Andrew Park is the son of academic parents who were disillusioned by formal religion. Although Park briefly attended a Presbyterian church as a teen, he freely admits it was more for the social opportunities than for spiritual guidance. His wife, Cristina Smith, was raised Catholic but left that church as a young adult. Their shift in thinking began when their son started attending preschool in a Methodist church and the curriculum included a half hour each week of child-friendly religious discussions and activities.
"We were slightly uncomfortable with that, but we loved the preschool and didn't want to switch," says Park. Then when their son started babbling happily at home about God and asking spiritual questions, Park and Smith panicked--and not because they worried about him being exposed to religious beliefs. "Instead, we felt kind of bad that we, his own parents, had been ignoring this obviously important part of his personal development," says Park, who went on to write a memoir, Between a Church and a Hard Place, about his personal struggle to remain "church-free" yet still share spiritual values with his two kids, now 8 and 6.
Park has hit on a hot-button issue for many parents. For a significant number of Americans, "spirituality" and "religion" are synonymous; if you believe in one, you're automatically committed to the other and define yourself as a Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Protestant, or member of another denomination. But the fact is, almost one in six Americans today is unaffiliated with any particular religion. Indeed, young adults under age 30--today's and tomorrow's parents, essentially--are the most likely to be living religion-free lives.
So if you or your spouse is sitting squarely on the spiritual fence--unsure of what the heck you believe in--or if you've already opted out of formal Sunday church services, can you still nurture some sort of spiritual development in your kids? Absolutely, says Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso of the Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, in Indianapolis. "You're not teaching math," she says. "You don't actually have to have the answer key on this one."