If you have clicked on this post, you most likely are a spiritual seeker and parent or grandparent. Furthermore, you may be someone who was raised with organized religion but have drifted away from going to church and participating in religious activities at all. You may feel some guilt about this, especially now that you have young children because you want them to have some religious instruction and/or church community experience as you did. At the same time, you do not want to expose them to the disturbing aspects of organized religion that you may have encountered growing up, like forced church attendance and Sunday school, harsh or punitive religious dogma, prolonged catechism/confirmation instruction, or even worse a sexual predator. Yet, you want your children to become kind, honest, secure, respectful, principled, responsible adults. What a dilemma! Like so many disaffected religious people, you may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, but you are not comfortable with your decision. There is a way to resolve your unease. Teach your children spirituality.
What Is Spirituality?
I define spirituality conceptually as an interest in or awareness of an inexhaustible, ever-present, and all-encompassing harmonizing, infusing energy that is larger, fuller, deeper, wiser, stronger, and brighter than we are. This is manifested behaviorally by actions taken to experience, access, deepen, and express that interest. The extreme example of this is the mystic or contemplative, who devotes his or her entire life to unifying with this energy.
Notice I have avoided using the word, God. This is purposeful because the word has too many various, contradictory, and negative meanings to be useful in this context. Besides, I believe one can be spiritual without believing in the Divine. Nevertheless, including a Divine component is most typical, so I will refer to the Divine throughout this post. I have searched for words to substitute for the word “God,” ones that do not have many negative connotations. Here are some of them: the Divine, Higher Power, the Presence, Divine Consciousness, the Radiance, Being, and Love/Intelligence. The last expression I learned from Dr. Thomas Hora, the existential metapsychiatrist in his book Beyond the Dream. His definition of God as Love/Intelligence is very compelling. Choose whatever expression works best for you, because that one will be the one you can best articulate to your children. All of them refer to the inexhaustible and eternal Source which animates, sustains, and enhances all existence.
Teaching spirituality to children seems like a daunting task, because of the abstractness of the concept. Young children are primarily sensory, concrete creatures, so descriptions of God as “spirit” or “love” are apt to elude or confuse them, or leave them somewhat indifferent. There is the story of the little girl who spent her first day at Bible camp. During the day and evening, she was enthralled with all the activities, new friends, and storytelling around the bonfire. However, later that evening a counselor found her crying in her bed. The counselor tried to comfort her in every way she could think of but to no avail. Finally, the counselor attempted to reassure her saying, “God is always with you.” The little girl, unconvinced, replied, “Yeah, I know, but I want a God with skin on.” (Taken from Gently Lead by Polly Berrien Berends.)
Spirituality Is a Daily Practice
Now is the time to put the “skin” on spirituality. Guess what? YOU are the skin! Parents teach spirituality primarily by example. The quality of a parent’s consciousness, what he or she pays attention to, shapes the child’s spirituality. So, the foundation for teaching spirituality to your children is establishing and nurturing a deep spirituality yourself. Polly Berrien Berends in the preface to her marvelous book, Gently Lead, writes, “I didn’t write Gently Lead to tell people how or what to teach their children, but to share my own discovery of what a rich, mutual spiritual journey our ordinary, everyday lives are.”
Incorporating an awareness of Divine presence in everyday life is characteristic of many of the world’s wisdom traditions. In orthodox Judaism, spiritual practices and expressions are woven into the fabric of daily living. One way this is done is by repeatedly reciting the Shema, a combination of passages from the Torah–sacred Jewish scripture. Part of the Shema is in Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 of the Bible.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, and the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Imagine how aware of Divine Presence children would be if their parents honored this practice!
Another example of weaving spirituality into the tapestry of daily living is Native Americans. Their use of ceremony, ritual, symbols, sacred objects, myth, dance, and storytelling established and sustained an ongoing awareness of the spiritual in all members of the community, especially the children. Unfortunately, the loss of spiritual traditions has had a devastating effect on Native American cultures, and only in recent years has there been a resurgence of interest in reclaiming and reenacting these precious and sacred practices.
There are many behavioral practices that are portals to Divine Presence. Ceremony, prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and storytelling are the most common practices. In this post, I discuss ceremony and storytelling. “Teaching Spirituality to Children: Part IITeaching Spirituality to Children: Part IIlooks at prayer, meditation, and mindfulness.
Ceremony is a formalized way to acknowledge, sanctify, or celebrate significant developmental milestones or social events in the life of your family and/or community. An example from orthodox Judaism is the bar mitzvah. This is a ceremony by which Jewish boys, at the age of 13, accept the positive commandments of Judaism and are officially counted as adult members of the community. I recently reread Roots by Alex Haley which recounts several generations of his family history beginning in the small African village of his first ancestors. Recognizing and celebrating transitions such as girls having their first period or boys entering manhood was a constant theme in the life of every family and the community.
The rudiments of ceremony are already practiced by most families when they celebrate birthdays. Why not establish a spiritual aspect to birthdays? A birthday celebration in a spiritual context could unfold like this:
- The immediate or extended family gather together, perhaps a religious representative such as a pastor or rabbi is present
- Parents announce that the child is beginning his/her ___ year, and express gratitude and joy to the Divine for the gift of the child to them and to the world
- Prayers, poetry, songs, storytelling (perhaps a video saga of the child’s development) are shared
- The parents and the child choose an appropriate gift to give to someone else, a worthy cause, or a specific charitable organization, or some charitable act of service is agreed upon such as planting a tree, working at a local food bank, or visiting a nursing home, etc.
- Family shares a special meal, and a gift is given to the child which heightens her/his awareness of the Divine, perhaps a symbol or sacred object
- The agreement to serve is carried out at the earliest opportune time
You may have mighty protests at first from children who are accustomed to celebrating birthdays the usual way! However, I believe the children will come to appreciate these changes. Better yet, is to initiate a ceremony like this on a child’s first birthday, and every birthday thereafter so they come to expect this time to be a spiritual experience.
Other opportunities to establish ceremonies are parents’ birthdays, wedding anniversaries, starting school, beginning junior high school or middle school, seasonal marking points, vacations, and other developmental events and family milestones.
Stories, parables, narrative poems, legends, and myths are rich and deep ways to communicate spiritual concepts from one generation to the next. These methods are, perhaps, the best way to put skin on spirituality, because they typically tell of the exploits, triumphs, trials, aspirations, and inspirations of men and women in relation to the Divine. I remember as a child a well-worn book we had of Bible stories. I was fascinated by David’s victory over Goliath, Sampson’s strength, Ruth’s loyalty, and Moses’ mission to free Israel from the Pharaoh. All the world’s major religious writings are rife with riveting, spine-tingling, and enlightening stories that children enjoy hearing over and over again. I strongly recommend these stories be told or read to children at bedtime, or set aside a special time each week just for stories that express and reveal the Divine at work in people’s lives.
Tell your own stories to your children as well. I am sure you have had your moments of illumination, difficult times when you sought the Divine or unexpected happenings of joy or rescue. Sometimes just sharing gratitude over someone’s kindness or generosity is a way to point to the Divine.
Storytelling and story reading are learnable skills. There are national organizations dedicated to preserving and spreading the art of storytelling, and most of them have local chapters where you can listen to stories or learn how to become a storyteller. The National Storytelling Network is an outstanding resource if you have an interest in pursuing this further.
There is a great need for spirituality, perhaps now more than ever. In the next post, “Teaching Spirituality to Children: Part II,” I will address prayer, meditation, and mindfulness as portals to introducing children to the Divine. Today’s children will be tomorrow’s adults. What will be their contribution to elevating human consciousness?