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, synagogues, 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 school, 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 encourage 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, 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.