Nurturing Your Child’s Spirituality


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Even as a very young child, Karthik Sundaram, now 13, of Cary, talked with his mother about conversations he had with God. By nurturing his spirituality, Karthik’s parents enabled him to pursue the deep connection he felt to the sacred music he heard in church. He attended the St. Thomas Choir School in Manhattan for two years and now sings in the choir at Duke Chapel.

Karthik’s mother, Cheri Hansen-Sundaram, and father, Senthil, recognize the importance of raising their children as spiritual beings. They celebrate both Christian and Hindu holidays and teach Karthik and his sister, Arya, 10, that there’s something good about each religio

While the overwhelming number of child-rearing books and resources often address the emotional, mental and physical needs of children, few discuss the importance of spiritual development. Parents — especially those who do not actively participate in a faith community — may overlook this aspect of their children’s development. But spiritual practices, even secular ones, can enhance family life and help children develop into healthy individuals who are able to cope with life’s difficulties and reach an understanding about important issues.

Children as spiritual beings

“Children, human beings, are embodied physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. We encourage them intellectually, we nurture them emotionally, but we neglect them spiritually,” says the Rev. Joanne VerBurg, senior minister at Covenant Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Cary. “To neglect this part is to not raise a child in wholeness,” VerBurg notes.

“Understanding our own spirituality helps us to understand others. Understanding this interconnectedness of all beings can be the foundation for healing and diplomacy,” says Peggy Joy Jenkins, Ph.D., who prefers Pegi-Joy in her private life, author of “Nurturing Spirituality in Children: Simple Hands-on Activities.”

Tryst Chagnon, the religious education director at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, thinks of spirituality as a feeling of balance and wholeness, and “being intentional in our treatment of the world and ourselves, engaged in genuine community with others, and filled with awe and respect for the ‘great mystery.’”

“Regardless of your religion, spiritual needs are human and undeniable. There is an openness in children to explore spirituality and to flourish that is rarely recovered in adulthood if not nurtured in childhood,” Chagnon says.

Rabbi Lucy H.F. Dinner, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, agrees that children have an innate spirituality. “You see it in the awe and wonder in how they see the world. They do have an appreciation for the miraculous way of the universe that we adults lose.”

Chagnon works with parents who are uncomfortable discussing religious or spiritual issues with their children and helps them understand the importance of talking about these issues. “I tell them both of religion and spirituality — and also of sexuality: ‘You don’t have a choice about your child being spiritual, sexual or seeking answers to religious questions. Your only choice is if you are going to participate or if you prefer for the rest of the world to advise your child on those things,’” she notes.

Nancy and Rick Wicklin of Cary went to Catholic high school together, so faith has always been central to their relationship and daily life. That’s why, from the moment they married, the Wicklins knew they wanted to send their children, David, 10, and Rebecca, 8, to Catholic school.

“We wanted our kids to be in an environment that continued what we were teaching them at home so there wouldn’t be a disconnect for those eight hours they weren’t with us,” Nancy explains.

Coping skills and a healthy outlook

Likewise, parents would be remiss if they didn’t provide children with healthy coping skills to draw on during difficult times.

“If we don’t treat the whole child and don’t allow him or her to develop spiritually, we’re doing them a great disservice down the road,” VerBurg says.

She points out that the deaths of grandparents, pets, relationships and dreams are times when coping skills are needed. “Pain, suffering and stress are all teaching tools in that there’s spiritual guidance with how you handle brokenness, conflict, disappointment, death, and if parents profess to be faithful people, then they have to put their faith in action,” VerBurg says.

“Spirituality gives you the big picture. In times of stress it offers you something to fall back on; you are not alone,” Jenkins says. “Spiritual techniques and teachings help a child become aware of their own inner guidance.”

The Rev. WonGong So, of the Won-Buddhism Meditation Temple in Chapel Hill, agrees. “Nurturing our children spiritually opens up their way of thinking about life, the way of viewing the value of their life,” So says. “If children are introduced to spiritual concepts slowly, like rain slowly soaking the earth, when they meet with stress later on, they can develop a healthy way to cope with life’s challenges.”

Teaching children to value qualities such as compassion, generosity and sacrifice can be difficult.

“Our material achievement may be viewed as a top priority, but spiritual nurturing can help children to develop a way of valuing more than just material achievement like fame, career, money or visible success in their life,” So says. “The value of success and the value of happiness will be very different if they are spiritually nurtured and can change their life direction.”

Rituals and prayer

Just as parents develop morning and bedtime routines with their children, spiritually oriented rituals also play an important role in family life. “All children thrive on ritual,” Chagnon says.

She suggests involving children in creating family projects and rituals that promote your family’s values. These traditions may not be meaningful immediately, but the repetition will have lasting positive effects on the children’s lives. Families can develop their own private rituals to celebrate together.

Rabbi Dinner talks about naming and elevating spiritual moments within the family and your children’s lives through ritual, prayer or tools appropriate to your faith tradition, including the spiritual act of lighting candles.

Prayer is one practice that is common among different religions. In addition to being a way to seek help, health and guidance and express gratitude or sorrow, Chagnon notes that prayer provides an opportunity to let go of unhealthy emotions. Many families weave it into their daily lives.

Even before the children could talk, the Wicklins taught David and Rebecca how to pray by example. They pray together at meals and as a family before bedtime. Prayer is a daily practice at the children’s school.

“The fact that my children are continually asked by their principal, teachers and classmates to pray for people in need every single day is very important to me,” Nancy says.

Michele Malik of Morrisville says that her son, Yacob, 13, is very prayer-oriented, and that he and his sister, Sofia, 11, pray every day.

Yacob says, “When I pray I feel like someone is listening.”

Compassion for others

Another aspect of spirituality that is shared among faiths is the idea of caring about others.

“Developing empathy for others and being able to examine the perspective of others is a crucial element in healthy social and emotional development. Without the ability to see outside of the self, one cannot identify with others, and thus develop compassion,” says Teresa Greco, a licensed clinical social worker and child psychotherapist at the Lucy Daniels Center Family Guidance Service in Cary.

“Children develop into kind and compassionate adults when parents and other adults or caregivers model genuineness, honesty, trustworthiness and kindness. Adults can do this by consistently demonstrating these character traits in their own actions and directly talking to children about why they are important,” Greco says.

Malik and her husband, Amer, do this as they teach Yacob and Sofia about the Christian and Muslim faiths.

“The children, particularly Yacob, feel more comfortable in an interdenominational setting,” Malik says.

Both children are involved in scouting, which promotes trustworthiness, loyalty and friendliness, as well as reverence toward God. “I want them to be good kids,” Malik says.

Good deeds

Many faith traditions encourage good deeds, which Chagnon says provides children with an opportunity to see the effects of their work.

“They learn a lot more from making soup for a sick friend of the family, volunteering at the soup kitchen, visiting an older person in assisted living consistently,” she says.

Anything that involves sacrifice or work on the children’s part helps them see the direct result of their actions. That’s what Hansen-Sundaram and her husband experienced with their children when they traveled to India to celebrate Ayra’s Ayurushya Homan Puja, a Hindu ceremony marking a child’s first year of life.

Arya’s puja occurred on Christmas Day in 1998. After the ceremony at the temple, Karthik, Arya, and their cousins served the puja meal to the children in a nearby orphanage.

Although the Sundarams did not exchange Christmas presents, Hansen-Sundaram says their present was serving the children on Christmas Day.

“We went there for a Hindu ceremony and got involved in a great Christmas holiday,” Hansen-Sundaram remarks.

Cathy Downs lives in Cary with her family.

Ages and stages of spiritual development

Toddlers/Preschool

For this age group, Teresa Greco, licensed clinical social worker and child psychologist at Lucy Daniels Center Family Guidance Service in Cary, recommends teaching manners and sharing.

“Young children are developmentally selfish and aren’t good at sharing, but early modeling is the key to developing empathy,” she says.

The following activities can build caring and nurturing:

- Help your child care for a small pet.

- Make a card for a sick playmate.

- Bake cookies or deliver gifts to a neighbor or friend.

- Take your child along to experience the feelings associated with a good deed.

Spirituality in children 4 and younger begins with feeling safe and nurtured by more than one person and learning to trust, hope and survive challenges, according to Tryst Chagnon, director of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh.

Elementary School

Elementary-aged children are concrete thinkers and are judgmental by nature, Greco says. She recommends talking more directly with them about different spiritual and moral perspectives.

- Explain and discuss your views about spirituality if a pet or loved one dies.

- Take your children with you to volunteer activities.

- Expose children to different worldviews and cultural events.

- Encourage problem-solving and conflict resolution.

Young school-aged children develop understanding about what religious community means by participating in it, Chagnon explains. They are beginning to explore religious questions and like stories that inspire wonder.

It is important for middle to upper elementary-aged children to know the core stories of their society, family and congregation, Chagnon notes. They’re interested in learning about religious ideas and identifying with others.

Middle School/High School

Preteens and teenagers are beginning to think more abstractly. Greco recommends discussing “hot topics” such as war, poverty and dating violence.

- Talk about and explore the complexity of events in the media or problems with a peer.

- Incorporate your values, but allow your children to express their views and values.

- Encourage volunteer activities.

- Encourage and tolerate their experience of different perspectives, religions, cultures and worldviews.

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