Why I'm Teaching My Kids To Be Spiritual Not Religious

There is a difference between being spiritual and being religious. Here's why I'm bringing more spirituality into my home and what experts have to say about it.

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While recently driving to school, my 13-year-old son out of nowhere asked, "Why don't we go to church anymore?"

I thought for a moment and answered honestly: "Well, I'm not sure."

At the start of the pandemic, attending weekly church services was not possible. And while we watched virtual services at the beginning of lockdown, that family ritual became less common. Virtual services just didn't feel the same as being physically in church with other families and we didn't feel as connected. Our church congregation has now begun in-person services, yet I haven't felt particularly inspired to get everyone dressed, fed, and out the door to attend. As a result, aside from some deeper conversations around the dinner table, our family's religious routine has been limited to "saying our prayers" at bedtime.

My son gazed out the window and said, "I just feel like it is important to have some connection to religion or something spiritual."

For weeks, I thought about this conversation. I started to feel my husband and I had not been doing enough to teach our kids to be spiritual outside of attending church. We were both raised Catholic. While we wanted to raise our children as Christians, some of our beliefs did not feel aligned with the social and cultural ideas of the Catholic Church. So when our children were very young, we started to explore other Christian faiths.

I wanted to encourage my three kids to learn to connect with themselves, others, and a greater sense of oneness with the world. I always thought that meant they needed religion because I never considered it a separate entity from spirituality. Inspired by my son's yearning to have spirituality back in his life, I began to search for ways to teach our children to be spiritual outside of religious services.

Spirituality vs Religion for Families

More and more Americans are considering themselves spiritual but not religious. A 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center found 27 percent of U.S. adults say they are spiritual but not religious, an 8 percent increase from five years prior.

"For most Americans, spirituality and religion are intertwined," says Lisa Miller, Ph.D., professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, Teachers College, founder of the Ivy League graduate program's Spirituality, Mind, Body Institute (SMBI), and author of The Awakened Brain. "But they are different."

Religion is a set of beliefs transmitted through ceremony, community, and culture. Spirituality, on the other hand, is within us and the belief in something beyond the self. "It is the capacity for humans to see into the deeper 'nature of life,' knowing that we are loved, held, guided, and never alone and in knowing that this is shared among us," says Dr. Miller, whose research also shows how the brain processes spiritual experiences.

If we teach ourselves to tap into this innate capacity for transcendent awareness, notes Dr. Miller, we are more likely to build a life of meaning and contribution. Through her research, Dr. Miller also found spiritual awareness has mental health benefits, including lowering the risk of depression. Other research has found developing a spiritual routine can prevent substance abuse. It can also have a positive impact on one's life satisfaction and can increase positive emotions.

How To Bring Spirituality Into Your Home

So how might parents who do not consider themselves religious attempt to explore spirituality with their children and reap those benefits?

Recognize your own inner knowing

"Parents need first to have their inner wisdom ignited and validated," says Dr. Miller. Recognizing synchronicities in your life is one way we can open a window to thinking about the greater universe guiding us. "Paying close attention to the alignments in our lives—for example, a fellow parent who is helpful to us at a tough moment—can tap into our deep inner knowing." Spiritual awareness can also be experienced through an old prayer from your childhood, meditating, or even spending time in nature.

Don't project your own beliefs

It's important to allow children to find their beliefs on their own terms. "As parents, we need to acknowledge that our religious experience is not that of our children," explains Sherre Hirsch, a mother, the first female rabbi at the leading Los Angeles-based congregation Sinai Temple, and the chief innovation officer of American Jewish University. "In terms of religion and spirituality, it is important not to project our decisions and choices onto them. Instead, we need to give children the space to explore their own spirituality."

Allow room for discussion

"As parents, we may want to answer all our children's questions. But leaving some answers open-ended allows children to explore their own spiritual ideas," advises Rabbi Hirsch. "Parents need to get in touch with their own 'not knowing.' Every question your child asks does not need to be resolved with your answer."

When talking with our kids, asking questions like, "What do you feel life is showing you right now?" or "What does your inner wisdom tell you?" opens children up to opportunities to explore their spiritual curiosity.

Let kids go at their own pace

"Give children the room to explore the deep knowing within themselves," says Dr. Miller. "This shift in perspective—an awakening—will take time. It is not a quick life hack. It is a renewal of something that is born in all of us."

Shifting my reaction from trying to help my children problem-solve to promoting their spiritual curiosity hasn't been easy. We still haven't attended church regularly, but I am now more open to going, while also reminding myself to view my children's religious experience as separate from mine. Maybe my kids will prefer to be part of religious services or just focus on their own spirituality. Either way, I am encouraging them to find what works for them to find their inner strength and purpose.

I am hopeful that the "awakened" shift that Dr. Miller refers to is happening with my children. One recent night, as I was turning off the downstairs lights, I heard my kids chatting while they got ready for bed. My 11-year-old son was trying to figure out the best way to handle a situation with a friend. "I am sure you'll figure out the right thing to do," my daughter advised him as they brushed their teeth. "Trust yourself. Listen to your heart."

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