It’s hard to find child-sized words kids can use to express spiritual or transcendent experiences. “Kids need to know the words,” says middle school teacher Sheila Edwards. “When you’re giving to others, that’s sacrifice. Labeling it makes it powerful. Kids can say, ‘I did this—it shows I’m committed,’ or ‘This shows I have integrity.’”
A teacher told one student: “Jake’s mother told me that every kid in the class made fun of him when his nose was runny—everyone but you. Your compassion made a difference to Jake. He came home and told his mom about it.”
Our reward for giving children words
The reward for giving children language to go with their spiritual life is that we build a bridge connecting ourselves with the child in the deepest part of their being (and ours). If nurtured, it will remain so for the rest of our lives. And the child can form bonds like this with other trustworthy people because they have language to communicate at this level..
I know, because my mother did this with me.
For instance, in a supermarket line she said, “That clerk has an amazing amount of self-control. Look how patient and calm she is with the angry customer.” Or when I, as an 11-year-old, came sobbing to her about how I was afraid she would die, after comforting me emotionally, she said, “Honey, I am indestructible until my work on earth is finished and when it is, God will provide everything you need to live a good life.”
Start with photos
A young family can benefit from a Photo Album of family members’ generous, thoughtful actions. Young children remember IMAGES, not words. Print and hang actual photos near your dining table or attach them to the refrigerator. Change them periodically to show new expressions of the family’s spiritual values.
Move on to educate them with vocabulary words that match the behaviors.
Notice and affirm loving behavior. “Sage had trouble opening her straw. You did it and poked it into her juice box. That was helpful.”
I listen for, and excitedly affirm children when they use spiritual vocabulary, such as:
justice — mercy — God — peace — helpful –moral — faith — purpose — meaning — ethical — good — right — wrong — reason — conscience — spirit — soul — mind –worship — prayer — forgive — integrity — truth — inner life — loving
Each of these words becomes part of a child’s vocabulary. Once children identify language to go with their spiritual life, they can use those words in daily settings.Their everyday acts and interactions reflect a spiritual quality.
Spiritual qualities my mother’s words passed to me:
To hear with my heart
To see with my soul
To be guided by a hand I cannot hold
To trust in a way that I cannot see
That’s what faith must be. (Michael Card)
- It’s hard to find child-sized words kids can use to express spiritual or transcendent experiences. Click to Tweet
- Educate children with vocabulary words that reflect their ethical behavior. Read more here. Click to Tweet
Readers of this blog know we focus on exploration of a child’s human spirit. Nature plays a crucial role in spiritual development and health. After all– to state the obvious– it’s our natural habitat. We are wired for it. Children need to spend time in nature– even city kids need the parks.
From nature, children…
- gain a certain perspective unattainable from any other source
- acquire neuroconnections key to brain function
Nature advances a web of life perspective
One of Alexander von Humboldt’s most important discoveries was that nature is a web of life. He found Earth to be one great living organism and a place where everything is connected. Humboldt wrote, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.”
He was the first to recognize the forest as an ecosystem. As such, he predicted devastating consequences of despoiling the face of the earth. However, though he was captivated by empirical data, he never lost his sense of wonder. He wrote that, “nature must be experienced through feeling.”
How do the children in your life “feel” nature’s web of life?
- Relationally – through a connection with their pet(s), tending vegetables in a garden, nurturing a potted plant
- Powerfully – awe and wonder of nature as far bigger than all of us, through astronomy, IMAX nature movies
- Creatively – inspiration for poetry, photography
- Experientially – sitting at the side of a lake listening to the water lap against the shore
Connections with nature build neuroconnections in the child’s brain.
From Dr. Becky Bailey’s work on Conscious Discipline, I learned more about how a child’s connections on the outside build neuroconnections on the inside. When relating to people, these outside connections come from eye contact, touch and presence.
When relating to nature, one woman describes an insight gained from sitting in a forest:
Your colleagues or supervisor at work won’t allow you to pursue your ideas. Then, you notice that a tree looks like it was initially growing in one direction, but something got in the way and now it’s growing—and thriving—in another. It’s as if the tree is saying, “Grow where you can! Send your energy to where you will be nurtured!”
A sense of peace envelops you as you lay down a fruitless struggle. Then a new creative space emerges as a more helpful question dawns on you: “Where can I grow?” (Kris Abrams)
Many great writers, thinkers, scientists, and poets have reflected extensively on nature:
Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. (Albert Einstein)
Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction. (E. O. Wilson)
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (Henry David Thoreau)
Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher. (William Wordsworth)
Children learn all living things can be our teacher.
Happy Earth Day!
- #EarthDay2016: Connections in nature build neuroconnections in a child’s brain. Click to Tweet
- #EarthDay2016: From nature, children gain a certain perspective unattainable from any other source. Click to Tweet
Like it or not, a child’s caregivers mirror God’s character in the child’s eyes. No doubt you’ve been part of conversations like this:
My 3-year-old asked me something–I’ve forgotten the exact question–but it was something I didn’t know the answer to. So I told him, ‘Hunter, I don’t know the answer to that question.’
As if he hadn’t heard me, he asked the same question again. Again I said, ‘I told you already; Daddy doesn’t know the answer to that question.’
‘Yes you do, Daddy,’ he said with confidence, ‘you know everything! Now tell me the answer!’
Obviously it sorts itself out and children grow to grasp the reality that my parents are only human.
Yet a spiritual component remains in effect.
The way caregivers express their values and emotions “wires” the child’s brain for the way children will perceive their higher power.
As a father held his crying little daughter in his arms, one of his statements to her was, “God knows we are sad when we lose something we like, but he promises to hold us just like I’m holding you right now.”
A mother of two explains how she understands the mirror image.
Let’s say Sally is crying because she has scraped her knee. An empathetic parent would come to her aid asking how she is doing rather than curtly telling her to stop crying like a baby. This child feels understood and connected, and the universe makes sense to her.
Author Curt Thompson states, “This mindful approach to the emotional state of a child literally prepares a template at a neurological level that enables the child to grow into an awareness of a God who also cares about his or her joys, hurts, fears and mistakes.”
The child ultimately is able to envision God as responsible and trustworthy and that the world is safe, despite the apparent contradictions.
When you consider this idea, do you feel increased frustration or increased hope?
Tweetable: The way caregivers express their values and emotions “wires” the child’s brain for the way children will perceive God. Click to Tweet
Children think about God. They like to talk about God. Each person experiences God in a different way, and some not much at all. Some adults consider it a private matter, hesitating to speak of it even with the children we love most. It can be difficult for kids to learn responsiveness to God if we won’t give up a bit of our privacy.
How many of these statements are true of you?
- I pray in front of the child.
- I give concrete examples of when I have seen God at work in or around me, and how I responded to seeing that.
- I worship and highly esteem God, even more than I worship success, entertainment, money, or other people.
- Sometimes I start a conversation with the child: “I see God in that person. Do you want to know how?”
- When I see a stranger doing a random act of kindness I point it out to the child.
Consider each idea in turn, from the list above.
- In which have you already engaged with specific children? What was their response?
- Is there one you want to try? With which children?
- Remember, you have the option to adapt the ideas to fit with your understanding of God, if necessary.
When you read the example below, in what specific ways do you see the mother modeling and teaching responsiveness to God?
When I was making a difficult decision about whether to take a particular job in another state, I intentionally decided to let my 9-year-old son in on my process. I told him about the opportunity and we made a Pros and Cons list, but we didn’t stop there.
I told him I wanted to pray to God about what God would want me to do. I asked my son if he would also pray and listen for whatever God might be telling him, especially since this decision affected him, too.
We prayed and talked together over the course of a few weeks, and eventually came to the same conclusion. This new job would provide many more opportunities for me to help people were were sick and in need. (I am in the medical field.)
There was nothing crucial to keep us in the location where we were. Even though the money would be less, we both felt released by God to move so that I could take this new opportunity.
Tweetable: It can be difficult for kids to learn spiritual responsiveness if we won’t give up a bit of our privacy. Click to Tweet
When adults try to help children relate to others authentically, we generally promote qualities like patience, forgiveness, honesty, love, etc. These come to us by way of our human spirit. Strong spiritual awareness can figure prominently into our ability to form healthy relationships.
We become the live action video.
To help children develop these qualities means we must model them ourselves.We become the live action video– the indelible image of how to form authentic relationships.
To what degree have you practiced behaviors like these with the important children in your life?
- The child observes occasions when my actions and words respect persons different from me, allowing us to engage in dialogue about how to treat people with respect.
- Since people offend me at times, and the child knows about it, I am open about my ups and downs on the road to forgiveness and reconciliation.
- I model and encourage time for social gatherings, including spiritual or religious services.
- The child sees me listen to someone’s spiritual journey without injecting my own opinion.
- I encourage the child to find trusted adults besides me with whom they can talk about life and God.
You will adapt them to fit with your spiritual tradition.
Remember that in some cases you may need to adapt them to fit with your spiritual tradition, the qualities you value, and even your culture. For example, in #1 above, different people might reconcile “treat people with respect” with “standing up for oneself” in different ways. Here’s one mother’s experience:
My 7-year-old daughter Sophie came home one day very upset because her best friend Mariah said something insensitive about her height.
Sophie was very short for her age, and sensitive about it. Mariah, who was tall for her age, had no understanding that someone might be sensitive about her height.
I called Mariah’s mom and explained the situation. Both of us wanted to teach our daughters how to work through conflict productively.
We set up a meeting time for Sophie to share how she felt, for Mariah to hear, understand it, and apologize, and for Sophie to accept the apology and restore the relationship.
Both girls were afraid, as neither liked conflict, but they worked through the process as we coached them.
The result was a restored friendship, rather than the growing distance that occurs when hurt feelings go unaddressed.
Our family was later able to talk about that experience of recognizing when you have done something wrong, then asking for and receiving forgiveness, in the context of our Catholic tradition.
Tweetable: To what degree are you modeling authentic relationships for the important children in your life? Click to Tweet
I’m not the first one to notice the earnest way children talk about and ask about God. They are curious. After all, they can hear about God almost every day. On the playground, at the park, at the zoo, basically anywhere people are talking: Oh my God. Oh God, no! Goddammit! I swear to God….
They are curious about this. Children want to talk about and ask about God.
Who is God? Why can’t I see God? Where does God live and is his mom there? How old is God? Is God a person? Was God born from an Easter egg?
Notice these two children who expected and responded to a God who cares, nourishes and feeds. It’s their natural instinct:
“When my pet cat died I wanted to know where my cat went, why she couldn’t come back, etc. I was completely satisfied with my parents’ answers of ‘She went to heaven; God is watching over her now.’ That’s when I realized there was some other higher being out there. I felt peace. I remember it distinctly. It was peace knowing that there was someone watching and caring for us that we couldn’t see or touch, but they were out there.”
“Around age four I was hungry to read stories from a large Reader’s Digest Bible Story Book that my Mom had ordered. We didn’t go to church so these stories were completely new to me. I was amazed and was so drawn by the stories read to me by my Mom and sister.”
We nurture the human spirit when, in responding to questions and comments about God, we convey God’s love, affection, warmth and tenderness for the child, despite any reservations of our own we may have.
- Two different parents respond to their child’s natural instinct to ask questions about God. Click to Tweet
- Parents should respond positively to kids’ questions about God despite their own reservations. Click to Tweet