Over the past 15 years, large strides have been made in the science behind how the brain develops and the settings and contexts that are conducive to learning. It’s brought exciting insights for enriching the human spirit!
Daily settings for increased brain development
Social relationships, emotional experiences and cognitive opportunities provide purposeful learning paths for the brain. Drive conversations causing kids to reflect upon, make sense of, and learn from the often misunderstood spiritual dimension. A child’s world may be seriously impoverished if we don’t.
As the brain develops, so does the human spirit.
The child’s spirit needs hope, and the comfort of knowing that a loving God is with them, watching over them wherever they are, wherever they go. Ask them, “When did you feel God’s love today?” They need to know what to do when they mess up and how to handle guilt. They want to know what God is like, and how to make a personal connection with God.
What we can do
Feed the child’s human spirit when, in responding to their questions and comments about God, we convey God’s love, affection, warmth and tenderness for the child. Make use of nurturing touch, empathy, empowerment, and unconditional love with children, to reflect the heart of our unseen God. Explore your own family’s religious or spiritual traditions to find accurate information about God. Where you find a disconnect here, go to trusted friends and sacred writings for wisdom.
Genuinely pursue a whole-child approach.
Not only are kids more likely to feel at peace with God, but they are more likely to care for others, and to pass that spiritual nurture down to future generations of children in their lives.
*(I read about the brain basis for integrated whole child development emerging from the lab of Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang in USC’s alumni magazine.)
I get to drive one of the children in my extended family (age 6) to her weekly ballet class. It’s fun to have a few minutes each week of one-on-one time with her. I try to think of one question that might lend itself to a spiritual—or heart—conversation, amid the funny or imaginative chatter in the car.
This afternoon I think I’ll ask her, “What did you do to help someone today?”
Several years ago, the Barna Group published an incredible statistic. It found that less than 10% of families have spiritual conversations in the home. This includes families who are a regular part of a faith community!
One real practical action
Here’s a practical action we adults can take to contribute to childhood spiritual development. Ask a question that makes them think, and search themselves for an answer. “What do you think heaven looks like?” (or “If there’s such a thing as heaven, what do you think it looks like?”) With a question like this, Glennon Doyle says:
“[Kids] are looking inside to see what they’ll find and as soon as they find it: there it is – their hands fly up and they say: “I know I know!!” And then they pull something out of themselves that they didn’t even know was there. Look! Look what I found inside of me! And we smile or nod, and either way we are saying: wow, that is so cool. I didn’t even know [you imagined] that. I didn’t know that about you!”
Sometimes the reason we don’t know what’s going on in each other’s lives is that we don’t ask.
- Who helped you today?
- If you could change anything about me, what would it be?
- Who in your class seems lonely?
- What is something you know how to do that you could teach others?
- If you could switch places with one friend for a day, who would it be?
- What is something you’ve always wanted to ask me?
Tweetable: Step up your efforts to strengthen a child’s spiritual development this year. It takes planning, but not much planning, and an opportunity for 1 and only 1 thoughtful question. More here. Click to Tweet
By now, family members are accustomed to me asking for holiday Wish Lists or kids’ current clothing sizes in October. Why am I making preparations so early?
Sure, I get online and order before the Sold Out box shows up and I’ve reduced the stress level I caused myself with the “Help!–I need more hours in my day” cry.
But it’s nothing like that.
With preparations done, I’m free to carry a message of grace and love to the vast number of people who need it in December.
Done with our personal preparations, we can look, listen and respond to others who feel things like this:
- “The problem with all the Christian holiday displays is that…others feel alien in comparison. We’re the other Americans, the hyphened Americans. I love the multi-culturalism of our nation, the myriad ethnicities and histories. Let’s really celebrate it.” (Shahar Lubin)
- “I don’t mind the pageantry of Christmas….As long as my views [as a skeptic] are respected and the fact that I don’t attend church regularly doesn’t make me a lesser person in [a Christian’s] eyes, I’m perfectly fine.” (Ryan Johnson)
- “And worst of all, the endlessly expanding extravagance of gifts and parties actually makes these days incredibly stressful for millions of people leading to higher depression and suicide rates. Christmas kills, if inadvertently so.” (Edward Clint)
Be present for your neighbor and for those you don’t know well.
Walk in the opposite spirit. I’m with EJ Dionne who said, “I find it decidedly un-Christian to insist on aggressively pushing Christmas greetings onto those who own religious commitments are different from mine.”
With a headstart on preparations, we can keep an open mind and an open calendar.
A special ed teacher, writing in O Magazine, tells of being on the receiving end of a boy who was paying attention.
“One year a boy in my 5th grade class lost his mother in a car accident…..At Christmastime he saw the other students giving me gifts, so he came in with a two-liter bottle of ginger ale. He said he looked around his house and wanted to get me something special, and he knew I liked soda. I cried.
“Every year at this time, we are called to renew our hope that cold indifference and smug complacency can be overcome by a humble and gentle love powerful enough to inspire [us all].” (EJ Dionne)
Tweetable: Big rewards lie in store for people who make themselves buckle down and get holiday preparations done early. The reward I’m thinking of is not what you think. More here. Click to Tweet
A good friend of mine shares her young daughter’s Halloween blessing!
“I used to pick up my daughter every Wednesday from kindergarten and make the hour-long trek to see my father-in-law at his nursing home. I encouraged her to think of something to tell her grandfather. Sometimes I even brought other children with me. On Halloween, she went in costume.
I saw these visits as a blessing on several fronts.
My father-in-law got a visit from a sweet girl who loved him, was happy to bestow kisses and sit on his lap.
The other residents of the home got to see a pleasant child who always brought something clever with her:
- The latest kindergarten project that I didn’t want. (I took pictures of great projects and kept those. My daughter then freely gave the projects away.)
- Flowers or a piece of nature. She was great with dandelions.
- A balloon. (Who would have thought of that? The last belly laugh I got out of my father-in-law came from batting the balloon with his granddaughter.)
My daughter learned that people are worth visiting and not to be afraid of the elderly or those in wheelchairs.
She grew up to work in a nursing home in college and took her sweet nature for the patients with her. Once she even took time to discuss a woman’s weightier questions about life and death and eternity as a result of not being afraid.
Tweetable: An elderly friend or family member might appreciate a visit from your children in their Halloween costumes. Can you fit it into the schedule this week? Click to Tweet
“Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things,” according to Dacher Keltner. He leads UC Berkeley’s Social Interaction Lab and he helped Facebook create the recent additions of emoji’s to the Like feature.
When is the last time you felt awe?
For me, it was experiencing a whole sequence of events line up so that I was in the right place at the right time to be of assistance to someone. The sheer number of converging variables demanded an explanation beyond coincidence.
For Immanuel Kant: “Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.”
Michael Lerner says: “Nothing is more contagious than genuine love and genuine care. Nothing is more exhilarating than authentic awe and wonder.” He says that the universe produces a feeling of awe for him.
Goodness. Beauty. Truth.
Adults and children alike experience awe. We hold that in common. Feeling amazed by goodness, beauty or truth seems to be a universal human response. I ask myself, “Is awe one of the pathways God provides for humanity to experience God? Could it be that feelings of awe are yet another attempt made by a loving God to connect with each of us? How can I provide awe-inspiring experiences for the children in my life?”
Ideas for kids
The second half of this article gives specific ideas of how families can experience awe.
Paula Scott, from her article here on awe, adds another idea, “High school teacher Julie Mann takes her students on ‘Awe Walks’ to connect with nature or art. When they write about these experiences and share them in the classroom, she says, kids who never talk in class or pay attention come to life. ‘It helps them feel less marginalized, with a sense that life is still good.’ She suggests journaling, collage, photography, drawing as ways for students to reflect about awe for time, space, amazing events and people.”
Click to Tweet: We call it goosebumps, spine-tingling, tears in our eyes amazement. Good ideas here to add more wonder to everyday life. Click to Tweet
My husband Bob, even in his 60’s now, remembers his junior high school art teacher. His job doesn’t require much by way of drawing skills, but he does have to sketch the occasional diagram or flow chart to illustrate a concept. Often while doing that, he finds himself apologizing for his lack of artistry.
He was generally a good student, but not in art class.
The art teacher told him he’d pass him under one condition: that he never enroll in another art class again. Now, Bob can tell that as a funny story, meant to make fun of his lack of artistic skills, but I find it deeply sad.
Think about the impact of that comment coming from a teacher. Granted, some people have more innate ability than others, but everyone can grow. What would a comment like that sound like had it come from a math teacher? “You’re no good at math. Why don’t you give up and focus on something else?”
True, my husband had no innate talent for art. But what are some other ways his art teacher could have approached the situation?
Excellence without the sting
- Skills can be learned. Focus on teaching skills. Not everyone is destined to become an artist, but everyone can improve their drawing skills and move toward basic competency.
- Define art more broadly as creativity. Maybe drawing isn’t everyone’s preferred medium, but that doesn’t mean artistry can’t be expressed in other ways. Some people are creative with words, with ideas, with people, with structures. Find that creativity.
- Enjoy the act of creating art. Instead of feeling shame over the results, learn to experience joy in the creative process. This is the equivalent of singing in the shower– who needs an audience when expression is the goal?
How do parents handle similar issues with our children?
Do we place such an emphasis on excellence and proper behavior that we discourage or shame our children when they don’t fit the cultural standards?
Correction can be discouraging
A friend of mine recently saw a mother and her three-year-old daughter at church. She was a cute, sweet little girl and my friend said hi to her, smiled and waved. The little girl immediately hid behind her mother’s legs and her mother began prompting her: “Say hi back, Klarissa.” And she started crying.
My friend felt bad for putting the girl into the situation in the first place, for it was one she recognized. Her own daughter, now a teenager, had responded the exact same way when she was younger.
Not everyone is naturally good at talking with people they don’t know very well. Yet it’s a skill that everyone will need at a basic level.
What if this mother explained to my friend– in front of her child– that she’s not very good socially and therefore excused from giving a polite response? On the other hand, what if she forced her to carry on lengthy conversations with strangers regularly, paying no heed to her natural inclinations? Both extremes can be damaging.
Or correction can be effective.
What the mother did was talk with her daughter at home and tell her, “Sometimes when we’re out, people I know will say hello to you. You don’t have to talk with them for a long time, but it’s polite to say hello back.” They practiced it and she understood the expectation. Next time they ran into that situation in public, the girl still hid, and the mother still had to prompt her to say hi back… but she had courage and did it. And her mother praised her for the effort.
This type of approach is the better one for setting her up to have successful social skills in the future: encouragement, teaching, practice, and taking small steps forward… even in areas we’re not naturally good at.
Tweetable: We want kids to do their best, performing with excellence. Our criticism is intended to spur them on to a higher level, but here is a timely reminder to check ourselves before our words sting. Click to Tweet