes and to emphasize similarities in timing or structure. I tend to be more interested in the other side of that coin, in the ways in which we as human beings purposefully structure development. And we do this through cultural practices. From that perspective, even if we see something like similar developmental timing for the emergence of a particular skill, it can be additionally structured by very particular and interesting cultural processes.

SBA: And what about the issue of social interaction affecting the content versus the structure of cognition?

RR: This is actually one of the reasons that research directly on prayer is very interesting. In multiple different religious communities around the world, there’s the concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful God—God or Yahweh in Judeo-Christian traditions, Allah in Muslim traditions. And we know from research that, although this concept of God exists at the theoretical and doctrinal levels, in practice it’s very difficult for people in real time to conceptualize God that way. We might know from a belief stance that God knows everything, that’s what people have taught us, but in practice we pray to communicate with God.  So I’m interested in how engaging children in prayer might lead adults to react in real time as if God exists in time and space in the same way that human bodies do, as if God needs information communicated in order to understand what people want or need.

In this case, the cultural process is actually, from the start, structuring the way that the concept of God develops, and understanding this can help us understand the difficulties that adults have negotiating between what feels intuitively right, and what is more complicated at a theoretical or doctrinal level. From this perspective, it’s really about how culture and social interaction structure the nature of religious thinking itself, not just how they fill in a doctrine or ideology into some preexisting structure.

SBA: I wonder if the position that you take puts you at loggerheads with religious folks who view their prayerful relationships with the sacred as internal, as not learned or culturally imprinted but as derived directly from the experience of God—

RR: That’s an interesting point. It can. When I try to explain my work in a way that sounds removed or “objective,” more from a research perspective, there are some religious people who find it not only to be mischaracterizing of their experience but also even offensive. And I try to deal with this in various ways. The first is to be very clear that I’m not in any way, shape, or form trying to prove or disprove the existence of God. And I also try to communicate that we train children in all kinds of things—but we don’t necessarily assume that, say, each child’s experience of interacting with other people is somehow lessened because they had to learn to interact with people. I try to explain that just because we are saying that prayer is actively taught and learned doesn’t have to take away from an individual’s experience of being in the presence of the divine.

SBA: You run the childhood cognition lab at U.C. Riverside. I wonder what you’ve come across in your past research there that frames the research you’re doing right now for the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative?

RR: Two aspects of my other work inform the current study. The first deals with how children think about and learn to understand people’s intentions, what people mean to do by the way that they’re acting. As a graduate student, I worked with Angeline Lillard, who is an expert in how children interpret early pretending—how children learn about pretending, learn that a person is pretending, and come to engage in pretending interactions with people. That led to me being interested in how children understand religious ritual actions. These are not pretending actions, because they serve a particular function. Many are intended to cause some kind of supernatural effect on the world. But ritual actions also have characteristics that, on the surface, make them appear like they’re pretend. They’re more symbolic; they tend to carry more meaning than would a regular functional action, like, say, picking up a pen.

So on the one hand you can look at how children think about people’s intention behind ritual actions. But then, from the opposite end of the developmental process, these are also actions in which children themselves are actively engaged. And a lot of research on children’s pretending suggests that their engaging in pretending, particularly if it involves thinking abstractly and engaging in different types of social relationships, helps structure their cognitive development. Pretending helps us learn how to develop our imagination, to imagine abstractly, to move beyond being limited to thinking about the physical present reality. And I thought it might be interesting to research not only how children think about religious rituals, but how their actively engaging in these rituals structures their religious thinking.  

SBA: And how do we get from there to your current hypothesis, that children’s concepts of prayer will have a significant relationship with how they understand God and supernatural causality?

RR: A lot of the research that looks at how children understand God, and this includes research that I’ve done, breaks down and compares children by age group to arrive at what children at age X think about God. Within every age group, though, there’s a lot of variation. And I’m interested in that variation. Because one of the things we started to see in a recent study, which we’re preparing for publication, is that even between the ages of 5 and 8, we see some children who, for example, think that God has omniscience, and other children who don’t think that. These children are at an age during which other research suggests we should expect them to acknowledge that God has omniscience and access to everybody’s thinking, but we see that some children tend to be more anthropomorphic, to attribute more fallibility to God than we might expect.

So I became interested in what might be contributing to that. And one idea was that by engaging children in lots of ritual practices, we might be inadvertently or implicitly communicating that God doesn’t just know what a person wants—that God actually has to see that ritual action being conducted in a particular way in order to understand what a person is asking from God.

And that in many ways is what we ended up seeing in that study. We saw that among children age five to eight, if they had a sense that God had more limited access to human intention and human thinking, then they were also more likely to think that rituals had to be done in very specific ways, and they viewed those ritual actions as being far more important communicatively than children who thought that God had omniscience and that a person could mess up the ritual but God would still know what that person wanted.

And this led to the current hypothesis that if parents tend to be more focused on having their children preform a specific ritual action in the “correct” way, whatever that is, then their children might have a concept of God that is less omniscient, that is more fallible. And that if parents are less focused on the ritual actions themselves, that we might see that their children have a concept of God as more omniscient.

SBA: Your research, then, seems to suggest that the theological lessons that parents consciously want to convey—for instance, that God is omniscient and omnipotent—may be undermined by the ways in which they teach their children how to pray.

RR: Maybe implicitly through that performance, yeah—

SBA: So it seems that the most religious of these parents—“religious” in the sense of adhering closely to doctrine and ritual and so forth—may end up with children who cleave the least to the parents’ theological understandings of God as omnipresent and omnipotent. And, on the other hand, the least “religious” in this sense among them, parents with less defined ritualistic relationships with the sacred, may end up with kids who cleave more closely to the understanding of God as omnipresent and omnipotent. Is that fair to say?

RR: That’s an interesting hypothesis. I hadn’t really thought about it that way. But based on what I think is happening, that actually may be a reasonable thing to say. Where people more actively and strongly enact and promote religious engagement through these kinds of prayer rituals, the developmental outcome may be that their children, once they become adults, have a more difficult time understanding some of the more abstract doctrines, because their representation of God and God’s properties may be more intuitive rather than explicit.

SBA: I wonder what a religious parent reading your research would take from it, along the lines of a parenting manual for how to raise the sort of religious children they would like to raise?

RR: It could be that what they really want to promote is their children’s sense that they can communicate with God through praying in these particular ways. If that’s what the parents value, then I don’t think they would necessarily see a problem if some of the practices interfere with more abstract understandings. Priests and pastors are there to understand and communicate those.

SBA: Your current New Directions in the Study of Prayer study focuses on preschool-aged children, because they’re at this very interesting stage of development, what Lev Vygotsky calls the “pseudoconcepts” stage.

RR: Yeah, at this stage we see a particularly rapid developmental change in children’s human concepts. They develop, for example, the understanding that humans have limited knowledge and limited perceptions, that we need to observe or see things, we don’t just know them. So a lot of research on children’s concepts of God has focused on this age range because it’s an interesting point of comparison. As you look and see what their human concept looks like, and how that’s changing, then you can dive in and additionally see how they think about other types of agents.

In this study we’re particularly focused on concepts of God, but there’s other research looking at their beliefs about and understanding of other types of agents, like fantastical agents: Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, Superman, all other kinds of agents that have special abilities. Because this is when children are learning that humans have limitations, and they’re able to explicitly tell you that, and so we’re interested in whether or not their concepts of God are following along that line of their concepts of humans.

The Vygotsky “pseudoconcepts” thing is particularly relevant for their development of abstract concepts. Many of the concepts that children in this age range are developing are of things with which they have real world experience. They learn about a cat because they see a cat, and they learn the features of an animal that makes it a cat. But they also develop concepts of things with which they have no direct physical experience; concepts of God are a really good one. And what this means for Vygotsky’s pseudoconcepts stage is that children’s concepts at these ages reflect the input that they’re getting about these concepts. They might not have a concept of God exactly like the doctrinal concept in their religious community, or that even looks like what researchers might define as a concept of God—but the concept is going to reflect the messages they’re getting from parents and from all the activities in which they are involved. So, children’s concepts of God aren’t necessarily going to be completely coherent. But they are going to tell us a lot about what kind of input the children are getting about the concept.

SBA: So, for the current study, you invited to the lab 180 parent-child pairs, evenly divided between Catholic, Evangelical Christian, and Reform Jewish traditions. How do you go about testing your hypothesis?

RR: What happens next is that they go through a series of tests in the lab, which take about an hour and a half. I’ll tell you some of what the children do, because the adults do basically the same thing with slight alterations. The children participate in a series of interviews and games that tap into their concepts of God and their understanding of prayer. They participate, for example, in some standard theory of mind tasks called “false belief tasks.” We are trying to get a sense of whether children think that God just knows things or that God needs to see things, such as what’s in an unmarked box. We also ask the children a series of questions about properties that God might have—whether God needs to sleep at night, eat food, whether God has other of these more human-like properties.

At this point, we take a break with the kids, and have them participate in what we call the “statue task.” They have to stand as still as possible for sixty seconds, which is very hard for children at this age. And we try to distract them, to get them to smile or laugh. This gives them a break, but it is also a measure of their executive functioning, of whether they’re able to inhibit their behavior. Interesting research with children in Native American communities suggests that engaging children in ritual practices helps promotes the development of their executive functioning.

Then we tell the children that we are making a video to teach other kids how to pray, and we ask them to look into the video camera and teach kids how to pray. It’s kind of open-ended. And we ask them a series of questions about who prays in different ways—for example, we might ask the children from a Christian background, “Do all Christian people pray?” and “Can people be Christians if they don’t pray?” And, as we are particularly interested in how children view ritual actions involved in prayer, we show them a series of pictures of a person praying and ask them if, for instance, people always have to fold their hands when they pray, and why they fold their hands when they pray, what’s the purpose of doing that. These questions are tailored to whatever prayer we’re talking about, so for Christian children we focus on the actions of folding your hands and bowing your head; for Jewish children, on actions specific to the Amidah prayer, about washing their hands, taking three steps forward, and keeping their feet together.

And the last thing we do is have the parents and children read a book together. In the book are stories that we manipulate in very specific ways. The stories are about children who really want something to happen, and they pray for that thing to happen. And we prompt the parents to talk with their kids about whether the characters in the stories got what they prayed for, and why. We are trying to get a sense of how parents talk to their kids about prayer, what their instructional processes might be.

SBA: Are there moments where children spontaneously use tools or positions in prayer that the parents hadn’t seem them do before and hadn’t taught them?

RR: That’s a really good question. I don’t know the answer yet—the data is being collected. My guess would be yes, that at least a couple times we’ll see that children will be creating their own actions. One of the things we do ask parents about—I don’t know answers yet—is whether children ever pretend to pray as opposed to actually praying. The extent to which praying enters into their play.

SBA: I also wonder about households of mixed religious affiliation. You have one parent in the lab. But what about situations where children are learning in the home from a Muslim and a Jew, or a Christian and a Buddhist, or a religious person and an atheist? How might that affect the processes and development you’re studying?

RR: That’s a fascinating question. We do ask about whether there’s another adult in the home and whether there’s some conflicting religious ideology. I don’t know what I would expect. Anecdotally, when we talk to parents, if there are conflicting religions, there’s usually some kind of agreement that there’s a primary religion. Or if there’s a parent who isn’t religious and one who is, there’s usually an agreement that the parent who doesn’t believe won’t interfere with raising the child in a religious way. So I’m not sure how much children at this age would be actively exposed to religious conflict in the home. But I don’t think it’s completely unexpected or unheard of. There’s just very little known about it yet.

SBA: Do you have a sense yet of early results?

RR: We are seeing some really interesting things in the parents’ responses about the purpose of various prayer actions, such as holding your hands or bowing your head. We asked them whether they think that God can still hear them if they don’t do these things—do you have to do these things for God to hear you. As you might expect, all of our adults say that they are pretty sure that God can still hear them, but not 100 percent sure. And that uncertainty is reflected in the children’s responses. The majority of children are saying that God can’t hear you if you don’t do those actions, that the actions are facilitating somehow God being able to hear, facilitating the communication with God.

SBA: It sounds as if the parents’ uncertainty is magnified in the children.

RR: Yeah, it’s even more in the kids. The parents tend toward “probably God can hear you,” not “yes, definitely.” And the kids are mostly saying, “no, God really can’t hear you if you’re not doing that.”

We also asked the children why they think that people do these actions in prayer. We told them that some people say that they do them so that God can hear them better; some, in order to stay focused; some, to help them think about God. And we are finding in their responses to these questions that the children mostly think that people perform these actions so that God can hear them better. So, the children think that God doesn’t really hear them if they don’t perform these actions, and that the function of these actions is for God to hear them better. The actions themselves facilitate the communication with God.

SBA: Do you have plans for full-bore longitudinal work in this area, following people over a lifespan as opposed to a few weeks or months?

RR: Yes. We have secured funding to have the New Directions in the Study of Prayer study participants come back to our lab three times. And we’re applying for funding right now to be able to follow them after that for another year or a year and a half, so that we can track how these things develop over time.

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