Whatever our religious or spiritual convictions may be, I believe that as parents we must provide an environment that allows for those precious eternal moments and nourishes that intangible “something” we call the soul. The way in which we impart spiritual truths is crucial because it touches the most sensitive and vulnerable aspect of human personality. It carries the potential for tremendous growth and also the possibility for terrible hurt and pain. I am not now addressing what we believe. That is for each of us to decide as individuals and families. I am talking about how we teach what we believe. We must impart spiritual truth as we understand it, even as we protect the unique and fragile quality of the individual soul.
Inevitably, it is within the family that children are first introduced to spiritual truths. It might include immersion in nature, art in all its forms, charitable work, personal meditation, or the more structured framework of organized religion. However, it is imperative that the structure be attuned to the needs of the family. This does not mean that we cannot hold to certain doctrines or standards, but we have to impart them in a way that resonates with the individual child or family member. At its best, the family environment provides a safe haven, free of the physical and spiritual “pollution” that society, especially as represented in the media, imposes. Parents can affirm what is good but filter out that which could destroy. Luckily for all of us, children experience the spiritual side of life with ease. They are endearingly comfortable with the mystical and untroubled by adult distinctions between fantasy and reality. From a spiritual perspective they are pure vessels, waiting to be filled. A child’s greatest longing is to meet us soul to soul. Heaven forbid that a daughter or son goes searching for our soul and comes up empty-handed. Once their physical needs have been met, it is that meeting of spirits that successfully quiets fretful children. Thus, we must know about this part of ourselves and be comfortable enough with it that we can trust our children to touch it.
The ways we attend to the spiritual needs of our children and the spiritual structure of our family is perhaps the subtlest and most easily overlooked aspect of parenting, and, in fact, of all human experience. Physical, mental, and even emotional growth is more obvious. Spiritual development is not tangible. We can’t see it or spend it, and even when we feel it, it is exceedingly hard to describe. Still, the spiritual component is basic to our well-being, and we need to be aware of how and what we are teaching our children about it.
How then do we guide our children spiritually when we may feel young and relatively inexperienced ourselves? To be effective spiritual mentors for our children we must conduct a frank assessment of the condition of our own souls. If our spiritual growth has long been neglected, a child will know it. If we harbor hypocrisy, a child will pick it up. If we say one thing and do another, a child will doubt our sincerity. Spiritual strength demands nothing less than our fervent dedication to those dearly held beliefs that grab us at our core. It differs from selfish obsession because it requires personal sacrifice and responsibility for the welfare of others. It entails a code of ethics that may encompass a relationship to nature and aesthetics and a power greater than ourselves. In this most intangible aspect of human personality, it is not what we teach or preach but who we are at deepest center that will communicate itself to our child.
While a child’s spiritual side is strong, it flourishes more readily if the children have mentors whose own passionate commitment to spiritual growth can clear the path ahead. As children grow and become increasingly restricted by the demands of the real world, they need opportunities for positive interaction and spiritual expression with like-minded believers. They require introduction to spiritual texts that provide examples and precedents of those who have gone before. They must have time for personal meditation as they search and consolidate their private beliefs. They need exposure to a code of ethics that recognizes the nature of sacrifice and mutual responsibility for preservation of life on the planet.
It is our job as parents to provide an environment in which the spiritual promise of children can thrive. Their inherent spiritual natures are so refined and subtle that they can be easily overwhelmed by the physical world. The soul is at the center of human possibility. An atmosphere that devastates a child will almost certainly crush her soul. To provide the type of environment that nurtures children and all family members spiritually, we must recognize that, in this dimension at least, we are all peers. Parents may be physically larger and more developed, and mentally more capable, but spiritually we are the same age as our children. We may want to teach children the content and doctrines of a particular religion, but we must learn to do this while respecting their knowledge and accessibility to their own spiritual roots. Somehow, in, around and through the diaper changing, the Cheerios, the homework, and the curfews, we must relate to our children as peers, equals, and soul mates. In spite of the differences in age and experience, we must realize that the soul within each of us is ageless.
Think how awestruck we can be by the profound wisdom of a child. When our oldest son, Aaron, was about six, his next younger brother, Matt, who was about four, became ill with a very severe bout of flu. He was vomiting heavily and was so weak that he could hardly stand up, and I became increasingly worried. When I called the doctor’s office, the nurse was infuriatingly calm and unconcerned. Nevertheless, I insisted that we bring him in immediately. We were getting ready to go when Aaron suggested that we bring with us the material, looking very much like red Jell-O, which Matt had recently vomited. At that point I was taking advice anywhere I could get it, and we did as he suggested. At the doctor’s office they were ready to send Matt back home until they examined the material he had vomited. The “red Jell-O” actually contained fresh blood from an internal bleeding ulcer! We later learned that he had been climbing up to the bathroom cupboard and eating baby aspirin like candy for several days. He was put into the hospital and immediately given a transfusion. Later, we asked Aaron how he had thought to make the suggestion that proved so crucial to a correct diagnosis for his brother, the significance of which was clearly beyond the knowledge or experience of a six-year-old. He said that the Holy Ghost had told him to do it. By his own explanation, Aaron had tapped into a higher source of knowledge. In these extraordinary situations, children are connected through their own spirit to a timeless wisdom.
If we look carefully into the eyes of a child we can see that spirit. Their acquaintance with enduring truths, such as good and evil, truth or deception, warmth or indifference, is as great as our own. So, as we guide them through life, sharing our information and experience, we must respect them as our peers and fellow travelers on a spiritual journey. As we travel that road, shoulder to shoulder, we discover a deep need in all of us to look into one another’s eyes, those windows of the soul, and see ourselves reflected back with shared recognition and profound love. We must learn to be open to the spiritual wisdom that our children’s experiences can offer to us.
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Last reviewed: 9 Oct 2013