Before we had kids, neither my husband nor I felt the need to join a church or a synagogue. I'd been raised Jewish; Jamie, Episcopalian. Neither one of us was the least bit observant. We celebrated Passover with my family and Christmas with his, and that was about it.
But having children forced us to try to articulate what we really believe and what we want to teach our two daughters. It's not that I want us to become observant Jews, but I do want to incorporate some kind of spirituality into our life.
I'm not alone. No matter what they themselves believe, 90 percent of parents said they had talked to their children about God, according to a 1995 Gallup poll conducted for Parenting. And nearly half said that religion had become more important since they'd had children. But what kind of religious or spiritual life do parents really want?
For parents who are mulling over the issue, tending to family can be a good beginning. "Nurturing spirituality is really about loving one another," says Morgan Simone Daleo, author of Curriculum of Love: Cultivating the Spiritual Nature of Children. "In a family, you're putting love into action."
Well, yes, we love our kids. Yet many of us yearn for some practical and moral guidelines as well. "You want to pass on some survival techniques to your children," says Elizabeth Lesser, author of The New American Spirituality: A Seeker's Guide. "Not only, 'Don't cross the street,' but also, 'This is how you treat other people, and this is how you search for the truth.' "
For many parents, this search for guidelines makes them realize they need help, whether it comes from invoking a Biblical code of ethics or from setting up structured time to think about these issues. "If you make a study of world religions, they are similar in their moral codes," says Lesser. "It points to the fact that there are right ways to be a human being and wrong ways."
We do want our children to grow up to be good people. But, as Lesser suggests, we also want to be able to explain such mysteries as the gift of life, death, and evil. And while we're at it, we'd like our kids to appreciate the wonders of the world around them, even to have a sense of awe when contemplating the universe.
Of course, there are families like the Narrowes, of Fort Dix, NJ, for whom religion isn't an issue. "Raising our two kids Jewish is taken for granted," says mom Adrienne. "It's more the details we have to discuss—what type of Jewish school they'll go to, for instance."
Others, like the families profiled here, find they have to grapple with the issue. Though these families have different beliefs, their search—for a welcoming place to worship, for traditions that make sense to them—has been the same.
Harriet Brown is the author of the The Good-bye Window: A Year in the Life of a Daycare Center.
Spirituality in community
One of the most important elements for many parents is a feeling of an extended family. Raised Catholic, Valarie Woodard, of Littleton, CO, had stopped going to church after high school. She says that becoming pregnant with her son, Anthony, served as a wake-up call. She married Anthony's father when the baby was 8 months old, and joined a program for young mothers at the Foothills Bible Church soon after her first visit.
"I'm not sure what made me go that first time," she says. "I was scared to death." Woodard was afraid that she'd be judged harshly; instead, she felt welcomed. Now, she says, "If the other church members know your child is sick, they'll bring meals and call and say they're praying for you. I've had enormous amounts of support from them."
That sense of solidarity has spilled over into the Woodards' daily life. Woodard reads the Bible to her sons, Anthony, now 5, and Darin, 3, during their afternoon downtime, and her sons pray at bedtime. "It's finally starting to make sense to Anthony, what it means to pray," says Woodard. "He used to pray for his stuffed animals. Now he prays for the family, and the 3-year-old mimics him."
For Tina McKeever, of Menahga, MN, a sense of being involved with others has also made a difference. When she was pregnant with her first child, in 1993, McKeever "shopped around to see what I wanted." She was most attracted to a nearby Lutheran church, largely because of its strong community spirit.
The family's weekly churchgoing now takes place within a context of other activities, such as pitching in to help in the kitchen during church socials and teaching Sunday-school classes. Her two children, Alana, 6, and Marcus, 2, are involved in the church nursery and youth programs.
"I thought I didn't have anything to offer," says McKeever. "But then I said, 'Wait a minute, you can help in the nursery and the kitchen.' And once I realized that, I became more emotionally attached to the church."
Spirituality In a New Faith
Barbara Findlen, of Amherst, MA, and her partner, Kristen Golden, each left the Catholic church years before they had kids. But they felt it was important for Grace, 4, and Sam, 1, to grow up with a sense of spiritual identity. "We knew people who were raised without a religion, for whom that really felt like a loss," says Findlen. "Not only didn't they have a particular kind of spiritual guidance, but they didn't have the kind of affiliation their friends had.
"We wanted a structure to offer us a framework to explore spiritual issues with our kids," she says. Now when the family gives to charity or gives thanks at mealtimes, they have a context for doing this—the Unitarian church they joined six months after Grace was born.
Spirituality Through Rituals
For many parents, a valuable way to incorporate faith into their family has been through celebrations, both big and small. "A sense of ritual can be the toe in the water, a way to start the process," says Mimi Doe, author of 10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting: Nurturing Your Child's Soul. "People say things like, 'We don't know what to do with our kids so we're not doing anything.' But there are traditions you can do every day that nurture your family."
For instance, some families grow herbs or flowers in a window box or a corner of the backyard: The child chooses the seeds and says a short prayer as she plants them. Morgan Daleo also suggests making morning and evening blessing cards with your kids—helping them draw a picture of the activities they most look forward to when they wake up and the things they're most thankful for at night.
You can also adapt well-known religious rites. For instance, one family knew they didn't want a baptism for their baby, but they did want to mark the occasion of her birth. So they devised a welcoming ceremony. They read passages from books, and they asked all the guests to bring an item for a time capsule—a "gesture to her future" that their daughter could open on her tenth birthday.
Another way to incorporate rituals, says Doe, is to simply weave joyous events into your everyday life, which is what Asja and David Young, of Madison, WI, have done. The Youngs are now Quakers. Their son and daughter, ages 5 and 8, go with them each week to the meeting house. Since they want their kids to appreciate other religions, too, they've continued some traditions from each of their childhoods (she was raised Jewish; he, Episcopalian). "We celebrate everything," jokes Asja Young. "We observe Christmas and Easter in a nonreligious way, as well as Hanukkah and Passover."
No matter what the ritual is—the expedition to cut down the family Christmas tree, say—the Young kids are involved and engaged. "I think celebrations are very important to developing a child's sense of security," their mother says.
Even less momentous events can be infused with a sense of something larger. For instance, the Youngs always serve crepes on Sunday mornings. The kids insist on this and look forward to it as part of the weekly rhythm of their lives.
"Families often have these traditions and don't think they're spiritual," says Doe. "But such routines can enrich your child's soul by establishing a connection between her and the family." The key, she says, is developing some kind of vision: "If your family defines spirituality as a bond between all living things, then picking up litter together might become your ritual."
You don't even have to know all of the answers. "My 4-year-old just naturally believes in things. So I try to help her retain that magical way of looking at the world that I have learned from her," says Findlen. Doe agrees: "Teach less, listen more—spirituality is about exploring the questions together."