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


Harvest time: of kids and carrots and character

seeds in handIn early Spring, when we tore open seed packets of carrots and pumpkins, the golden days of harvest  were far away. I like what Ann Voskamp says, “The seeds, they fall into my hand small, jewels. But to look at seeds and believe they will feed us? When…it doesn’t look like near enough. When it looks like less than a handful instead of a plateful, a year full, a life full. When it looks inedible.  These seeds, they are food? It looks like a bit of a joke. To hand someone seeds…and ask him to believe in a feast?”

Being mindful of the future feast in a child’s life

When kids are what we seed, it can help to take time from life’s busyness to recapture what our hopes and dreams are for their spiritual life. Here’s a visualization exercise:

  • What character traits do you want to see in them?
  • What character flaws will be holding them back?
  • Where will they turn for their inner guidance system?
  • What relationship will they have with a Higher Power?
  • How much self-awareness will they possess?
  • To whom will they turn for help and support?

sproutHonor the ordinaryness of everyday life

From the earliest years, when adults shape the entire life experience of infants and toddlers, through the child’s growth in self-awareness, conscience, and responsibility, we are modeling and teaching, listening and supporting.  But we don’t expect to see any signs of harvest yet.

 “A small thing is just a small thing. But faithfulness in small things is a very great thing.” (A. Carmichael)

“What would happen today if we saw all the not-enough, too-little in a child’s life to be but a seed? asks Ann Voskamp. “Small somethings growing into a more wonderful future. Believe it. All feasts began as seeds.”

tween boy whale watchingConversation starters for older children

  1. What do you want your life harvest to be?
  2. How do you know if you’re planting the right seeds to get you that harvest?
  3. Agree or disagree (and why): Some people think they’ll only get a harvest if they are successful or special.
  4. Someone said: “When you think about it—we cannot not produce a harvest.” What do you think that means?

Tweetable: A visualization exercise here clarifies the hopes and dreams we hold for a kid’s solid inner life. Click to Tweet

To kids you mirror a higher power: scary or exciting?

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.

father comforts daughterThe 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