THE SPIRITUAL LIFE OF CHILDREN

By Robert Coles

Houghton Mifflin. 358 pp. $22.95

DURING HIS first 25 years of interviewing and writing about children, Robert Coles managed to sidestep their persistent religious questions.

Despite hints from his young subjects that they would like to travel that road of inquiry with him, Coles focused on topics more in line with his secular training in psychiatry at Harvard. In books including the five-volume Children of Crisis, he produced rich documentaries of children living through desegregation, children coming to grips with their Hispanic or Native American heritage, children both blessed and cursed with wealth.

But questions such as these continued to dog him: Why, asked a boy from eastern Kentucky, did God let a coal mine collapse and kill 25 men, including his father? Is God real? asked a more well-to-do Bostonian girl. If so, what does He think we should be like?

Five years ago, Coles decided to report on such youthful spiritual struggles. He says that this is his last book about children and while I'm not sure I believe him, he has given those of us who care about the moral lives of our children a great deal to chew on.

Hundreds of children, ages 8 to 13, were interviewed at home, on long walks, in school and in Sunday School. They were, for the most part, healthy children from Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hopi and secular families, and all had something to say about how God speaks to them and how they listen. In this book they leave no doubt that religious principles, spoken and unspoken, have helped shape their consciences and their everyday lives.

Coles, familiar with the Freudian notion that religious belief is illusion, pushed his young subjects hard to find out if they were merely mouthing the pieties they had heard from parents, teachers and clergy.

Sometimes they were. But more often they had filtered what they heard through their own personal experiences of race, gender and economic class to produce unique interpretations.

Avram, cramming for math and history tests, said his father would tell him to study until dawn if necessary. But God said, "I should keep my mind on where I was going, not just on these tests. There will be other days, not just math quiz days and history quiz days. Live for them, too, those days!"

Ginny, a 10-year-old rushing home from school, took time to help an elderly woman who was lost find her way home and then wondered if "I'd live to be old like her, and if I might meet some kid then, and she'd be like me. Maybe God puts you here and He gives you these hints of what's ahead. . . ."

This is a good news book (no pun on the Christian Gospel intended), for its children are charitable, thoughtful and likeable. Coles says he has heard his subjects be insensitive, callous and gullible, but he has chosen not to write about that. He also does not explore the turbulence and cynicism of adolescence, which might give him far different results.

He spends relatively little time on religion's darker side, the shame and guilt too many children suffer at the hands of know-it-all preachers and Sunday School teachers. For all these reasons, some critics may dismiss the book as a skewed, Pollyanna vision of what he hoped children would find in their quest for life's meaning.

Inevitably, some readers also will be put off by Coles's by now well-known writing style. In order to let people tell their own story, unimpeded by his biases, Coles allows his subjects to run on, editing them primarily for clarity. When he offers an insight or pulls together a summary he is often so profound the reader hungers for more. Reading Coles takes patience and time to pause and savor, not always easy to do in our hurried lives.

Yet to dwell on what Coles might have done differently is to shortchange what is, overall, a significant contribution to research on the psychology of children. There have been pitifully few attempts by respected scholars such as Coles to probe the spiritual life of children.

Judging by this work, that's a pity, for such efforts open a very big window into the way small people experience their world. Is the child's God dictatorial or benevolent? Is the child's favorite Bible story Moses and the Ten Commandments or the Second Coming?

Also, the spiritual conversations of children, not hardened by time or age, teach us the fundamentals of a culture. I was particularly struck by the accounts of several Islamic children, including a 13-year-old Moslem boy who dreamed frequently of battle and a very demanding Allah.

This book also reveals, in bits and pieces, Coles's own spiritual quest. When Coles was a young boy, his scientist father drove the family on Sunday to the Episcopal church and sat waiting for them in the car, reading the Sunday newspaper. As a young psychiatrist making hospital rounds in the 1950s, Coles tried unsuccessfully to make his patients' spiritual concerns fit the orthodox psychoanalysis of the time.

As the father of three boys, Coles sometimes wearied of the trite notions they learned in Sunday school but later delighted in the theological distinctions they were able to make. And as a believer in a largely secular academic community, he took comfort from his friendships with social worker Dorothy Day and novelist Walker Percy, who were both deeply spiritual people.

If indeed this is Coles's last word on children, it is a fitting conclusion, a reminder that, in order to finally understand either this author or our children, we must pay attention to their souls.

Laura Sessions Stepp reports on religion for The Washington Post.