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pray_boyDear Nadine,
My grandchildren don’t attend church. How can I foster their spirituality? – Grandma Judy

I didn’t grow up going to church with my family, but I did grow up to have a strong faith that has provided me with the hope, help, joy, peace and intuitive connection that has navigated me down the river of life. My father was one of life’s religious independents. Close-mouthed about his own spirituality, he was however fervent in his belief that I should choose my own religious brand — and I did.

I attended convent school at 5 and hung with the nuns, got myself christened and confirmed as an Anglican with my parents standing in as godparents (since I had no relatives nearby, the vicar okayed it ) at age 11, joined the church of Religious Science at 29 and was working as a medium and healer by 35.

Despite the differences in liturgy, I loved all of my religious homes — the community and connection they provided and the spiritual learning they imparted. But most importantly, I appreciated the journey that led me from church door to church door. Dad blessed me with the freedom to explore my faith, and if he were alive today I’d say, “Dad, there are many paths to God.” But I think he probably knew that all along!

Currently some 20 percent of Americans and 30 percent of all adults under 30 do not affiliate with any particular religion or faith, according to researchers at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at the University of California, Berkeley. That number has doubled since 1990, which means that more parents than ever will (like my father before them) walk their children down a spiritual path less traveled by. And that’s absolutely wonderful — as long as the walk does happen.

You see, nurturing our children’s spirituality is not just the right thing to do, it’s a gift. As Lisa Miller, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and researcher on the effects of spirituality, notes, “Kids who develop a sense of a loving higher power or a guiding force — whether they call it God, creator, Allah, or simply “loving universe” — are 80 percent less likely to suffer major depression and 50 percent less likely to suffer from substance abuse as teens.” Research by the University of British Columbia also found that when kids have an understanding of something greater than themselves, it “enhances (their) sense of meaning and purpose, and reinforces their connections to their community and to other people.”

So, how do parents who don’t hold a degree in theology and don’t want to make church attendance mandatory help their kids attune to the divine? David Elkind, Ph.D., Professor of Child Study at Tufts University, identifies three main stages of faith development in children. By utilizing this framework, we can implement age-appropriate activities that will ensure our kids blossom at home — heart, mind and soul.

• The “Global” stage (ages 0-7)
Elkind: “Until age 6 or 7, most children can’t conceptualize the differences between faiths, but they can appreciate spiritual symbols and rituals.”

Your Steps: Introduce blessings at the dinner table, words of gratitude at bedtime and say a prayer or donate a gift (toy or book) for someone in need. Read with stories with a lesson (think Angel stories, Fairy Tales or religious stories) and create heart and spirit art (e.g., an “I love you” card for grandma) that helps your child express their love, compassion and joy.

• The “Concrete” stage (ages 8-12)
Elkind: “Kids are beginning to develop a greater sense of spiritual identity based on personal experience and any religious practice. Rituals continue to help kids understand spiritual themes.”

Your Steps: Share your beliefs and values with your child through books, through movies, through your personal stories. Live your values with family volunteerism, acts of kindness and loving words. What kids see, they acquire. Visit different spiritual centers as a family and engage your spirited kid in reflective inquiry about their experience and what they’ve learned. Encourage kids to think about those big questions like, “Who am I? How do I make a difference in the world? Who is God? What would God do in this situation? What happens when we die?” And rather than impose your answers, let your spirited kids turn inward and reach for their own wisdom.

• The “Personal Connection” stage (ages 13-18)
Elkind: “Now a feeling of personal closeness to God often emerges, the budding of what feels like an actual relationship.”

Your Steps: Talk to your teen about the way you connect to God (e.g., in nature, in loving friendships, through prayer and meditation) and share experiences. Encourage your teen to write in a journal and support self-reflection and higher soul connection. Support spiritual independence — let her attend that new church with a friend, let him read different spiritual texts; give them permission to disagree with you! Allow your teen to implement a new family ritual (donate birthday gifts to those in need, deliver meals at Thanksgiving) and voice appreciation for the way that your teenager helps others, in mind, body and spirit.

Nurturing our children’s spirituality (their beliefs and behaviors) is a parent’s prerogative and one we should embrace for our children’s highest good. And whether we read the Bible, the Torah or the Koran or see God in nature or in everything, it all boils down to one basic principle: love. When we teach our children to live a life of love, of compassion, of understanding (for others and for themselves), we provide them with the very best education — and one that is divine.

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Nadine Penny attained her M.A. from the University of Denver in Counseling Psychology. Nadine lives in Minnetonka where she works as a medium, life issues reader and Reiki master. Contact her at nadine.penny@gmail.com and visit www.nadinepenny.com.

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