Teaching Kids About Spirituality
by Lain Ehmann
According to some experts, spirituality can help kids make their way through life. Having a spiritual grounding can help kids deal with crisis, resist peer pressure, and avoid negative influences such as drugs and alcohol, says Lisa Miller, PhD, professor of psychotherapy and spirituality at Teachers College, Columbia University. According to Dr. Miller, studies have shown that a relationship with the Divine, however you define the term, is "the most protective element for children."
Knowing how to "talk faith" can be tough. This is especially true for adults who grew up without a spiritual education, who married someone of a different religion, or who don't feel comfortable with traditional religious teachings.
Often, though, what keeps people from assuming the role of family spiritual leader are misconceptions about what spirituality is and how to convey it to children.
Myth #1: Spirituality and Religion Are the Same Thing.
One of the most prevalent misconceptions about spirituality is that it's synonymous with religion. But that's not necessarily true. Spirituality means "honoring our connection to our creation and our creator," says Patricia McWhorter, PhD, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Cry of Our Native Soul: Our Instinct for Creation-Centered Spirituality .
Even if you don't believe in the traditional concept of "God," you can live spiritually by recognizing you're connected to all living things, and by paying attention to and respecting those connections, says Dr. McWhorter.
"It's not about going to church on Sunday at all," she explains. "It's about how you live your life."
Whether you practice a traditional religion or whether your idea of spirituality leans toward the need to respect the earth, you can still convey your ideas to your children. What's important is not the nomenclature, but the connection to something larger than the individual. With that sense of connection comes "a sense of companionship," says Dr. Miller, which, in turn, makes kids more resilient to life's troubles, both big and small.
Myth #2: Kids Don't Really Care About This Stuff.
"At a very young age, kids start asking the same philosophical and existential questions that people have asked for millennia," says Chris Boyatzis, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. "Kids are genuinely interested and concerned about these questions."
Don't underestimate your children's curiosity; just as they're sure one day to ask why the sky is blue, they're going to wonder what happens when we die, where we came from, and why the world works the way it does.
Myth #3: I Don't Know All the Answers, so Why Even Bring Up the Topic?
Children, especially young ones, are notorious for asking all kinds of questions, including unanswerable ones. When it comes to issues of faith, though, you don't need all the answers. In fact, helping your child to sort things out independently can be more important than knowing the "right" response to his or her various queries.
Dr. Boyatzis speaks of the importance of "establishing spiritual dialogue," which means not only sharing your beliefs, but also asking your child about his or hers.
"Turn the questions around," he suggests. "Get them to think about these issues." Think of your role as parent as not the supplier of answers, but as the provider of a language about which you can discuss faith-oriented topics.
Myth #4: It's Too Hard to Teach Young Children Abstract Concepts.
Any parent knows that when explaining tough concepts to kids, it's best to keep things in simple terms. While it can be difficult to simplify concepts like "faith" and "spirit," our actions are more important than our words.
"Faith is not just what we say, but what we do," says Dr. Boyatzis.
To teach a child to live a spiritual life, parents should start with themselves. Examine your own beliefs and faith and ask the tough questions. Why do you think we're here? What are your beliefs regarding God or a creator? How should we treat each other? What values are important in your life? How can you demonstrate these on a daily basis?
Rather than teaching grand lessons about life and philosophy, it's more effective to use the little moments to guide your children. Don't overlook the power of thankfulness. Something as easy as listing the gifts in your life or saying a simple "thank you" before a meal can be a spiritual experience.
Forgetting About Perfection
Regardless of your own upbringing or current beliefs, you can give your child the gift of a spiritual upbringing. And, like most areas of parenting, you don't have to be perfect.
"It's about doing the best you can," says Dr. Miller.