Jacqueline D. Woolley
Department of Psychology
The University of Texas
Children’s concept of prayer
◦ As ritual
◦ As personal conversation
Increased attention within psychology to
children’s religious and spiritual development
Developmental transitions in children’s
concept of prayer
 Woolley & Phelps, 2001; Bamford & Lagatutta, 2010
Increased attention to use of prayer in
therapy with children
 Walker, Doverspike, Ahmed, Milevsky, & Woolley, in press
Does children’s concept of prayer develop
from one in which prayer is primarily
understood as ritual to one in which prayer is
viewed as a personal conversation with God?
How is children’s concept of prayer related to
their beliefs about its efficacy in ameliorating
emotional distress?
How does this vary as a function of children’s
religious background?
Four- to 10-year-old children from 2
Christian and 2 Jewish denominations
Primary tasks: Understanding of prayer as
ritual and as private conversation with God
Additional tasks
Awareness of different types of prayer
Concept of God
Individual differences in creativity, theory of mind
Family religiosity differences (parent questionnaire)
Age: Children between the ages of 4 and 10.
◦ Previous research in my lab (Woolley & Phelps,
2001) shows that 4-year-old Christian children
have a rigid notion of prayer, believing that it can
only be engaged in at certain times and in certain
◦ Research by Bamford and Lagatutta (2010) shows
that, whereas younger children claim that positive
emotions motivate prayer, older children (by age 8)
claim that both negative and positive emotions
motivate prayer.
Religious background: Christian, Jewish
◦ Christianity. Prayer is practiced both communally
and privately. There are few requirements regarding
characteristics of person/people praying.
 Catholicism – more ritualistic
 Methodistism – less ritualistic
◦ Judaism. Prayer is practiced primarily communally.
Ideal form of prayer involves at least 10 Jewish
males. Prayers are chanted and meticulously
 Orthodox – closer adherence to restrictions (more
 Reformed – loosening of restrictions (less ritualistic)
◦ 1. Children’s conception of prayer as ritual versus
as private conversation with God
◦ 2. Beliefs about motivations for engaging in each
type of prayer and potential outcomes of engaging
in each type of prayer.
◦ These will be assessed by the use of
 A) interviews
 B) story tasks – children predict character’s behavior,
story is completed, children explain why and predict
character’s emotional outcome
Different types of prayer
 “Gimme!”
 “Thanks!”
 “Oops!”
 “Wow!”
- Rabbi Marc Gellman
Concepts of God
◦ Anthropomorphism
 Does the extent to which children grant human-like
characteristics to God affect their understanding of
prayer as conversation?
◦ Beliefs about God’s abilities
 What kinds of acts is God capable of?
◦ Beliefs about God’s temperament
 Is God mean or nice?
 Ability to generate personal prayers
Existence of Imaginary Companion
 Expertise in communicating with unseen other
Theory of Mind
 Advanced social and perspective taking skills
1. Children may develop from holding a
ritualistic view of prayer to viewing prayer as
a personal conversation with God.
2. Children may view personal conversation
with God as more therapeutic than ritual
3. These may vary by religious background.
4. This information will inform us about
children’s religious and spiritual development
and can also be used to structure prayer
interventions in therapy.