Teach kids a spiritual vocabulary

Teach kids a spiritual vocabulary

After five years of interviewing adults about their childhood spiritual experiences, I’ve seen common threads. Here’s one: As children, they didn’t have the vocabulary to express how they were processing spirituality and God. Can’t you see it in what this man told me?

“I remember I was four or five years old and feeding white ducks bread crumbs from the top of a playground slide. It seemed very wonderful to me for some reason and I dreamed about it and I can still see myself doing it. My thoughts couldn’t have been very abstract or sophisticated or articulated in any vocabulary I had at the time, but I felt I was in the presence of something greater than myself, in a world beyond the surface world where I was tossing down food onto the white ducks and feeling very whole, free, peaceful.”

That it, isn’t it? Children can’t articulate with the vocabulary they have at the time.

But we can help children build a spiritual vocabulary. We use the same methods we did when we taught them basic vocabulary words.

When they learned animal names, we had picture books of animals, “Where’s the bird? What does the bird say?” And when we went outdoors, “See the bird? Hear the bird?”

Use children’s literature to teach spiritual vocabulary.

32216_3319children's litIt’s packed with stories about the human spirit developing and prevailing.  When you read to children, emphasize and repeat age-appropriate spiritual vocabulary words such as right, wrong, conscience, character, wise, forgive, as these concepts come up in the book. Use these vocabulary words in normal everyday conversations. As children get older, you can move on to words like mindful, ethics, purpose, presence, worship, spirit, soul, self and reason.

There’s no need to bottle it up inside.

When they know words like these, they’ll be equipped with a vocabulary to express themselves as they begin to work out the complexities of life.  With no need to bottle it up inside, they will talk freely and listen to others, thus understanding how normal and widespread is the spiritual dimension of life.


  • Ideas to help children build a spiritual vocabulary by the same method you taught them basic vocabulary. Click to Tweet
  •  Children don’t know the words to use to express their spiritual experiences. See some ideas here. Click to Tweet


Children and their thrill in holiday giving

Children and their thrill in holiday giving

kwanzaRohatsu, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Yule. Most of us have some big plans brewing to make happy December holidays for the kids we love.

What makes a holiday experience thrilling?

Its impact on the human spirit or soul.

Because the memories of  “giving experiences” remain vivid long after toys break or fade away.

Because, as Bono said, “love needs to find form, intimacy needs to be whispered. It’s actually logical. Essence has to manifest itself. Love has to become an action or something concrete.”

One family’s story:

When my daughter passed away at the age of 7 her brothers wanted to do something to help other children who are ill and stuck in the hospital or in bed at home, so we gathered books together and took them to the office of the Palliative care team that took such good care of my daughter and our family.

childrens-booksThis became what is now “Cheyenne’s Lending library” it is full of books and blankets, toys and craft items for kids and even parents who stay with their children. The idea is to take their mind off of their illness for a little while.

Each year we drop off new books on Cheyenne’s birthday and at Christmas. Sometimes in between. We have been doing this since 2004.

Plan ahead to make giving this season’s highlight.

When you do an Internet search you will find a range of giving opportunities that children can see and experience. And because the season is notoriously stressful, you may find the best ideas are low-key and low energy, such as:

  • dog-foodCheck with your local SPCA and purchase their approved items such as cat litter, cat food, and dog food. Obviously, the more engagement the children have in purchasing and delivering donations, the more memorable it will be for them.
  • Contact your local food bank for ideas of their needs.Take the kids with you to the store and let them pick out items from the list so it becomes the child’s achievement.
  • Ask a hospital for approval to have kids gather books and deliver them to the office.  A hospital in my city allows the children to see where in the hospital their donations will be used, enhancing their feeling of accomplishment.

“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” – Lao Tzu



  • Looking for low-key, low energy ways for kids to give and do something good this season? Go here. Click to Tweet
  • Lao Tzu: “Kindness in giving creates love.” Show kids how to have fun giving this holiday season. Go here. Click to Tweet  


Surprising source of hope for children of addicts/alcoholics

Surprising source of hope for children of addicts/alcoholics

boys-on-matI teach Life Skills courses at drug treatment centers across L.A. County.  Last night I sat across from a woman who asked, “What hope do my children have of avoiding addiction when both their father and I are addicts?” In the first of a two-part blog, I offer my perspective.

Can addiction be prevented?

As I’ve sat with addicts, both in and out of recovery, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering  how we could prevent addiction in the first place, and what kinds of broader societal changes might help.

The solution is probably surprising to the general public.

The solution—while not surprising to anyone who has spent time in AA—is probably surprising to the general public: spirituality.  You can’t do it on your own. You need to turn to a power greater than yourself.

Put more attention into spiritual development.

0xyUnless we put more time and attention into supporting the spiritual development of young people, Americans will continue to see unhealthy solutions like prescription drug addiction becoming more and more normal for those overwhelmed by life.

Life without God or spirituality seems fine when things are going well.

But when difficulties come and people are at the end of their rope, having depleted their own resources, they will turn to something else. If it’s not a loving God, it may be prescription drugs or heroin.

Spirituality is often an off-limits topic.

Yet investing in the spiritual development of our children is our best hope for preventing— and recovering from— our recent epidemic of painkiller addiction.

Next week, I will share a story from one of my students that prompted me to write on this topic.


  • A surprising solution to the current epidemic of addiction to pain killers and street drugs like heroin. Click to Tweet
  • A surprising source of hope for children of addicts/alcoholics. Click to Tweet
Tired of the small stuff?

Tired of the small stuff?

“We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.” –Marian Wright Edelman

At times, I fight to believe these words.

Small daily differences don’t bring me recognition. Sometimes not even a thank you. They don’t give me any sense of achievement or accomplishment. Waiting for them to add up to some kind of big difference seems hopeless. At my lowest times, I’ve read accounts of small daily differences, written by the person who observed them, and found inspiration to keep going.

sunflowerA small daily difference in one man’s relationship

Chris Erskine tells the story of a man who traveled across the country to tend to his ex-wife, helping see her through an agonizing stem cell transplant at City of Hope. It hadn’t helped so much, and now more chemo, more agony.

He explained how he’d stay with his ex-wife on those long days when her current husband needed to go home to rest a little. Mr. Erskine noted, “Marriage is hard. It succeeds pretty rarely. When it fails, the scars are often nasty and long-lasting.  How many of us would have the decency and character to come back the way he has? What a lesson for kids.”

sunflowerA small daily difference in one man’s career

Meg James tells the story of Ralph Roberts, founder of media giant Comcast Cable, who began taking his school-age son to meetings with investment bankers when they were doing deals. But after Brian Roberts graduated from the Wharton School, he didn’t start out at corporate headquarters. Instead, Ralph Roberts sent his son out in the field to install cable lines in people’s homes.

Brian could have started in a corner office, but he didn’t. Ralph told him that “you will share my values, and your mother’s values, or you won’t work here.” Ms. James notes, “A lot of fathers try to pass their legacy and family business to their children but few have done it better than Ralph.”

sunflowerA small daily difference a young child can make right now

We supply the building blocks of a child’s conscience and character. Small blocks like Kindness Love Notes and many others, stacked consistently, make a big, strong tower.


Tweetable:  Persevere in small acts of goodness; they add up to a big difference in your soul. Case in point here. Click to Tweet

God’s understudy: spirituality for kids in performing arts

God’s understudy: spirituality for kids in performing arts

theater curtainIs performing arts a passion for one of the kids in your life? Here’s an idea that may make sense to them as they continue to develop their spiritual life.

Be God’s understudy.

God’s understudy–learning, listening, practicing so we can stand in for God in the world around us. Say yes to continually learning your part and be ready at a moment’s notice to stand in for God.

What does that look like in daily life?

That might mean protecting someone being bullied at school, helping an elderly neighbor with yard work, or being careful to throw trash away rather than on the ground. It is living out two of the general moral rules we learn:

  • do no harm and
  • do good

Amid the diversity and magnificence of nature, we have work to do, and that is to take care of the oceans, of plants and animals, and of people, as we have opportunity.

stage-doorWhat similarities do you see to being a theatre understudy?

  1. Rehearsal does not exist. “You are responsible to know the role whether or not you get to do it on its feet. You have no other option than to live in the moment,” says Broadway understudy Bret Shuford.
  2. It feels a bit like skydiving.  Shuford continues, “Especially the first performance you go on, it’s a rush like nothing you’ve ever experienced. The scariest part is taking the first leap, but remember a beautiful, loving, cast and crew will always be there support you. You will surprise some people at what you’re able to accomplish in the role, and you may even surprise yourself.”
  3. Imitation is the highest form of flattery–sort of. An understudy has to replicate what the original star is doing, to a degree. “You have to honor the performance of the actor you’re covering,” explains Merwin Foard, who has covered 30 actors in 16 Broadway shows. “You don’t want to mimic… but you want to bring your own version of [the role] to life.”

high school rehearsalChallenging things, bad things, happen to the people around us.

Trouble and hardship are part of living. But faith means trusting that the God of heaven and earth loves us, walks with us, and sustains us through troubles. As God’s understudies, we hang in there with other people to make life more bearable, more livable and more joyful.

Tweetable: Our world could use more people who, like theatre understudies, stand in for God, in everyday life. Read more. Click to Tweet

Know any performing arts students who are spiritual? They may like the metaphor of being God’s understudy. Click to Tweet


Look at a child’s self-talk to help unstick anxiety or depression

Look at a child’s self-talk to help unstick anxiety or depression

teen girl-in-thoughtWhen bad things happen, children feel sad, angry or worried.  But what they tell themselves about what happened makes a big difference.

When self-talk contributes to a child’s anxiety

At the core of anxiety is the child’s fear of what is going to happen in the future, compounded by the accompanying self-talk.

  • My parents will get a divorce. (I won’t have a real family anymore.)
  • There’s going to be a shooting at my school. (The world is a scary place to live. More bad things happen than good things.)
  • I have to give a report in front of the whole class. (I can’t do it. It’s too hard for me.)
  • My best friend will move away. (If I lose my best friend, I’ll never have another best friend again!)

12yearold boy2When self-talk contributes to a child’s depression

Depression is about the past. At the core of depression is the loss of something dear, with the accompanying messages the child gives himself.

  • Someone in my family became addicted to alcohol or drugs. (If I’m very good–or careful or funny–I can keep them from drinking too much.)
  • My mother lost her job. (This is the worst thing that could have happened, and it is terrible and awful.)
  • Kids at school made fun of me. (No one cares about me. It’s all my fault.)
  • Someone I love died. (Life will never be good again. I’m incapable of keeping the relationships I really want.)

4 actions we can take toward unsticking their self-talk

Action #1 – Any time the child appears to be overly anxious or depressed, ask the child to tell you what he is thinking about or telling himself. Listen for self-talk lies in their response. Check with the child to see if you understood clearly. Acknowledge the child’s response, BUT……

Action #2 —  Give them new phrases to use. Help the child reject the faulty conclusions they’ve drawn. As soon as you hear them repeating the misbeliefs, stop and help the child argue against them. Hand them phrases to use. Say to the child:

  • “Tell yourself, ‘It’s not true that I can’t do anything right'” or
  • “Tell yourself, ‘Stop! I’m not going to tell myself this lie anymore!'”

Action #3 – This is perhaps the hardest part, but we cannot help children get rid of the lies in their self-talk until they replace the lies with the truth. Again, give them the words to use, maybe something like this:

  • Lie: I’m too fat (short, ugly). Truth: Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Mine is my own and I will make it the best it can be by caring for it properly.
  • Lie:  I’ll never fit in at this new school. Truth: It’s hard to say good-bye to my old school and friends, but I will make new friends and have good times here, too.
  • Lie: I’ll just die if my mom starts dating again. Truth: It’s okay to feel sad and worried, but it’s not okay to get stuck there.

Action #4 – What says CELEBRATION! to the child? Stop and do it with her she when she succeeds in establishing positive self-talk:

  • “The truth is everyone has things they are good at and things that are hard for them. Reading is hard for me, so I will just have to work harder at reading. Plus, it’s true that it always okay to ask for help when I need it, so if I need extra help, I’ll ask my teacher or parents”.
  • ”With the help of the people who love me (and God’s help) I can get through anything.”

(I learned these actions from Linda Sibley.)


  • Focus on a child’s self-talk for clues about how to lessen anxiety and depression. Click to Tweet
  • When bad things happen, children feel upset, but what they tell themselves about what happened makes the difference. Click to Tweet