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


Serve-and-return dynamics in childhood spirituality

volleyballWith two nieces on top-ranked college volleyball teams (Hawaii and UCLA) I sat in a lot of gyms watching serves and returns.

Serve-and-return parenting

Psychologists sometimes use the term “serve and return parenting” to refer to face-to-face, back-and-forth interactions between caregivers and their babies. Science Journalist Paul Tough observes that these interactions create secure attachments and they motivate a child’s enthusiasm in practicing social interaction, speech and language.

toddler girl calmBut I also observe the same serve and return dynamics in the development of human spirituality, sparking growth in conscience and character.


Serve-and-return spirituality

Children experience the calm in the inner space of their human spirit that they need to incubate perseverance, tenacity, and the other significant character qualities. These character qualities then carry over into their everyday life.

From serve-and-return spirituality flows an ability to calm oneself– spiritual self-soothing, so to speak. This ability to calm oneself helps children persevere through problems and to begin seeing mistakes as opportunities for learning.

Take perseverance and tenacity, for example–

“In order for kids to have perseverance and tenacity in school later on, they need to start with self-regulatory abilities—the ability to calm themselves down, to focus on something for long periods of time, executive functions, as researchers sometimes call them,” explains Mr. Tough.

Parents know all too well that their child’s self-regulatory abilities, or lack of them, mimic their own. What do you do under stress? Are you easily distracted?

Besides modeling for them, we teach younger children through activities, and older children by listening and coaching. Parents contributed these examples below that have worked for their families. What’s working for you?

Activities to practice serve-and-return spirituality

Infant – age 3:  Hold the child in your lap when you’re meditating or praying to show them the habit of sitting quietly and mimicking what you do, followed by smiling, talking, laughing.

Age 4-6: Your bedtime rituals establish a family culture of serve-and-return. Your face-to-face, back-and-forth communication carries a message of unity and belonging: “These are the books, songs, chants, or prayers this family uses at bedtime and no other family uses the exact same ones. We belong to each other.”

Age 7-12:  Breakfast Club (can also be done in the car en route to school): Siblings (and adults) take turns going back-and-forth with each other for a short affirmation such as:

  • I wish you well in your book report today.
  • I saw you studying for your math test. You can relax because you are well-prepared.
  • I know you can handle anything that happens today.


  • Serve and return spirituality sparks growth in a child’s character and conscience. Click to Tweet
  • It pays to turn more attention to developing childhood spirituality. Three simple activities here. Click to Tweet 

The snails’ funeral

snailsMy friends Laura and Mamitte (not their real names) were having coffee at Mamitte’s apartment while their 7-year-old boys and a neighbor boy played in the courtyard. Mamitte walked out to check on them and discovered that they had smashed a bunch of snails. She said to them, “Oh, I am so saddened by this,” and returned to the apartment to figure out, along with Laura, what to do about it.

What’s really important, they decided, is the greater lesson of how we treat creatures.

When both women went outside, the boys began to play “he said/she said” about who actually smashed and who watched. But Mamitte asked them if they were willing to gather the snails’ bodies and put them to rest in God’s earth. The boys said they were willing to participate.

They gathered the snails’ bodies.

As they did, they had time to process and look at what they had actually done. They then put the snails in the specified resting place.

332618_5683 tween boy thinkingMamitte asked them if they wanted to say something.

  • Ethan said, “We ask God to forgive us for how we treated the snails.”
  • Raul said, “And forgive me for not protecting them.”
  • Logan sang a little song and said, “And that God would give them a home and love them in heaven.”

Then they all said Amen.

The moms decided to take it one step further.

Because the snails had been smashed all over a long bench in this courtyard where everyone sits, Mamitte got out rags and a cleaning solution to disinfect the bench and brought those out to the boys.

As they sat on the ground, scrubbing different parts of the bench, they bounced ideas back and forth to each other. It was all Mamitte and Laura could do to keep their mouths shut (a very important parenting skill).

boy closeupThe boys figure it all out on their own.

  • One says, “Gosh, I don’t want to be doing all this WORK right now. This is so much WORK and we could be playing.”
  • Another says, “Well, that’s what happens when we make bad choices.”
  • And as they’re going back and forth, the third boy says,  “I. will. never. do. this. again.”

Those are the huge connections that we want–

  1. They are experiencing the consequences of their actions.
  2. The heart issue, the core of it, is that we shouldn’t treat other beings like that.

The two moms celebrated silently, standing behind the boys so they couldn’t see.

coffee mugsWhen they returned to their coffee cups in the apartment, they asked each other, “How did we do that—It worked so effectively?!”

Here’s what they came up with:

  • Our parenting was not reactive. Laura said, “My first instinct had been to take my son, rip him out of the courtyard, put him in the car and say, ‘Well, if you’re going to act that way over here, we can’t be over here.'”
  • We asked if they would be willing. Mamitte said to Laura, “When you approached them and stopped the bickering, you asked if they would be willing to gather the snails’ bodies. I was shocked, thinking, “I can’t believe she’s asking them because they aren’t going to do it.” And they all chose it! It wasn’t anything forced.
  • We found a teachable moment. Natural consequences are often the teachable moments. We guided them, we didn’t punish. We invited them to take responsibility to care for the snails’ bodies.

Tweetable: See how three boys increase in respect for all creatures at a memorial service for snails. Click to Tweet

Why is hiding wrongdoing harmful?


Hide and Seek can be fun for kids… but the thrill is in being found. No one wants to stay hidden forever. That means they’ve been forgotten and are not part of the group anymore.

An (admittedly imperfect) analogy can be drawn to hiding our wrongdoing



When adults do something wrong, our temptation can be to hide it. But we quickly learn that the hiding becomes a problem in and of itself.

It cuts us off from our community. It allows our detrimental behavior to continue to harm us. It brings unwanted feelings of shame.

We don’t want this for our children.

Why do children often begin to cover up their wrongdoings?

For one thing, it is usually easy to hide a hurtful wrong, while deciding to reveal it is hard.

For another thing, children are scared of the consequences, especially when that may include punishment in some form. So instead of acknowledging the wrongdoing and exposing themselves to the adult’s potentially negative reaction, their temptation is to hide it.

Also, children sense a breach of relationship when adults get angry or express disappointment in them, making their choice to hide seem like a safer alternative.

What can we as parents or caregivers do to help children navigate these difficult waters well?

The most important action we can take is also the most simple: Show them through modeling. When do children see you admit that you have done something wrong or handled something badly? When have they seen you apologize for your actions?



One dad sometimes gets mad at his kids and yells at them. (Admittedly, they’ve generally done something to provoke that response.) He knows he shouldn’t yell at them, so after he cools down he will come back and apologize to his children. Through this they learn that it’s okay– even good– to be honest about your shortcomings.


The more honest I can be, the less I have to hide…when I have nothing to hide, I have everything to give.

–American singer/songwriter Kenny Loggins

Tweetable: When do children see you admit that you have done something wrong or handled something badly? Click to Tweet


Helping children process wrongdoing

I have noticed that very young children are quite honest and open about their wrongdoing.


A child who is told to stay in the living room and not come into the kitchen will slide one foot into the kitchen and then look at the adult to see what they will do. The child is not hiding what they are doing– it’s more like they are experimenting to find out what will happen.

What the adult does next matters


One little girl saw some pretty headbands with sparkles at a friend’s house where she was playing. As Chloe and her mom were walking home, the mom noticed Chloe holding the sparkly headbands. “Where did you get those?” “From Hannah’s house.” “Did Hannah give them to you?” “No.” So they marched right back and returned the headbands to Hannah and her mother with an apology from Chloe.

What did this little girl learn about wrongdoing and guilt?

  • Stealing is wrong. I should not take what doesn’t belong to me.
  • When I do something wrong, the way to handle it is to go back and acknowledge what I did.
  • The apology should come from me, not from my mother. No one else is responsible for my actions.
  • When I admit what I did and apologize, I am forgiven and the relationship is restored.

Incidences of wrongdoing are a valuable learning experience for children. The way the important adults in their lives respond becomes the way the child will respond for the rest of their life when they do wrong.

Imagine this mom had behaved differently. What different lessons might be hard-wired into Chloe’s internal guidance system?


“Did Hannah give them to you?” “No.”

  • Response #1: “Oh. Well, I’m sure it’s no big deal. They’re just hair bands.” And they keep walking.
  • Lesson #1: Stealing is no big deal. You don’t need to address it. OR: It’s better to not let people know if you’ve done something wrong.
  • Response #2: Seeing the hair bands and pretending not to. Saying nothing.
  • Lesson #2:  This is acceptable behavior.
  • Response #3: Taking the child back to return the hair band with the mom apologizing to the other mom.
  • Lesson #3: I am not responsible for my actions– my parents are. It brings shame on them when I do something wrong. My parents need to right the wrong, not me.
  • Response #4: Yelling at the child, bringing the issue up multiple times, shaming the child in front of others.
  • Lesson #4: I am a bad person because I did this. If I do something wrong in the future, I should hide it.

The way the important adults in their lives respond becomes the way children will respond for the rest of their life when they do wrong.

Tweetable: Your reaction to children’s wrongdoing gets hard-wired into their internal guidance system. Click to Tweet