From our earliest years and throughout our lives, hunger of body and hunger of spirit are mingled together.
We know a lot about satisfying physical hunger in children with food, but less about satisfying their spiritual hunger. In the first year of life food goes toward the body’s growth. When the child starts to walk and talk it goes into fuel for physical activity and gains in height and weight slow down markedly. Throughout life food continues to be essential and without it, life is not sustained.
Yet what do we know about feeding the human spirit? Around the time that babies begin to walk and talk, their human spirit has been developing to where they now seek satisfaction through curiosity about the world. In another year or so they show an ability to believe in things they can’t see, and the tendency to live entirely in the moment.
“Young kids have an incredible sense of wonder — they’re innate spiritual beings,” says Marianne Neifert, a pediatrician, mother of five, and author.
A caregiver can feed that spiritual sense of wonder by the abundant resources provided in nature. Haven’t we all seen inexplicable joy when a toddler encounters water? I watched my two-year-old grandniece fill her pink plastic pail with water in the ocean, run many yards to where her big brother was building a sand castle, dump it out as per his instructions, return to water’s edge to wait for the incoming wave and repeat the ritual for almost an hour.
The beauty, power and order of nature are at the same time a feast for the child’s senses and a spiritual experience.
If we work on the assumption that spirituality already exists inside every child, the impact we have on children even in the earliest stages of their development makes such a difference.
Many years ago I was told the story of a baby was born to a mother who was addicted to crack cocaine. The little boy was born with an intense craving for the drug, and quickly went into withdrawal. He was inconsolable, crying and arching his back in pain. His mother was not available to him, as she was going through her own withdrawal. A group of friends decided to take turns holding that little baby in two hour shifts around the clock. Even as he cried and felt pain, arms were always around him. Even when it looked to those holding him that their arms were having no soothing effect, they still held him. After what seemed like an eternity, all the drugs were out of his system and he was at peace… lying in the loving arms of his caregiver.
What difference do you imagine that made to the baby boy? What did he learn about God even through unfair circumstances? How did his experiences shape him– even experiences he wouldn’t later be able to remember?
Related post from the L.A. Times: Students only know a fraction of math teacher’s good deeds
Here’s what happened when one parent assumed that spirituality already exists in her young son.
As my son was going to sleep two nights ago he said he was afraid to go to heaven because he didn’t know what it would look like. I told him to ask God to show him while he was asleep. I forgot to follow up about it yesterday, then remembered this morning. This is what he said.
I saw the biggest house you could imagine and its color was gold. God was there. I saw his white robe and it had a thin, black, rope-type belt double-tied [like my son ties his sweatshirt around his waist for school]. There was grass, but it wasn’t like here below. It was taller and filled with purple, red, violet, blue, yellow and green flowers. There was a cliff that I almost went off, and there was water under the cliff. The sun was there and it shined so bright that I could only squint and open one eye.
I asked him if it took away his fears, now that he saw it, and he said yes. I asked him to give me one word of what he felt about seeing it and he said, “Love.”
Here’s someone who honored the spirituality in her son. She listened to his description without judging. Then she checked in on his emotional state which had previously been fearful.She believed that his human spirit could handle the child-sized challenge of asking God to show him while he was asleep. And she hoped, even with a speck of hope, that God was listening.
Adults often believe either that we need never bring up spiritual matters at all or that we must instill our own beliefs about God into children.
The first option may be found among adults who assume that spiritual matters are of little importance to children. The upshot can be to discourage open-minded exploration and discovery where almost all children are curious. Or simply to eliminate yourself as an interested party when children reach out to talk with someone about life and death and meaning.
The second option is common among more religious adults. The assumption is that children are blank slates, having no natural engagement with God on their own, and therefore need to be taught. Sometimes the results can be damaging: children feeling forced into rigid belief systems at a time when they more naturally lean toward possibilities and questions. That can lead children to run from the very mention of God.
What about a third way? What if we listen to and nurture what God has already placed inside of them? What if we serve more as guides or even fellow journeyers than we do as teachers? What if we work on the assumption that spirituality already exists inside the heart of every child and that God is already active there? Maybe that’s a cleaner window into their spirit. And our role is not to tell them what to see out the window or to close the curtains on the window, but to facilitate and encourage them so they can see clearly for themselves.