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During art class one day, a first-grade teacher noticed that one child was particularly engrossed in his drawing. She eventually wandered over and asked the child, “What are you drawing?”

“God,” he said, without looking up from his paper. The teacher said carefully, “But no one really knows what God looks like.”

“They will in a second!” he said.

I love this story because it captures something we all appreciate, but few of us think to nurture: the spiritual vitality and imagination of young children.

Most parents are keenly aware of their children’s social, emotional, intellectual and physical development. We record our children’s height with pencil marks on the kitchen wall and note milestones in photo albums and scrapbooks. We monitor their health and celebrate their achievements. As they grow older, we track their academic progress.

But how many of us track our children’s spiritual health and development?

In some ways, former generations had it easier. Spirituality was equated with religious practice. Those days are gone.

Let’s Talk About Spirituality

The good news is that Americans are still believers. The Pew Forum Survey on Religion and Public Life found that more than half of us pray every day, and nine out of 10 Americans believe in God.

This is good news because, when we talk about spirituality, we are talking about a wide, deep reality that transcends dogma and denominational boundaries. No religion can contain God’s spirit, and no religion can control it.

What is spirituality exactly? No single definition is perfect (even theologians struggle to define it), but here are some descriptions:

  • Our innate wonder and longing for God;
  • A relationship with God that gives our lives meaning and direction;
  • A journey that leads to union with God, with one another and with creation.

How can parents, grandparents, teachers and other caring adults stir the embers glowing
inside our generation’s children?

Here are some ideas gleaned from my own experience as a teacher and a parent, braided with the experiences of a dozen other teachers and parents who shared their stories.

1. Secure your own oxygen mask.

It’s just as they say in the airplane safety speech: First, secure your own oxygen mask. The word “spiritual” derives from the Latin spiritus, meaning “wind” or “breath.” If you want your child to breathe in deeply the spirit of God, you too must breathe deeply. You must explore the values and cultivate the practices that help you live out your own dignity, goodness and creativity.

It surprised me that only a few of the parents and teachers I interviewed thought of themselves as deeply spiritual people. I asked them to rate themselves on a 1-10 scale with 10 being as spiritual as a person can get. Most rated themselves somewhere in the middle.

But then they told me wonderful stories and shared fantastic ideas that raised the question: How can you teach so well something you claim not to know?

I wonder sometimes if we’ve been trained, falsely, to associate traditional religious practices like confession, Mass attendance and catechetical knowledge with our spiritual “grade.” As good as these things are, they are not God. They are ways and practices to help us connect with God. A healthy relationship with God and each other is the goal.

You are God’s messenger. As Blessed Teresa of Calcutta put it, “I am a pencil in God’s hand.” Who cares if you’re a stubby pencil with a worndown nub or a Montblanc™ fountain pen?

2. Establish rituals.

Rituals: We all have them. We all love them—kids, parents, grandparents and God. Rituals are the glue that keeps families, friends and communities together. We have elaborate, public rituals for milestones like graduations and weddings. And we have simple, private ones like baking Christmas cookies each year or ordering pizza on Friday nights.

The ordinary, daily rituals such as eating meals together and bedtime prayers make the greatest impact on most families.

Oprah Winfrey sponsored a “Family Dinner Experiment” years ago in which five families accepted her challenge to eat dinner together every night for a month.

At first, it was rough for the kids to sit at the table for the required half hour. They were bored and anxious. But by the end of the month, it was the kids who said they wanted to continue the ritual. They had grown to appreciate the regular attention from and conversation with their parents.

I bet you can remember some of your own childhood rituals. Did your family eat together most nights? Pray together? Go on hikes or walks through the neighborhood?

Take a moment to think about which rituals or traditions were the most exciting, comforting or personally meaningful to you. Your own experience is golden: Don’t ever forget that. Trust your experience, trust your best stories and instincts, and bring those nuggets to the children in your life.

3. Use your talents.

Parents interpret and explain things to their kids every day. But some of us think we can’t “safely” interpret spiritual things or Scripture. That is not true. We are our children’s first teachers, and often we do know best.

Charlie told me that he enjoys reading a short passage from the Bible to his children at bedtime. One evening, he started to read the story about Jesus’ first miracle—when Jesus turned water into wine. The children were snuggled up to him, listening, but he could tell they were bored. So he switched it up. Instead of a wedding, Jesus and his disciples went to a birthday party. Instead of wine, they ran out of cake. The children sat up. Suddenly, they got it. One cried out, “Oh, no! They have to have cake!”

His substitution was brilliant. The children could relate their own experience to the Gospel story, and learn some wonderful things about God and Jesus that day, such as Jesus enjoys parties and Jesus obeys his mother even when he doesn’t really want to (and after sort of sassing her). Best of all, they learned Jesus cares about what we care about. Charlie is a writer and a great storyteller, so that’s what he uses to teach his kids about God. Another friend loves to sing. My own dad was great at math and knew I liked numbers, too, so sometimes when he tucked me in he’d show me an interesting math trick.

What are you good at? What gets you excited and makes your eyes light up when you talk about it or do it? Whatever springs naturally from your heart (presuming it’s good stuff of which you’re proud) will generally communicate a truth about God better than something that does not start there.

4. Pray always and everywhere.

My friend Lou told me a great story. Every morning, his father would get up very early and sit in a certain chair in the living room and just be quiet. He was having his “meditation,” he told his son. Lou asked his dad if he could sit beside him if he was very still. His father agreed, and Lou sat beside him many mornings.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that Lou now meditates daily? Maybe. But Lou says one thing would not be the same if he didn’t have this particular memory. He would not feel so close to his father every time he meditates, which is especially comforting during tough times. A grandma I’ll call Grace told me the most important thing she thought she did for her kids, and now does for her grandkids, is to model “everyday” prayers. She handed me a slightly stained piece of paper with a quote by G.K. Chesterton, the British apologist and spiritual writer:

“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

Grace told me she prays out loud with the grandchildren whenever an ambulance passes, both for whoever is sick or hurt and for the police and medics rushing to help. She traces a tiny sign of the cross in the air and says a blessing whenever she sees something disturbing on television or out in public, and she has taught the children to do the same.

5. Tell and show.

Words and prayers are important, but so is how we live and who we love and serve. A Chinese proverb says it best:

“I hear—I forget.
I see—I remember.
I do—I understand.”

If you take hikes together as a family and recycle at home, your children will learn to respect and protect the environment. If you have friends of different backgrounds and ethnicities, your children will naturally be at ease among diverse populations. If you want your children to value community, you will take time to cultivate your own social relationships and help your children find strong peer groups
of their own.

Finally, if you want to teach your children to be compassionate and giving, there’s no better way to teach this than by serving others yourself and inviting the children to come along when appropriate.

Helen insisted I include the word “appropriate” in the previous sentence because years ago she made a mistake. She drove with her children into a sketchy neighborhood to visit a homeless woman she had tutored. A gunfight broke out 20 feet from the woman’s front door. After that, Helen brought her children only to “controlled” environments like soup kitchens and shelters.

Still, she proudly adds that her daughter, now grown and living on the East Coast, continues to volunteer in local shelters.

6. Be imperfect.

As children mature, we need to let them see us struggling, even making mistakes. They need to see how we handle the curveballs life throws at us—sometimes gracefully, sometimes not.

When our children were young, my husband and I fought a lot—brief summer storms, mostly. They cleared the air and passed as quickly as they’d blown in. Our kids’ ears would perk up if they were nearby.

At one point my husband and I agreed that we didn’t always need to stuff it when they were around. Those enormous ears in the next room forced us to fight fair and taught them about relationships and reconciliation. People get mad. People screw up. That’s why we have forgiveness.

Soon, your children will be off on their own. Those moments when you let them see you with your hair down or your guard down will serve them just as well—perhaps better—than those moments when you tried to model perfection.

Your life is God’s blackboard. Every single thing that happens can be used by God and by you to help your children learn and grow “in wisdom and age and favor before God and
man.” (That’s Luke 2:52, by the way; right after Mary freaks out because Jesus goes AWOL on the donkey ride back from Jerusalem. Jesus talks back to her in that story, too, or at least that’s what my grandma would have called it.)

7. Never stop talking—and listening.

That’s a hard-and-fast rule, and it’s a spiritual rule as much as it’s a regular one. Keep the conversation going, even when your kids disappoint you—and they will, just as we will disappoint them—even when they embarrass you, even when they rebel against you and hurt you. You must never, ever, close them out.

It will be painful some days. You will lose your words when your anger or frustration gets the best of you. Maybe sometimes things will get so scary you’ll both agree you need a little time apart to cool down. That’s O.K.

But later, as soon as you can, get back in there. Of course, this tip is good for your entire lifetime and for all of your relationships, not only for raising children.

Remember, too, that your kids can teach you a thing or two, especially as they mature. Don’t be afraid to ask them for advice and to bounce ideas off them. When you disagree about something, try to ask questions that help you understand their views.

Years ago, I read a line in a Catholic magazine that stuck: “The further someone may be from us, the more closely we need to listen.”

Finally, don’t knock technology. Sometimes, to keep the conversation going with your kids and grandkids, you have to accept change and maybe even learn new ways of communicating.

For example, my mother-in-law, Jean, is 80 years old and she just this week sent her first text message to my daughter. My daughter was floored. She texted her grandma right back. I wrote Jean and asked her about it. She didn’t exactly rave about the experience—“I text slowly” was her droll reply—but obviously she thinks it’s worth doing to keep up with the grandkids.

As St. Francis of Assisi might say today: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, text.”

Alicia von Stamwitz studied early childhood education at Tufts University in Massachusetts and journalism and communication at Washington University in St. Louis. She has taught middle school and preschool students and worked for Liguori Publications for 27 years. She is now an independent consultant and freelance author.