"Daddy, is God real?" My 6-year-old son, Leo, has a knack for asking questions that require a Google search. But when he tossed this one at me the other day as we played catch in the backyard, I was at a loss for what to say.
"What do you think?" I responded. Leo hesitated for a moment. "I don't think he's real like a tree," he said. "But I think he's real like love." As he tossed the mini football, I marveled at his arm—and his budding religious awakening.
Spirituality comes naturally to most kids. From a young age, they feel a connection to other living creatures. They have no trouble believing in things they can't see, and they're intrigued by God and religion. Preschoolers think it's fun to say grace before a meal, and grade-schoolers eagerly speculate about whether Max the Gerbil will go to heaven when he dies.
But that doesn't mean kids really understand what religion is all about. "You need to bring spirituality into your everyday life, not just check it off your list when you drop your kid off at Sunday school," says Mimi Doe, coauthor of 10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting. Centuries of experience have shown that a strong spiritual foundation can be central to a happy, purposeful, and ethical life.
For many parents, faith is a clear-cut matter: You may be a born-again Christian, a practicing Catholic, or a reform Jew. But whatever your conviction or denomination, you should think about the spiritual values you want to pass on to your child—and explain them in a way he can understand. For example, do you think of God as an omnipotent being who guides every action or as one who watches from a distance? Do you believe in preserving your religion's ancient teachings or in adapting them to modern times? Are you more interested in helping other people or in spreading the word?
"For me, spirituality is about finding a connection with God rather than seeking definitive answers to life's mysteries," says Stacey Harrison, who attends a Congregationalist church in Boulder, Colorado, with her two preschoolers. "I want to give my boys a sense of tradition, so they'll have the tools to decide about their own beliefs."
Want to make your beliefs ring true for your child? The old axiom applies: Practice what you preach. If you plan to have your kids attend Sunday school, go to church regularly yourself. If teaching goodwill toward others is important, don't just say, "God wants you to be kind to other people"—hand a sandwich to a homeless person, or welcome a new family to the neighborhood. "If I say I believe in helping others, I want my girls to see me doing it," says Dawn Wilcox, from Kansas City, Kansas. She takes Morgan, 5, and Cooper, 8 months, along when she visits a member of her congregation who's ill. And when she sends someone a get-well note, she encourages Morgan to write one too: "I want her to know that all the people God created are important."
All faiths depend in part on the ability to imagine. That's why you should listen respectfully to your child's religious theories, even if they strike you as well...childish. "Whenever my 5-year-old daughter, Christanee, thinks we're going to forget to pray in the morning, she says, 'God's gonna get mad and stomp around in heaven,'" says Katrina Papillion, a mom from Lake Charles, Louisiana. 'She thinks that's where thunder comes from." Validating your child's interpretations will boost her confidence and promote her spiritual growth. "If you aren't listening to her ideas, how will she ever believe that God is paying attention?" says Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, pastoral counselor and author of Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth.
Religion may be a serious matter, but don't tell that to a preschooler. Instead, encourage her to explore her spiritual side through play. Ask your child what she thinks heaven looks like, and have her draw a picture of it. Put on a puppet show based on a story from your religious tradition. You might play religious music, and dance around the living room together. Or have your child make up an original prayer thanking God for a beautiful sunset.
Find age-appropriate ways to help your child make sense of religious stories. For toddlers, try board books such as Bible Animals. Preschoolers will enjoy Veggie Tales books and videos, while the Read and Learn Bible (which has kid-friendly interpretations of the Old and New Testaments) is good for grade-schoolers. Also take advantage of the spiritual lessons in secular TV shows and movies. Bob Moore, a Jewish dad in Shadow Hills, California, uses Star Wars DVDs with his twin first-graders, Sarina and A.J., to reinforce Torah teachings. "I tell them Yoda is my favorite character, because he calls on a higher power that enables him to do great things in life," he says.
While 96 percent of Americans believe in a supreme being, only about 40 percent attend a house of worship at least once a week, according to a recent Pew Research Council survey. Why the gap? Many parents feel overburdened with work, child care, and other commitments. But here's why it's worth your time to become active in a congregation: Doing so is one of the best ways to further your child's spiritual development.
Even if you're ambivalent about organized religion, getting involved with a church, temple, or mosque will help provide your child with guides and companions for his spiritual journey. When 6-year-old Rose DiPietro asked her parents whether she could go to Sunday school like her friends do, her mom, Quinn, searched for churches on the Internet. Eventually she found an Episcopalian congregation in Altadena, California, that emphasized social activism and service to the poor. "We all feel comfortable with this community," says Quinn. "And I'm happy with what my daughter's getting out of it: a sense of belonging and a deeper devotion to the golden rule."
At a time when religious conflicts dominate the headlines, it's crucial to instill in your child a respect for other faiths. Point out the similarities between religions ("Lots of faiths have a Sabbath; it's just not always on Sunday"). You might explain that there are many religions because there are many different ways of seeing God—and no one way is the right way. "I tell my children that we differ in certain ways from other religions, but not in moral ways," says Ranya Idliby, a Muslim mother of two and coauthor of The Faith Club, a memoir of her search for common ground with a Jewish mom and a Christian mom. "We all believe in being honest, fair, and good to other people."
Don't wait for the holidays to make religious traditions a part of your life. Saying grace before meals and prayers before bedtime are two proven ways to foster your child's spiritual awareness. Coming up with your own variations of these rituals can make them even more meaningful. Before dinner, Angie Ito, a mother of two in Napa, California, leads her kids—Taylor, 3, and Dylan, 8 months—in a prayer she adopted from her grandmother: "For this time together, for this food we share, for this love we feel, Father in Heaven, we thank you."
Rachael Kosal, who is Lutheran, uses prayer in everyday moments to further her 2-year-old's religious development. For example, if Kosal hears an ambulance pass their home in Knob Noster, Missouri, she'll say "Keep them safe, Jesus," together with her daughter. "I want Kaelyn to know that God is always listening," Kosal says.
Helping those in need is a central tenet of every major faith. It's also great for your child's spiritual health. When Colleen Burke, a Catholic mom in Rockford, Illinois, started volunteering for Meals on Wheels last year, she brought along Kate, 6, and Will, 4. "We went to poor neighborhoods and met people who were too weak to leave their apartments," Burke says. "My kids could see how lucky they were to have warm clothes and enough to eat, and how satisfying it was to share our good fortune. That spoke much louder to them than a sermon."
Many congregations offer charitable opportunities for children. So do hospitals, scouting groups, and nonprofit organizations. When you encourage your child to ride in a cancer bike-a-thon, ladle soup at a shelter, or sell lemonade to help needy kids, you teach her that all people are family—perhaps the most spiritual lesson of all.
God, death, and heaven are difficult concepts for young kids to grasp. "Keep your answers simple and honest," says pastoral counselor Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick. These responses will reassure your child and spark further discussion.
When a person has lived a very long time, the body stops working. But our family believes that when a person dies, his soul goes to heaven. That's what happened to Grandpa.
It's the part of a person that makes us who we are. Aunt Rose's soul was the part that loved to tell silly jokes and cook you dinner. That part of her will live on forever in our memory.
I think it's a beautiful place, beyond the moon and stars, where everyone is happy and free.
Nobody knows for sure. But I believe animals have their own heaven, where they get to run around as much as they want. What do you think?
In our family, we think it's nice to be around other people who pray and sing together, in a place where there's nothing to do but think about God.
Different groups of people see God in their own way. But all faiths agree on one thing: You should treat other people just the way you'd like to be treated yourself.