Children of all ages need a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. Here, six religious leaders offer their advice.

By Sharlene K. Johnson
October 05, 2005

Most parents want to instill a sense of ethics, morals, and spirituality in their children. Whether we take our cues from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or from our own personal set of beliefs, we strive to teach our kids right from wrong, to help them develop compassion and respect for others, and to give them a sense of faith and purpose. While that's not easy to do when children are young, it's never too early for parents to start laying the foundation for a spiritual life. How can you best achieve that? We asked six religious leaders who are parents themselves to share their ideas about what works -- and what doesn't.

Help Them Believe

"My wife and I try to help our daughters see that God is somehow here with us. We look for His presence in the concrete, sensory ways that we experience life. Watching hummingbirds at a feeder, looking at Mars through a telescope, seeing the miracles of nature -- observing these helps kids get excited about the world around them. It nurtures their sense of wonder, and ultimately, I think, their belief in God."

Involve Them

"Kids get a sense of spirituality by being involved, and in all faiths, there are many opportunities to engage children. Music is definitely one way to do that. We play a lot of Jewish music in the car and in our home. It's a conscious decision to try to make our traditions a part of our everyday lives. When kids come to services, they're more apt to participate if they're familiar with the songs.

The Reverend Mark Larson, counselor with Methodist Counseling and Consultation Services, in Charlotte, N.C., and father of two girls, ages 4 and 8.

"Our synagogue also involves kids in its various religious traditions: For instance, every year we have a family gathering in the succah, a structure built to celebrate the Jewish harvest festival. And, throughout the year, we encourage children to perform tzedakah, which means charity or good deeds. They might visit a nursing home, make a card for someone who's ill, or save their allowance to donate to a needy organization. Kids enjoy doing those things, and I think that the more enjoyable experiences they have as they grow, the less likely they will be to turn away from their faith."

Cantor Devorah Felder-Levy, with Congregation Shir Hadash, a reform synagogue in Los Gatos, California, and mother of three children under age 5.

Show Them Your Spirituality

"How we live and what we make time for speaks volumes to kids about what's important. Let your children know that spirituality is important to you, and it will become important to them as well. You can do that by talking to kids about your own religious beliefs. For the past year, my son Joseph has been asking me a lot of questions about death and dying. I'm not sure why, because no one close to us has died, but he's always probing: 'Why do people die? What happens when they're dead? Can you still love people who aren't alive?' At first, I felt completely unnerved by this, but then I realized it was a great opportunity for me to teach him what I believe about my own faith, which is that this life isn't all there is. While that topic might seem like a heavy discussion to have with a 6-year-old, my son was very interested in everything I told him.

"Encourage your child to talk to you about questions that arouse his curiosity. It's okay to say, 'I don't really know. What do you think?' or 'Here's what I believe.' Being available for such discussions is an important way to impart spirituality."

The Reverend Felicia Thomas, a minister with Union Theological Seminary, in New York City, and mother of two boys, ages 6 and 8.

Pray as a Family

"Although a formal religious education is important, schools and churches can teach kids only a small portion of what they need to know. The responsibility for creating spiritual, moral people lies primarily with parents. You need to be proactive about it in your everyday life.

"You can use popular culture to get into great conversations with young children and to share your faith and your beliefs with them. My 5-year-old is a Batman fan, and I can talk to him about how his hero helps people and works for justice and a better world. It's a great way to engage him in a conversation about good and bad, right and wrong.

"I think it's also important to pray together as a family. Our family says a prayer before dinner every night. We started off simply -- Bless this food, bless God, bless love, bless you' -- because we wanted something kids would be able to say. But now our prayer has expanded to a discussion of questions like 'What did you see today that was beautiful? What happened that was good, that was something God was involved in?' Stephen, our younger boy, doesn't say anything yet, but he likes holding hands, which we do when we pray. I'm convinced he knows something special is happening."

The Reverend Chris Tang, rector at St. George's Episcopal Church, in Hampstead, Maryland, and father of two boys, ages 2 and 5.

Set a Good Example

"A young child imitates his parents. When they set a good example, he learns. When they set the wrong example, he learns that too. If I talk to my son for an hour about how bad it is for him to lie, and then I tell a lie in front of him, I will destroy my efforts to teach him the right way. We teach our children honesty, integrity, and respect not by talking about those values but rather by translating them into vivid and animated lessons in our own lives.

"Muslim families pass on Islamic values to the next generation by implementing them at home. We fast during the month of Ramadan, for example. When my children see me fasting, they like to do it too, at least for part of the day. And that gives me an opportunity to talk to them about why we fast. Also, practicing Muslims pray five times a day. Every time my youngest son sees me praying, he immediately joins me. When my prayers get lengthy, he gets bored and leaves. I leave him alone because I know he is not yet obligated to pray under Muslim law. But at least he is processing the concept of prayer in his mind."

Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, leader of the Islamic Center of America, in Detroit, Michigan, and father of four children, ages 4 through 18.

Make Them Part of a Community

"A lot of people think church is a building where you go to hear a sermon and then you go home. But the biblical concept of church is that it's a community. So every Sunday after worship we'll hang out or have lunch with various members of our church. That's when my children experience the joy and the love of God. Families who don't spend time with their congregations really miss out.

"The biggest mistake we make is trying to make little kids understand abstract concepts of God. Sometimes they don't need an in-depth explanation. The other day, my son Ragan asked me who made God. I said, 'Nobody made God. God's just always been.' Of course, he persisted and said, 'Well, how did He get born?' My other son chimed in, 'He wasn't born. He hatched out of an egg.' And that was a good enough explanation for Ragan. It's not going to ruin kids' thinking about God forever if we just let them work it out on their own level for the time being.

"It's important that we don't use God to manipulate children to behave. My son once asked me, 'What does God do to you when you're bad?' I guess somewhere he'd heard about the concept of a punitive God. I told him that God would always love him no matter what he did. Now, I can't tell you how many times he has said, 'Mom, God loves you even when you're bad.' That's very important to him because he understands it."

The Reverend Carla Street, pastor of Rivercrest Fellowship, a Baptist church in Jackson, Mississippi, and mother of twin boys, age 5.

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