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Teaching Spirituality to Kids

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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."

The Fair factor

Of course, that also doesn't mean you have to be prepared to spout wise words to your kids about God, creation, and the afterlife (unless you want to). Rabbi Sasso defines spirituality broadly as "an inner belief system that the universe and all people are connected in ways we can't see; that life is about more than just 'me, me, me.'" In other words, it's not only "Is there a God?" What Rabbi Sasso says is key: that you actively listen to your kids' guesses and musings about things like whether their hamster, Fluffy, has a soul or if there's such a thing as angels and that you explore spiritual concepts together—however your family is comfortable. Lisa Miller, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, in New York City, heartily agrees: "When it comes to spirituality, we parents are just our kids' ambassadors. We can show them around, but we don't need to know everything."

And that exploration is well worth the effort. Miller's research indicates that personal spirituality results in much more than just a nice warm, fuzzy feeling. She says kids who develop a sense of a loving higher power or a guiding force—whether they call it God, creator, Allah or simply "loving universe"—are 80 percent less likely to suffer major depression and 50 percent less likely to suffer from substance abuse as teens.

Similarly, a study from the University of British Columbia, in Canada, found that children who are spiritual (and researchers clearly separated "spirituality" from "attending church services" or "belonging to a church") tend to be significantly happier individuals overall. Having an understanding of something greater than themselves seems to enhance children's sense of personal meaning and purpose, and to reinforce their connections to their community and to other people. The big question, then, is how to do it? Some ways to give your children the gifts of faith and hope:

Define "spirituality" versus religion

If you don't belong to an organized religion, your children will likely ask why their friends attend church or temple services and they don't. "I've told my kids that churches, synagogue, and mosques are places where you can worship formally, with other members of a community," says Lisa Braun Dubbels, a mom of two in Minneapolis. "I've also impressed upon them that you can find God anywhere—outside in nature, at a museum, at schoo or in your bedroom." You could also remind your kids that every family does things diffierently: "Your friends might speak a diffierent language, observe unique cultural traditions or attend a church. Our family might make another choice, but all are equally valid."

Admit that sometimes you just don't know

This one scares many "on the fence" parents. Your kid asks you a big question, like "Where will Grandma go when she dies?" and you freeze. Or, to avoid sounding like a fraud, you sidestep tough questions altogether. Mimi Doe, a mom of two and coauthor of 10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting, likes to tackle tricky questions with the phrase "I'm just not sure. Life is full of so many mysteries!" Then she suggests sharing any information you can, such as "Some people believe XYZ and some people believe ABC. I was brought up to believe JKL. But what do you think?" Having this kind of chat takes a little more time, but it's more authentic. And that's important: If you fake your answer, your kids will know.

Credit habits of reverence

Yep, these sound strikingly similar to prayers and rituals. But, hey, they've been effiective for millennia as a way to show thanks or concern. Feel free to borrow prayers or poems from diffierent cultures, or to encourag family members to write their own. Elise Rebmann of Edwardsville, IL, encourages her two children to "do their gratefuls" in lieu of a prayer before dinner. "Sometimes my five-year-old is grateful for candy or his toy airplane, while my ten-year-old daughter talks about what was good in her day," she says. Other options:

  • Say aloud "Good thoughts to anyone sick or hurt" when an ambulance or fire truck roars by.
  • Light a candle and hold hands for a minute at night before bed. Have a moment of quiet or share something nice that happened that day.
  • Come up with a thankful song for teeth-brushing time, like "I'm grateful for my healthy teeth. I'm grateful for my face that holds my teeth. I'm grateful for my body that holds my face. I'm grateful for my family that holds my body close!"

Read together often

Many good children's books hit on topics related to kindness, justice, tolerance and  fairness—all issues that could be considered "spiritual" in that they address the connectedness of all people and of living life with purpose. Just don't get too heavy-handed during your reading sessions, notes Rabbi Sasso, herself an author of several children's books, including God's Paintbrush. "Instead of 'See how this story teaches us not to be selfish?' ask your child open-ended questions like 'What did you think was the most important part of this story?'?or 'What would you have done?' " Sasso suggests.

Create a family mission statement

Many spiritual traditions provide a framework of values or principles to follow. Try creating something similar for your family. "Even kids as young as three or four understand something like 'Our family believes in kindness, helping other people, caring for pets and reaching out to people who are alone,'?" says Doe. You can get formal and post your mission statement in your kitchen, or simply use it when you're making choices about how to spend your time or resolve conflicts.

Open up about your own inner life

"Kids benefit greatly from hearing out loud how we handle life's ups and downs," says Doe. "It could be as simple as saying to your child 'I'm really worried about Poppy today and my stomach hurts. I'm going to take a moment to do some breathing.' Then 'Oh, I'm starting to feel better. I'm going to send Poppy some good thoughts, too.'" Miller's research indicates that kids who have at least one parent who is openly spiritually inclined—again, formal religious beliefs not required—tend to continue exploring spiritual issues on their own in adolescence and adulthood.

Delve into spiritual traditions

Consider it a way to offer your children a global education. Dubbels and her husband were raised within—and subsequently left—Catholic, Jewish and Lutheran traditions but feel strongly about introducing their kids to a wide variety of spiritual approaches. "Art is a great way to show kids how spirituality is part of history. We live a few blocks from the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts and visit at least once a month," she says. "My son always wants to visit one of the Buddhas, and my daughter enjoys the Egyptian and Judaica collections."

Schedule in downtime

"One thing religions have done well for centuries is to offer people time to pause in their week, check in, and reflect about bigger issues," says Doe. You can do the same for your own family. Go for a walk. Try yoga together. Have your kids draw or write in a journal about a spiritual topic like "What do you wish you could ask God/creator/higher power?" Or designate an hour a week as unplugged (no electronics) family time.

Teach by example

Tiffiany Dodson and her husband, Tom, of Lancaster, PA, focus on teaching their daughter, Mallory, 4, about the Golden Rule: "Treat others as you would like to be treated." So last Christmas, they "adopted" a needy family with a 1-year-old girl. Dodson helped Mallory pick out some of her own clothes and toys to give to the family to remind her of the need to help others who are less fortunate, she says.

Lean on your spiritual beliefs in hard times

When a grandparent or a pet dies, when a natural disaster hits, when your child encounters something unfair—all of these are opportunities for your child to turn to a higher power or connected universe for comfort. "In our family, we talk to our angels when we are upset," says Rebmann. "I've taught my kids to ask their angels about problems they have and to trust their own 'inner ears' when the angels talk to them."

As for Andrew Park, the religion-free dad living in the middle of the Bible Belt, he and his wife are still struggling with how to approach their kids' spiritual education. The parents talk with their children about issues of faith when they come up in stories and movies; they broached the topics of heaven and an afterlife when the kids' grandparents died; and they attend Christmas Eve church services every year as a family holiday tradition. "We've also visited a couple of different churche and taken the kids along. But as for actually joining a church—that's way too hard for us," says Park. "We're still sort of fumbling around in the dark, like many parents we know."

And as with all aspects of parenting, fumbling is perfectly okay and expected, says Rabbi Sasso. Teaching kids about spirituality isn't about doing it perfectly or finding the "right" church. "It's more about asking deeper questions with your children and letting them see people living out their lives with meaning," says Rabbi Sasso. "All parents can do that."

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