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 child to know that life is sacred, that their choices matter, 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 connecting and sharing with others, that being uncomfortable can push us to grow, 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, if that's your preference) spirituality:
Even if your spirituality does not include a Supreme Being, children need to feel that the universe smiles on them. Einstein allegedly 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, which increases happiness (and helpfulness). 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.
2. There is always something each one of us can do to make things better.
When children encounter tragedy or evil and feel powerless to help, they grow into cynical teens and adults. But when they feel empowered to make a difference, they grow strong in their own inner compass about what's right, and are more likely to stand up for that. Life is full of opportunities to help children feel empowered rather than despairing, just by how we answer their questions. But in our rush to move our children through the schedule, it's easy to see their constant questions as a nuisance. And often we don't know how to answer. You may be just trying to get your kid to soccer, when he asks you something like:
"Why would someone shoot other people they don't know?"
Whether trying to make sense of the human heart or the mysteries of the universe, children are asking us to help them integrate the confusing information they see and hear into their world view. It's fine to say you don't know the answer to everything, to wonder together, to grieve, and to search together for answers. But it's important to communicate to your child that tragedy does not just fall out of the sky. Even if we can't see the reason, there are reasons for the things that happen.
So you might explain an act of violence by saying something like this:
"Sometimes people disagree with each other and they don't use their words to work things out. They fight -- with their hands, or guns, or bombs. Those things always create more pain and hurt. That's why we always try to use words."
"And there is always something each one of us can do, in every moment, to make things better. When that tragedy happened, there were so many people who were helping each other to safety. Those are the people I most admire."
3. Love of Nature.
People who feel connected to nature are healthier physically and emotionally. You might even argue that the natural wonder and magic children find in nature is the beginning of spirituality. 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."
Gratitude is a time-honored spiritual path that works regardless of your beliefs about the nature of the divine. Regularly experiencing gratitude makes us happier. When we're struggling emotionally, gratitude heals. And gratitude somehow seems to open the door to the life we want. The deeper our gratitude, the greater our ability to receive, and the more we get out 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 for 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.
"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow."
5. Limit technology noise so you can hear the stillness.
Many of us use background TV and radio as a way to avoid being alone with ourselves. But there's a stillness at the core of our being that connects us to something greater than our conscious mind. 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. All of us need silence in our lives. (For more on how to create a peaceful home, see Sanctuary: Making Your Home a Haven.)
6. Take time for what really matters.
Try to build in enough time so that you can stop rushing your child 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. Just notice that daily life is full of miracles, and appreciate them together.
7. All humans benefit from time for reflection.
Simply sitting non-judgmentally with big questions or the unresolved issues in our heart directs the light of conscious awareness to those challenges, which has a healing effect. At the very least, it usually illuminates the next question or the next step toward gently loosening a tight situation.
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.
8. You are responsible for your own interpretation and implementation of your religion.
Don’t assume religious educators are teaching your child what you think matters spiritually. My daughter, for instance, interpreted what she was taught in religious school about the Abraham and Isaac bible story as meaning 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.
That also means that you as a parent need to take responsibility for how you implement your religion with your child. For instance, all children feel sexual feelings. For them to grow up with a positive body image, we need to avoid shaming them about those feelings, regardless of what religious leaders may say. No matter what your religion is, don't assume that those teaching it have a more direct line to divine guidance than you do.
9. You can do hard things.
Kids need to understand that most things that are worth doing are hard. Most of us avoid discomfort, but being uncomfortable often pushes us to learn, grow, develop. Most moral choices cost us -- that's why they're moral choices. That's okay. You can do hard things. So can your child. Model for your child how to figure out what support you need and give it to yourself, so you can be your best self and be proud of your actions.
10. All of us have a need to contribute, and that's usually where we find our greatest joy.
Children (and many older folks) generally find it puzzling that the world is so unjust. Whatever your religious beliefs, you probably want your kids to know that the angels -- literally or figuratively -- need our help. The pride of contributing to the betterment of society makes us happier, and it will make our children happier too. And, of course, it makes the world a better place!
Children need good citizenship to be modeled both on a personal level (volunteering, helping a stranger who drops their groceries on the street), and on a community level (participation in democracy, including managing conflict peacefully.) Our job as parents is to find ways for our kids to make a positive difference in the world so they can enjoy and learn from this experience.
I looked at all the caged animals in the shelter...the cast-offs of human society.
I saw in their eyes love and hope, fear and dread, sadness and betrayal. And I was angry.
"God," I said, "this is terrible! Why don't you do something?"
God was silent for a moment and then He spoke softly.
"I have done something," He replied. "I created You."
Photo Credits: Thanks to Little Bear Studio!