Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Life

Laura Markham's picture

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If you have a deep faith and keep the rituals and calendar of your religious tradition, then you've probably given a lot of thought to your child's spiritual development and have it all mapped out. If, on the other hand, you aren't sure how to put what you believe into words and aren't sure what tradition you want to pass on to your kids, this article is for you.

All humans have a spiritual dimension. You don't have to believe in a supreme being to teach your child the great spiritual lessons. Whatever your beliefs, you probably want your children to know that life is sacred, that nature deserves a certain reverence, that their presence in the world contributes to joy and goodness, that things have a way of working out (not always as we expect), that the greatest joy usually comes from sharing with others, and that while we don't always get what we want, we can always choose to make the most of what we get.

Some ideas for nondenominational, and even God-optional, spirituality:

  1. Nurture your child's natural sense of wonder and magic, which is the beginning of spirituality. People who feel connected to nature are healthier physically and emotionally. A spiderweb glistening with dew, the rising moon, a waterfall, kittens being born, even a simple green shoot breaking through the earth reminds us of the miracle that is life. As Rachel Carson said, "Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts."

  2. Foster trust. Even if your spirituality does not include a Supreme Being, children need to feel that the universe smiles on them. Einstein said that the most important decision each person makes is deciding whether or not this is a friendly universe.

    People who feel safe in the world are more emotionally and physically healthy, as well as more willing to reach out to others. Of course you need to teach your children how to keep themselves safe, but the knowledge that some people are not to be trusted should not keep them from trusting people in general.

    One implication of this is that young children should not be exposed to TV news, which has been proven to make anyone who watches it feel less safe and more likely to over-estimate the chances of threatening occurrences.

    Einstein was probably recommending a deeper level of trust as well, a sense that life has meaning and that the good we do in the world matters.

  3. Don't assume religious educators are teaching your child what you think matters spiritually. My daughter, for instance, was taught in religious school that the Abraham and Isaac bible story means that if God tells you to kill someone, you do it. Whatever your religion, know what your child is being taught by religious educators. Help him to interpret it in a healthy way.

  4. Limit technology noise. Many of us use background TV and radio as a way to avoid being alone with ourselves. Children, even more than the rest of us, need quiet time to simply be present with themselves. Music is a wonderful part of setting the mood in your house, but if radio voices that your child is not listening to are intruding on the peacefulness of your home, she has to work to block those voices out, which increases her tension level. And if the voices are talking about issues that are disturbing to your child, the tension escalates.

  5. Teach your child gratitude. Gratitude is a time-honored spiritual path that works regardless of your beliefs about the nature of the divine. The deeper our gratitude, the greater our ability to receive, and the more we get out of life. Gratitude, as Melody Beattie said, unlocks the fullness of life.

    Of course, children rarely understand their many blessings, and guilt is not an effective teacher. Modeling is the best strategy, simply noting aloud, frequently, how lucky we are to have this beautiful day, this bountiful meal, this reliable car, such a terrific teacher or neighbor, and, of course, each other.

    Information is also useful, given judiciously and matter-of-factly in an age appropriate manner: "Some kids don't have a back yard to play in like we do, that's why we cherish it and take good care of it." "Grandma is getting older and won't be with us forever, so we take advantage of every chance we can to visit her, even though it's sometimes not so interesting to you. "

    And of course, small habits like grace before meal, or counting our blessings, or a thank you at bedtime for the wonderful day, serve as place-markers for the deeper gratitude your children will develop as they mature.

  6. Take time for what really matters. Try to build in enough time so that you can stop rushing past the wondrous moments of everyday life. Marvel at the sun glittering on the snow. Stop and smell the roses. Bless the rainbow. Don't feel you have to turn it into a science lesson. Reducing the sacred whole to mechanistic parts.

  7. All humans benefit from time for reflection. If your tradition includes prayer, teach your child to listen as well as to talk while praying. And whether you regularly pray or not, all families need walks in the woods or looking up at the moon or even a car ride on a sun-warmed morning to sit quietly together, soaking in the wonder of life.

Dr. Laura Markham