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.