Part Two of a Three-Part Series
by Hannah Ruth Wilde
As parents, we may wish to impart our spiritual or religious beliefs to our children. We hope that our faith will provide a strong foundation for our children to rely upon throughout their lives, during hardship and happiness. A younger child will naturally experience family beliefs and practices from a different perspective than an older child. As such, each benefit from tailored experiences. I hope the following article will offer you insights into sharing your faith in new and meaningful ways with your child as he grows.
Birth to Three Years
Very young children live through the senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting. Faith-based practices involving the senses will no doubt be engaging. Celebrations are typically accompanied by special foods – wonderful tastes and smells. Children will love sacred objects and traditional decorations that you allow them to touch and hold. (Check to be sure they are safe for your child’s age.) Spiritual or religious music with simple rhythms and language is wonderful as well.
Beginning traditions while your child is young and continuing through all of their growth years develops not only precious family memories, but also a strong foundation of family beliefs. Which holidays, if any, or spiritual events do you plan to celebrate? What kinds of activities will you include? Do you pray at home or at another location? Would you like to join a synagogue, church, or spiritual community?
If you have started or plan to start faith-based practices later than early childhood – no worries! Lifestyles and circumstances are unique to each family. Our parents’ beliefs and traditions may be different than our own – leading to the need to reinvent. Your partner may have different beliefs than you. Or, if you are like me, your own beliefs may change over time. Experiencing our journey is natural and essential to our humanity. Sharing is a powerful way to bond with our children – at any stage of a child’s development!
Three to Seven Years
Children in the age range of three to seven have active imaginations, are sometimes regarded as being open to metaphysical experiences, and often begin to talk about the world in insightful ways. In some faiths, such as Buddhism, children are regarded as being closer than adults to the spiritual world. Observe your young child and listen to his statements or questions. Your child may ask, “Where is God?” or “What happens to Grandma when she dies?” or may even predict future events. Answer your child in the simplest manner possible, honoring his question or statement and infusing your beliefs. Expect that your answer will only lead to more questions! This is normal. It is ok to say you don’t know or that you are learning too.
Introduce stories that deliver a message or hold a moral – such as stories from religious texts, fairytales or selected picture books. Ask a leader in your community for resources. The Children’s Book World in Los Angeles has an excellent, knowledgeable staff and can recommend books for children on almost any topic. (Great for older children, too!) Find them at www.childrensbookworld.com or call (310) 559-2665. Alexandria II in Pasadena, CA is a bookseller that specializes in a comprehensive collection of faith-based books including some for children. Find literature on world religions, metaphysics, and spirituality here. Go to www.Alexandria2.com or call 626-792-7885. Both establishments ship – or look for a similar independent bookseller in your area.
By age five, most children can participate in prayer, reciting your traditional verse or offering their own words. Remember that the world of a child at this stage is immediate, and accept whatever prayers he offers. Perhaps the primary breadwinner has lost her job, but your child is praying that his goldfish gets well. Share your prayers and allow him to share his, even if they seem less important.
Seven to Eleven
Children continue to experience through senses and story, and once in elementary school, will begin to notice more about the everyday world around them. A child may have questions about why things happen. And, depending upon your community, a child may notice and question why others have different beliefs and practices. At this stage, direct responses infused with respect for others and your own belief system are appropriate. For example, Johnny asks, “Mom, why does Sue celebrate Hanukah and not Christmas?” You might say, “Every family has their own way of living in this world, and no one way is better than the other.” Or, “We celebrate Christmas because that is when Jesus was born. Sue celebrates something that is special to her.” For some faiths, now is a wonderful time to expand your child’s overall knowledge of your including its basic principles, history, and the meaning behind holidays. Just remember to keep things fairly simple and use concrete examples as much as possible. Many practices have a timeline of study, prayer, meditation, or rituals (Jatakarma, Upanayana, Baptism, Confirmation, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Shinbyu, etc.) built into its principles according to the age of the human being. Become aware of the guidelines for your faith and consider what will suit your family and child best.
Twelve to Young Adulthood
Around this time, many faiths mark a child’s transition to adulthood with a ‘coming-of-age’ ritual accompanied by greater responsibilities within the faith. This can be a great source of pride and accomplishment for your child, as well as a wonderful celebratory time.
From a developmental viewpoint, in pre-adolescence and adolescence, children begin to experience new cognitive abilities including reasoning and abstract thinking. Now your child can understand more complex ideas as they relate to faith and apply these to real-life situations. (Examples include forgiveness of wrong doings; inner strength in the face of adversity; and why it seems bad things happen to good people.) Share and discuss these. Listen to your teen’s concerns. Offer beliefs that may help with personal issues and experiences. Help relate faith to everyday situations. (Warning: Pushing or mandating ideas to a teen may likely result in the opposite of the desired effect!)
It is a normal part of development for an adolescent child to evaluate the world around him and make independent judgments. He may live by or grapple with idealism. He may begin to question religion and ‘try on’ new ideas. It is common for teens to look to peers for answers. Parents may see new thoughts and behaviors as challenges to family practice or a form of disrespect. Though not easy, it is helpful to recognize that healthy children begin to develop a true sense of autonomy. Allowing a child to explore his or her own curiosities with parental support; providing information; and participating in lively family conversations will help prevent a child from straying too far. You may also wish to find a faith-based youth group – though be aware that it may only be effective if your child truly enjoys it. Community or charity work can be very impactful at this time. Adolescents gain important perspectives about their own lives by being aware of the lives of others, and often develop new self-worth through personal contributions.
Ultimately in adulthood, your child will make a choice about how intentional religious or spiritual practices fit into his life. An experience of faith that has been joyful throughout the child’s life may lead him to choose the same. Even so, a young adult may decide that another faith works better with his lifestyle. This can be difficult at first, but acceptance and understanding will be the key to maintaining a close relationship.
Future Topics in Parenting Through Your Child’s Developmental Changes include media and money.
If there is another topic you would like addressed in this column, or if you have a specific question, please feel free to email Hannah. Indicate Bamboo Family Magazine/Question in the subject line. Hannah will be happy to offer parenting suggestions or refer you to other resources, as needed.
Hannah Ruth Wilde is an experienced educator and parenting consultant, having worked with children for over twenty years. Hannah specializes in supporting children who experience academic difficulties and social challenges; and who confront family transitions such as divorce. Contact Hannah at WildeRhymes@gmail.com.