Contributing editor Marianne Neifert, M.D. (Dr. Mom) is a pediatrician, the author of Dr. Mom's Parenting Guide and a student at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Why Kids Need SpiritualityYoung children are curious about the world they live in and long to understand its mysteries: Who made the universe? How did we get here? Why do we die? So it's important to welcome their sense of awe and to nurture it -- even if you're still wrestling with your own religious beliefs. Whatever faith you embrace, when you cultivate a belief in something larger than yourself, you offer kids many benefits, including:
A STRONG SET OF ETHICS. Religious teachings offer a timeless set of values, morality, and a sense of integrity -- in short, a meaningful way to live. Little ones can be taught that there are higher rules about right and wrong and that we should always try to do the right thing -- even when we don't feel like it, and even when no one is looking. You can use the Golden Rule to explain that things are considered wrong when they are hurtful to oneself or others.
A FEELING OF SECURITY. On countless occasions, I've observed the way faith can offer comfort in a world that often doesn't make sense to children. Religion can help kids see that pain and disappointment can teach us to be more patient, more understanding, and more appreciative. When my mother suffered a life-threatening illness, we all turned to our faith to find strength and hope in a desperate situation. Miraculously, our prayers were answered and my mother survived another six years. Today, my children recall those years as a precious opportunity to deepen their relationship with their grandmother.
A SENSE OF TRADITION AND COMMUNITY. A church or synagogue is one place where children are exposed to people of all ages who learn and worship together, as well as support one another. Familiar rituals, such as attending services or observing the Sabbath, can give kids and their parents a sense of security. Religious beliefs also give deeper meaning to holiday celebrations.
A FEELING OF SELF-WORTH. Helping each child feel uniquely loved and cherished was one of my greatest challenges as a mother. I taught my kids that God created each person in order to have a one-of-a-kind, special relationship with him or her. Whether a youngster has a learning disability, a physical challenge, or a chronic medical illness, knowing she is a child of God and made for a special purpose, can foster a strong sense of self-esteem.
Putting Your Beliefs into PracticeMany parents assume their children will eventually decide for themselves what they want to believe, or that the pastor, rabbi, or other religious leader will teach them about spiritual matters. But just as we are the most influential guides for our kids in other areas, we are their most important source of spiritual direction.
Spiritual beliefs are best transmitted as a part of daily life. That's why it's been said that faith is caught more than it's taught. The following practices can help you incorporate religious faith into your family's lives.
MODEL TRUST AND GOODNESS. Babies and toddlers form their idea about who God may be from their parents, who are godlike to them. Loving your child unconditionally teaches him how to trust you, and, by extension, forms the basis for him to believe in the dependability of God's care. Parents have a powerful influence on the image of God that their children will embrace -- whether it's one that's protective and nurturing or remote and punitive.
BE AVAILABLE. Many kids will ask questions of a spiritual nature when they're 4 or 5. Don't be afraid to admit that you don't have all the answers; it's more important to be emotionally available. Be careful not to criticize your child's ideas about religion, even if you feel they're inaccurate. If you and your partner differ in the way you practice your faith or even in your fundamental beliefs, explain this to your youngster.
RECOGNIZE THE DIVINE IN NATURE. When a child sees God's hand in everyday existence, it makes the idea of a Divine Maker more meaningful. You can acknowledge God's amazing design skills when you and your child enjoy rain puddles, flowers, and snowflakes, or gaze up at the vastness of the stars. Teaching children to be good stewards of our planet, by recycling or picking up trash, is an important way to convey respect for both nature and its Creator.
TEACH YOUR KIDS TO PRAY. Just as conversation is the foundation for our friendships and family relationships, I believe prayer is an important way to strengthen a family's relationship with God. I taught my kids that God is able to handle large and small concerns, and that they can talk to him anywhere and anytime.
Even more effective than reciting a memorized prayer is to say brief "anytime prayers" throughout the day. You can pause by a beautiful flower and say with your child, "Thank you, God, for sunflowers." Saying grace at mealtimes is another way to instill an appreciation of the plants and animals that provide our food and our daily provisions.
When my kids were young, we kept prayers short and had them reflect on what was going on in their lives -- what happened that day, any upcoming special events, and concern for loved ones.
ATTEND A PLACE OF WORSHIP. Church services or other religious routines can enhance a child's spiritual development, since little kids naturally enjoy predictability and familiarity. Help your children look forward to going to church or temple by making the experience pleasant -- in other words, try not to rush to get there.
READ BIBLE STORIES. Although things have changed since the Bible was written, I emphasized to my children that the issues facing people have not, making the basic principles taught in these stories relevant to our lives today. My kids fondly remember hearing their first Bible stories at bedtime, when we read out of a children's edition with many colorful illustrations.
SHOW COMPASSION TO OTHERS. Children can be taught that when we're generous, kind, and compassionate to those in need, we show our appreciation for all the blessings we enjoy. Make sure to include your little ones whenever you donate clothes, toys, or food. Older kids can help an elderly neighbor or volunteer at a nursing home or a soup kitchen.
For me, some of my most treasured childhood memories are bedtime prayers with my mother, mealtime blessings led by my father, and singing in the choir at church. Because my dad was in the Navy, our family had to move every few years. Through all these transitions and upheavals, plus the ordinary trials and traumas of growing up, God's presence in my life was a constant anchor, a moral compass, and a wellspring of strength.
Even though I grew up with a very strong belief in God -- and the conviction that I'm eternally under his care -- I also realize faith is a journey. Ideally, our goal in nurturing our children's innate sense of wonder isn't to have them parrot our particular creed. Rather, it's to help them embark on a lifelong pursuit of spiritual meaning that will positively shape their self-image, their daily lives, and their interactions with others.