For children to live balanced lives, parents need to help them grow not only physically, emotionally, and intellectually, but spiritually as well.
Three times a year, a father and his two sons, aged 9 and 11, go through their closets with the goal of giving away clothing items they no longer need. They deliver their donations to a nearby charity that makes the items available to low-income families.
Several years ago, a single mother taught her two daughters to light a small candle on a table in the hallway of their apartment whenever a friend was sick, in trouble, or hurting in any way. The glowing candle is a reminder to family members to pause to say a brief prayer for the person it represents. “My children are now teenagers, and they still routinely light that candle whenever someone they know needs help from a higher power,” she says.
That father and mother are effectively helping their children develop a spiritual life. For children to live balanced lives, they need to grow not only physically, emotionally, and intellectually, but spiritually as well. Here are some ways for parents to help advance a child’s spiritual life.
ACCEPT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY AS A PARENT TO PROVIDE SPIRITUAL FORMATION
Many new parents become aware of this when their children are born. After the birth of her first child, medical doctor and parenting writer Marianne Neifert, M.D., discovered that the miracle of new life motivated her to turn to a higher power. “For myself, I can’t imagine having taken the plunge into parenthood without the comfort of my beliefs,” she writes. “My first baby was born when I was barely 20 and living 5,000 miles away from my own parents. I needed the reassuring safety net of God’s love and example to bolster my own inadequacies. As I had four more children and watched them grow, I made it my goal to pass on to them all the things I valued most in life, including my Christian faith.”
TELL YOURSELF, “IT’S NEVER TOO EARLY!”
In the religion of Islam it is customary for a father to whisper this prayer into a baby’s ear even before the umbilical cord is cut: “There is no god but the one God….” Among some Christians it is common to recite the Lord’s Prayer to a child before it is an hour old. Other spiritually oriented parents quietly offer this simple prayer-affirmation to their children in the earliest moments and months: “God made you. God loves you. God keeps you.” Because children begin life with an internal sense of wonder and awe about their world and because they are naturally intuitive and open to life, a child’s spiritual education ought to begin at the earliest stages.
PARTICIPATE IN A HOUSE OF WORSHIP
Children’s spiritual growth is greatly enhanced when they and their parents regularly take part in a house of worship.
This idea is sometimes a tough sell for adults who have had harsh and negative experiences with their own past religious involvements. Yet, such an experience should not be the norm. Most churches, synagogues, and temples are healthy, vibrant spiritual communities that are open, welcoming, and nonjudgmental. Also, some people are of the opinion that organized religion has nothing to do with an authentic spiritual journey, that structured trappings of religion—mantras, rosaries, symbols—have nothing to do with true spirituality as exemplified in acts of kindness, compassion, respect, and reverence for life. If this is your view, then be open to this observation from educator David Carroll, author ofSpiritual Parenting: “The inner contemplative process and the outer religious form are both necessary if a child is to develop a sense of the sacred. ‘Without faith,’ one astute writer remarked, ‘ritual is dry and empty; but without ritual, faith is scattered and uncontained.'”
MODEL THE SPIRITUAL LIFE FOR YOUR CHILDREN
Be the best possible role model for your children. Let your values and virtues be seen by your children through your words and actions. “Children will invariably talk, eat, walk, think, respond, and act like their parents,” notes Billy Graham. “Give them a target to shoot at. Give them a goal to work toward. Give them a pattern that they can see clearly, and you give them something that gold and silver cannot buy.”
INSTITUTE QUIET TIME
Children should be encouraged to cultivate silence and stillness in order to become more spiritually aware. Carroll offers these tips for introducing young minds to turning inward and to the discipline of sitting still: Institute the first sessions of quiet time when the child is very young, preferably beginning when a child nears his or her fourth birthday.
The first quiet time should run no more than thirty seconds to one minute. Even a four-year-old can handle that length of silence. Do this four times a week and keep at it consistently. That way a child will come to expect the quiet time and eventually look forward to it. “That way the meditative habit becomes incorporated into a child’s life in a natural way,” he says.
TEACH CHILDREN TO PRAY
As soon as children can understand language, teach them how to pray. Initially these can, and must, be brief prayer times. For example, upon seeing a new flower emerging, offer this type of prayer with your child: “Thank you, God, for this beautiful flower.” If you have a beloved family pet, pause with your child to pray: “Thank you, God, for our dog. Bless him/her.” Similarly, a child can offer a quick prayer for a sick friend: “Dear God, please be with my friend Meagan who is sick.” In order to teach children prayer, one family created its own family prayer book. In it are written many personal and individual prayers prepared by various family members. Their family prayer book also includes some traditional and favored prayers, such as the prayer “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…” plus Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer, copied in an elegant calligraphy.
SPEND TIME TOGETHER IN NATURE
Educator and botanist George Washington Carver said, “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour if we will only tune in.” Sages from across the ages made their way into deserts, forests, and caves to encounter the spiritual. Spend time with your children in nature. Of course, it isn’t necessary that you trek off to a great wilderness area or a massive desert. Simply going out into the yard or a nearby park with your children can help them experience the rich variety of creation. Allow them to feel the grass, examine insects, and ponder the dazzling diversity of the universe. In the book 10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting, authors Mimi Doe and Marsha Walch report: “Programs such as Wilderness Discovery, a nature-based program for at-risk kids, have reported improved self-esteem, a stronger desire to attain goals, and improved mental well-being among the participants. Interacting with the natural world increases children’s spiritual sense of belonging, and when we believe we belong to something larger than ourselves, we feel valuable.”
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR CHILDREN
Be aware and observant of your children’s words, actions, and values. Pay attention to how they treat friends, adults, strangers, animals. If it appears they need help to move in a different direction, simply but promptly bring it to their attention. Another effective way to provide correction is by quietly but obviously modeling the behavior you want them to embrace. Treat animals with kindness, pick up litter when you come across it, speak courteously to everyone, show respect to people from all walks of life.
STRESS THE GOLDEN RULE
Versions of the Golden Rule—doing to others what you would have them do to you—appear in all the world’s great religions. So important is this spiritual principle that David Carroll urges parents to “Write it in bold letters…Hang it up on the child’s bedroom wall…Say it aloud to children from an early age; explain it in detail. Whenever you see or hear your children acting unkindly, remind them that they don’t like to be treated badly themselves—so why treat others this way?”
By effectively helping youth develop a spiritual life through a commitment to their spiritual formation, parents and significant adults can contribute greatly to children living a balanced and integrated life as they grow into adulthood.
Victor M. Parachin, an ordained minister and former newspaper reporter, is the author of nine books, most recently, Healing Grief (Chalice Press, 2001).
The following books contain many more ideas that parents can utilize for creative and effective spiritual parenting:
Something More: Nurturing Your Child’s Spiritual Growth, by Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick (Penguin USA, 1993)
Spiritual Parenting: A Sourcebook for Parents and Teachers, by Rabbi Steven M. Rosman, Ph.D. (Theosophical Publishing, 1994)
10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting: Nurturing Your Child’s Soul, by Mimi Doe with Marsha Walch, Ph.D. (Harper Perennial, 1998)
A Child of God: Activities for Teaching Spiritual Values to Children of All Ages, by Peggy D. Jenkins (Prentice Hall, 1984)
Teaching Your Children Values, by Linda and Richard Eyre (Fireside, 1993)
Talking To Your Child About God, by David Heller (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1988).