We influence our children’s decisions on everything from the food they eat to the movies they see – but now more than ever, it’s their spirits we need to nurture.
A September 2002 Child Trends report (www.childtrends.com) has confirmed that religious influence in families results in children with “lower levels of behavior problems and with higher levels of adolescent social responsibility.” The report also found that teens who participate in religion are less likely to be involved in drugs, alcohol and early sexual activity. Additionally, a 2002 University of Pennsylvania study found that an amazing 84 percent of American teens consider religious beliefs to be important in their lives
Religion matters to children, and thankfully, it matters to parents, too. A 1999 Gallup poll shows that 89 percent of American adults want religious training in their children’s lives.
If we casually put religion aside, either because we think it’s old-fashioned or unimportant, we may be short-changing our kids in a big way. But how can modern parents most successfully provide this training? Here are a few ideas.
1. Partner With Organized Religion
Active, “every week” church-going may not be for everyone, but for the benefit of children’s religious and moral training, some form of institutional involvement is worth considering. Religious institutions can provide the organizational muscle for wholesome activities and community service. They can also help parents reinforce religious faith and good values, and be a place for our children to meet friends and future soul mates.
We don’t have to agree with all the details of an organized religion for it to have value in our lives. Every day, we readily associate with companies, schools, political parties, labor unions, communities and countries, even though we don’t always agree with all the details of what goes on with those groups. We do so because, on balance, they’re of value to us and our families. A good resource for obtaining general information and contact data regarding major organized religions is www.beliefnet.com.
2. Create a Home Environment That’s Good for the Soul
Our homes can be places of security, peacefulness and refuge from some of the tumultuous aspects of the outside world. Part of having homes that reinforce spiritual values is taking the time to intentionally care for our physical home environments in ways that make us feel warm and peaceful when we enter. Even more important is to make them places of emotional support – places where our children are received with understanding, acceptance and forgiveness. Minimizing conflict by providing good adult examples of problem-solving skills and separating children before conflicts get out of control adds to this sense of emotional sanctuary.
Making home a sanctuary also requires having family rules in place that teach our children basic principles of right and wrong. It means not allowing influences in our homes that are inappropriate or offensive to our home life – whether those influences are “over-the-top” Internet sites, videos, music, computer games or posters. Correspondingly, we can proactively provide positive spiritual influences by the books, music, paintings, magazines and so forth that we bring into our home.
3. Encourage Informal Discussions
For all parents, but especially those who aren’t naturally disposed to talking formally about faith and morality, encouraging informal conversations can be one of the most powerful forms of teaching (other than our own examples). When we’re out in nature, for example, we can informally express appreciation for God’s creation. At times of death or other tragedy, we can explain the essence of our spiritual beliefs and how they help us deal with hard times. Every so often we can remind our children that they’re the best gift that God could have given us. And when news items come up in the media that relate to religion, we can use those occasions to reinforce our own spiritual views.
When it comes to teaching about right and wrong, we can use events in our children’s own lives and news stories to directly convey our beliefs. If a public figure is caught in dishonesty, we might explain the serious damage that’s done when people don’t live with integrity. If a famous athlete or entertainer is in trouble with drugs, we might point out the serious harm that taking drugs brings to people’s lives. Our children will pick up on many of our beliefs through our general behavior and attitude, but it remains important on occasion to clearly and directly state our beliefs during informal conversation.
4. Read Good Stories
Reading with our children can be one of the most satisfying of parenting experiences and is especially important for children’s academic progress. Regular evening school reading might be supplemented with books that carry themes of the spirit and good character. Such books include Old Turtle for preschoolers, Charlotte’s Web for elementary-age readers and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for older children. There are many good children’s religious story books, including my personal favorite, The Children’s Illustrated Bible (New Leaf Press).
For those uncomfortable with formal religious training, consider handing your child a good novel or other book that teaches values that are important to you.
5. Take “Field Trips”
Taking our children on field trips to visit sacred buildings and monuments of a variety of faiths can be a fun way to introduce and discuss religious themes. These excursions provide children with the opportunity to experience the commonalities of seemingly diverse religions. As Leo Tolstoy once said, “There is a diversity of religious doctrines, but there is only one Religion.”
By taking our children on field trips in nature they can also be spiritually enriched by the pleasure that comes from the fullness of the out-of-doors. Many of us feel closest to the awe-inspiring wonder of Creation by being out in it. Taking walks on a beach, hiking through forests, playing in a stream, having a picnic in a park or just taking walks in the neighborhood all have the effect of giving us greater reverence for life.
6. Community Service
A big part of good spiritual health is developing a commitment to kindness toward others. Community service teaches our children to give back to the world and makes them aware of the needs of others (and hopefully helps them develop greater empathy as a result). Whether it’s volunteering at hospitals, helping to raise money for a good cause, participating in environmental clean-ups or participating in school service clubs, there are many opportunities for our children to help.
7. Set Aside Time to Rest
Throughout the centuries, many religions have set aside a special day of the week to worship God and rest from everyday work. A “sabbath” can be one day, or part of a day, when we fully let go of our worries, concerns, goals, ambitions and everything else to simply enjoy life, remember God and Creation, and spend time with the people we love. It’s a day to unload our burdens (whether physical or internal), stop counting and simply let a higher power take care of the Universe. Somehow our galaxy can survive this one day without our dutiful worry and attention. In our own family, as we’re able, we try to commit Sunday as a day of the spirit – a day of relaxation, enjoyment, special non-commercial outings and time spent together just as a family.
What has been true for children of the past is just as true today: children have a natural interest in religion and can greatly benefit from religious and moral training. More than ever, it’s important that we as parents find ways in our modern world to provide this influence.
Scott Cooper is the author of God At The Kitchen Table (Three Rivers Press) and Sticks and Stones: 7 Ways Your Child Can Deal With Teasing, Conflict and Other Hard Times (Three Rivers Press).