I have been interviewing adults about their childhood spiritual experiences for four years now, and here’s one important observation I’ve made: As children, they didn’t have the vocabulary to express how they were processing spirituality and God. As adults, they look back and try to put words to their experiences and thoughts, but when they were children they had difficulty. Consider this quote from one man I interviewed:
“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 in the vocabulary they have at the time.
We can help children build a spiritual vocabulary, using 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 in the same way. It’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.
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.
- 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. Click To Tweet
Last week’s post highlights how important it is to a child to have adult engagement with their most difficult questions. Older children seem to be aware of unexplainable events in their life. To an interested listener, they speak freely, with the attitude that it’s obvious there’s something out there and they have ideas and questions about what that something might be.
Adults can offer a calm presence and a certain comfort level with the contradictions and complexities of a preteen.
We also offer children information when they share their outlook:
There’s a lot of time I think I don’t really necessarily believe there’s life after death right now. I’m pondering, toying around with the idea that once you die it’s done, which would put the end to the point of belief right? But at the same time there’s this nagging, well if it is true, I’m screwed.
If a caregiver has a clear belief system, they can suggest an answer to a child’s questions in alignment with that belief system, although it’s still a good idea to hear the child out and not try to force your own opinions.
The obvious challenge arises when adults aren’t sure what they believe themselves.
If a caregiver isn’t sure, what then? Although saying “I have no idea” to an adult is a perfectly fine response, that can be unsettling to a child because it does not provide a safe boundary.
You might consider responses such as: “Some people think X, others think Y.” “What do you think?” or “That’s a great question. Let’s explore that together and figure it out,” followed by an Internet search, a trip to the library and/or some other sources of information.
- The challenge in discussing spiritual questions arises when adults aren’t sure what they believe themselves. Click to Tweet
- Although saying “I have no idea” to an adult is a perfectly fine response, that can be unsettling to a child. Click to Tweet
What must every child have to feel secure? The safety of routine.
Children are creatures of routine. As much as they may love the occasional adventure, they feel safer knowing they can fall back into their familiar patterns. See how this father creates a sense of security by making predictable routines for his son’s life:
“I have been actively guiding and setting boundaries with my little one and I know it takes a lot of practice and consistent monitoring. Generally, he will cry for a moment but then want me to comfort him. Before long he runs off to the next project. It is nice to see that he recovers so quickly. When I keep him and those around him (our dog) safe he does have a good time and laughs a lot.”
The human spirit develops a sense of safety in a similar way.
The most basic building blocks of spirituality are
- a healthy sense of oneself as a human being and unique individual
- attending to things of eternal significance
Give children your undivided attention when issues of self-image, conscience or character show up in your interactions with them. That attention will help them develop an inner sense of safety.
The beautiful part is that children with a deep sense of safety– physically, emotionally, and spiritually– give themselves the freedom to explore, risk and discover.
- Giving attention to self-image, conscience and character helps children develop an inner sense of safety. Click to Tweet
- Children with a deep sense of safety give themselves freedom to explore, risk and discover. Click to Tweet
The movie, “Noah,” will leave quite an impression on children and they will think about it. By rating it PG-13, it is obvious that the movie industry does not recommend it for children under 13.
If you see the movie with a child, you open up the possibility of conversation afterwards. Step back from your own views about God and ask the children to give theirs. Children have a natural curiosity about God and they want to process their thoughts with adults.
Here are some questions that might allow kids to talk about what they’ve seen.
- How do you feel about the idea that God destroys an entire group of people?
- How did you respond when you saw the destruction?
- What is the filmmaker’s opinion of the Creator?
- What is yours–based on your personal knowledge of God?
- How has your opinion of God changed after seeing the movie?
- What is justice? What is mercy?
If we keep in mind all those Active Listening principles we’ve learned and encourage their free expression, they might even ask us what we think. Or maybe they won’t.
Are you willing to leave some loose ends if they come away with opposing views to yours?
- Step back from your own views of the Noah movie and ask kids to give theirs. Click to Tweet
- Are you willing to leave some loose ends if they come away with opposing views to yours? Click to Tweet
Provide spiritual security by engaging with the child’s spiritual questions and curiosity. In the busyness of everyday life it can be easier to skip over their questions, or give pat answers, especially if spiritual topics make us uncomfortable anyway.
Notice how these adults were developing children’s physical and emotional security at the same time:
My friend Terah is a social worker. She was on a routine visit in a good, stable foster home where two children, in kindergarten and first grade, had recently been placed. During her visit, one of the children commented, “What we really like in this new house is that it has an alarm system so we can tell if anyone is leaving.” When they were up in their rooms at night, they knew that the foster parents were still home. The beep-beep-beep of the alarm every time an outside door opened gave them the security of knowing that the adults were not leaving.
Children strongly desire a sense of security. The world can be a scary place for little people who have little control over what happens to them. In the same way they feel secure physically and emotionally, they can feel secure spiritually too. What are some ways you could help the children in your life feel secure in their spirit?
In my next post: Prepare for spiritual questions when your child watches the new movie “Noah.”
- Children can feel secure spiritually in the same way they feel secure physically and emotionally. Click to Tweet
Caregivers who nurture a child’s spirit may begin to notice subtle behavior changes in him. He may show interest in nurturing and caring for others. Children put out what they take in. – Click to Tweet.
You can see this dynamic play out by watching how children care for their baby dolls. One little boy strapped it on his back and went for a bike ride. One little girl scolded her baby in very familiar phrasing for some form of wrongdoing. Guess what these little ones had experienced from their caregivers? Children are natural mimics.
In the same way, children who are spiritually nurtured are likely to act out that same behavior with others.
“Once when I visited my brother’s family my 3-year-old nephew and I were playing with the dog. For some strange reason we started looking closely at the dog’s mouth and teeth. “Why do his teeth look like that [crooked]?” “I don’t know. I guess that’s just how God made him.” “Instantly my nephew shot back, “Who is God?” I don’t recall my exact words–some simple description I’m sure.
About a year passed, now he’s four, and I was with the family again as I was telling them about my shoulder being hurt. “I need to ask God to take care of your shoulder,” my nephew said.
Nurture of the child’s spirituality creates an environment that allows him to experience what it means to be a child of God, even when he cannot find the words to tell a parent or caregivers how important this is to him.
- Children put out what they take in – Click to Tweet.
- Children who are spiritually nurtured are likely to act out that same behavior with others. – Click to Tweet.