Before I had children, I had rather definite notions about the shape and size of their future spiritual lives. I'd been religious all my life and there was no doubt in my mind that my kids would be as well. I took for granted the notion of a religious education that was shaped and sized remarkably like the one I'd had growing up: We'd have a kosher home, we'd celebrate Sabbath and holidays. In short, I think the plan was to produce small religious clones of myself through patient instruction and modeling.
That there was a difference between spirituality and religious practices didn't really occur to me before my sons—now ages 4 and 2—were born. I think I simply expected observance to lead them inexorably into a larger relationship with God, or the universe. But my first son, Coby, came barreling out of the womb with his own ideas about everything, and my plan for repeat-after-me prayers and instructive monologues was scuttled almost before it began. As it turns out, inculcating a child with a religious tradition is not the same as imparting good sleep habits or a healthy respect for the green bean. Neither "because-I'm-the-mommy" nor "try-it-you'll-like-it" works when you're talking about spiritual growth.
Almost as soon as he could talk, for instance, Coby was taught the same bedtime prayer I myself have recited each night since I could talk—a prayer that Jewish people have recited for thousands of years. One might think he'd have found it adequate to his spiritual needs. And Coby dutifully repeated it for a year or two until he began a drawn-out sit-down strike a few months back. I realized that it hardly made sense for me to force him to sing memorized Hebrew words and that, in the way of all 4-year-olds, he was resisting in part because he knew it mattered to me. So I suggested that he perhaps say thanks to God for his day in his own words instead. For the past few months, therefore, his bedtime ritual involves a protracted soliloquy to God about his friends, the best parts of his day, his musings about the state of his relationship with his little brother, and (in recent weeks) something he calls "peace," for which he declines to provide a working definition.
While this is not the "prayer" I grew up with, I confess that as I listen to him each night spontaneously recite the list of things for which he is grateful—"my family, Andrew, my books"—I find that his priorities are somehow spot-on. (He has yet to "pray" for the Spider-Man web-slinging gloves he so covets at school.) He has already sorted his world into the things that matter and those that are fleeting. This may not be religion, but it's surely spirituality.
I suppose the lesson my boys have taught me about the teaching of religion is that it's not invariably a monologue—wherein I tell them Bible stories and they quietly absorb them, like very expensive paper towels. Imparting religion, any religion, to small children is a conversation, a negotiation, a way of learning together, if it's going to be incorporated into their sense of themselves. And it's in the quiet spaces between those conversations and negotiations that my own spiritual life has expanded as well. For instance, I thought I'd really given the question of God a good deal of thought over the years until Coby asked me what "God's back looks like." I find myself wondering, well, what does God's back look like? I may have let some of the rules slide in the past few years, but what's come rushing in to fill the vacuum is some of the gratitude and wonder and uncertainty I'd let slide as well.
Every Friday night, as part of my family's Sabbath tradition, my husband puts his hands over our sons' heads and blesses them, an act often more focused on the sheer athleticism necessary to keep two wriggly boys still for 60 seconds than on any religious epiphany. We do it because it's what we do. But to my surprise, a few weeks ago Coby asked to bless his daddy right back; again, a dialogue, not a monologue. A part of me wanted to explain that there is no tradition of blessing your father before Sabbath. But I saw that he had grasped the fundamental nature of religion—gratitude and blessing, ritual and routine—and made it over in his own original preschool size. That's something you can't teach at all. You can only train yourself to recognize it when it happens.
I wasn't quite right, back when I believed that I wanted to impart my own religious values and traditions on to my children, to press some spiritual stamp onto them like you might onto soft clay. What's worked for my family has been to show them a religious landscape, point out the high peaks they might have missed, the sweep of the big picture, and then allow them to go ahead and take what they need from it. What they've brought back to us has been better than the spiritual world I once dreamed for them: It's the one they're dreaming up for us.
Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor at the online magazine Slate.com.