How can parents nurture their child’s spiritual development? Here are some ways in which we help our children (and ourselves) to appreciate the fullness of life:
This means considering the feelings of other people and living things. By thinking this way, one is able to act with kindness arising from empathy. Little children have lots of natural compassion — they hate to see an animal hurting or a younger child, for instance. You can help strengthen com-passion by teaching them how to notice the feelings of others and to show gentleness towards insects, animals and so on. When they show small acts of kindness, comment on them. And, of course, treat your children kindly, so that they experience the feeling of receiving care.
Harmony with nature
Enjoy the outdoors together. Watch the sunrise or, at night, go into the countryside to hear and see the animals. Sit quietly in wild places. Go camping. Grow plants.
Recycle. Encourage tidiness and cleanli-ness, and point out the pleasures of clean sheets on the bed, clean clothes on their skin.
Talk about the beauty and happiness around us. Strictly limit TV watching and computer games. Children under five should not have to see the images and hear the messages on TV or radio news, for instance. They are able to understand, but cannot appreciate the context of these things and will get a frightening and distorted view of the world. This can lead to behaviour problems, such as aggression, as they try to cope with their inner fears.
This isn’t a matter of painting a false picture; the world is largely positive, with a majority of safe, trustworthy people. There are real problems in the world, but worrying about them is adults’ work, not little child-ren’s. When you discuss problems, talk about what you, as a family, can do about them. Concepts which you want them to take on, such as ‘there is some good in everyone’, ‘things have a way of working out’ and ‘for every problem there is a solution’, can be mentioned quietly and will become part of their attitude.
Forgiveness and problem solving
Self esteem and confidence come not from being perfect, but from being able to take a mistake or setback and think your way around it. Children can learn to think and feel at the same time, and take responsibility for their actions, without having to cover up mistakes or not try for fear of failure. You can say, ‘Well, that was a mistake, but I’m sure you can fix it up.’ When a problem arises, help them with brainstorming possible solutions, trying things to see if they work and trying again if they don’t. This will give your children a ‘can do’ approach to life which will become part of their character forever.
Encourage concentration, by allowing children touninterrupted and absorb themselves in . Have a quiet house, at least some of the time. Teach your children relaxation through stories, tapes and by giving them a massage.
– All people matter. You can demonstrate this by always greeting your children by name and saying goodbye individually. They, in turn, say ‘hello’, adding the person’s name if they know it, and ‘good morning’ and ‘good night’ to each person in the home.
– All points of view matter. Don’t put down people, groups, religions or races in front of your children. Point out that ideas and beliefs change. They might believe one way now and another later. In answer to questions, tell them, ‘Some people believe… while others think…’ When they ask you for an answer, don’t always give them your views. Ask them what they think and why.
Where possible, expose your children naturally and easily to people of different ages, abilities, handicaps, races and talents. Talk about your own ‘disabilities’, so they realise that these are normal and surmountable. As they are growing up, show them that you value people of different races, cultures, beliefs, sexual preferences and so on.
This quality arises out of being accepted unconditionally in one’s family. If you have experienced acceptance as a child, you will go into the world expecting it and usually getting it, because you radiate this assurance. Give loving messages clearly and unambiguously: ‘I’m glad you are here in this family; it’s great to have you around.’
Of course, you will criticise and seek to change behaviour, but always separate this from the person. ‘I don’t like what you are doing.’ You can even put compliments into your criticisms. ‘You are far smarter than that. I know you can think of a better way to solve the argument. Let’s see you do it.’
Expect and help children to take care of their bodies, because they are important and valuable. Talk about how their bodies are strong and well, and how they have lots of energy. Point out how good children are at healing quickly. Place high value on their diet, exercise and safety, such as always fastening their seatbelts in the car. This all says, ‘You are precious.’
Help children to value others’ happiness as well as their own. ‘Look how happy Jenni is with the present you gave her.’ ‘I like being with you, you are really good fun.’ We all aim to give our children a happy childhood, but the eventual message we want them to have is that happiness is a choice.
Point out the ways they know to help themselves feel happy —ing with their favourite toys; inviting other children to with them; sitting and being peaceful for a while with a book or toy; having a and playing in it. We can actively encourage even young children by routinely using statements like: ‘Have a happy time’, ‘enjoy yourself, ‘find something you’d like to do.’
We adults may have spiritual practices of our own, having discovered how much they help our lives. Some people go to church, others meditate or do yoga; some observe family rituals, follow special diets, gather for study or discussion and so on. It is surprising that, having discovered the benefits, parents can be reluctant to involve their children in these practices. Yet, when it comes to pushing children to do such things as brushing their teeth and picking up their toys, we have no hesitation. Our children may get the feeling that tidiness matters more than spiritual practice.
We believe that children can be encouraged to try, stick with and, as they grow older, find out for themselves the potential benefits of spiritual practices. With some flexibility to accommodate young children’s needs, spiritual practices in childhood can remain a positive memory. They also create a ‘spiritual space’ in a child’s mind which, as a teenager and adult, they can build on in their own way. They will know that there is more meaning to life than possessions, approval or outer success and will be hardier and more self-directed.
The above is an abbreviated guide to a huge subject. Perhaps the biggest challenge, when we acknowledge that our children have a need for spiritual guidance from us, is to work out how this is expressed in our lives. Whatever we say to them won’t matter as much as what they notice about our serenity, our compassion, -our free-spiritedness and our happiness in the world. Which is quite a challenge!