Spiritual parenting at any age and anywhere
Kids naturally understand and embrace spirituality.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
For the past 13 years Heidi Ingersoll has worked to help kids create a spiritual practice. Yet she doesn’t currently take her 2-year-old son to church.
Ingersoll, who has a Ph.D. in education, recently moved with her husband and son for work. They left behind a beloved faith community in Seattle. But she isn’t stressed about finding a new church. That’s because, like many parents, she knows spirituality can happen anywhere.
In recent decades church attendance has gone down, particularly among the generation that’s now raising children, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. While attending church has become less of a priority, many parents still want to ensure their children are developing spiritually. But how do you introduce kids to spirituality? And at what age?
“A transcendental experience where something inside you connects to something greater than yourself” is how Ingersoll defines spirituality. For her and her son, connecting to something greater often means simply strolling outside to examine leaves and rocks.
“Song, art, music, exercise — my son will spend 30 minutes hitting a ball. All of those things have the potential to be a spiritual practice,” she says.
Jennifer McLaughlin, Director of Family Ministries at Edmonds United Methodist Church, agrees. “Spirituality in childhood includes playing in a way that gives a child life. That extends to any gifts and interests they have,” she says, like playing an instrument.
“Children are physical, emotional and spiritual beings. They have something in them that wants to understand the deep questions of the universe,” says Dianne Ross, Minister to Children and Families at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Queen Anne.
Here are some tips for helping children access their spiritual side.
“Introduce a centering practice for your child. We do deep breathing when we’re feeling worked up and it’s hard to self-soothe,” McLaughlin says. “Learning how to become mindful is a spiritual practice you can start when a child is very young.”
With her son, who she says is “emotionally spirited,” deep-breathing exercises, either alone or together, are far more effective than a time-out.
She says it’s also valuable to encourage kids to draw or write when they need to re-center. “Help them trust that their voice has something important to say, and make space for them to say it,” she says.
Service and “creation care”
Helping kids serve others is an important aspect of spirituality since it reinforces connection and responsibility to something greater than the self. Community service can be as simple as picking up litter during a walk, Ross says.
“We do a lot of what I call creation care,” she says. “It’s important to teach kids the idea that taking care of the earth is an act of social justice,” she says.
Another way to begin service projects with kids is to follow their lead. For an outgoing child that might mean signing up to serve meals at the church or shelter. For a music lover it could mean playing piano at a senior center.
Model the behavior
“It can be hard to find time or space to interact with the spiritual aspect of your life. Adults think, ‘Wait, I don’t have time to fit this into my crazy busy schedule,’” Ingersoll says. “And children are constantly going.” She says the more children see their parents slowing down and making time for being centered and connected, the more they’ll want to do the same.
That can be as simple as bedtime yoga stretches with your kids or saying a simple prayer or meditation before meals, she says.
Being part of a community is important for many reasons. “Spirituality is knowing you’re part of something bigger than yourself. A community is a bigger family,” Ross says. She notes that it’s important for kids to regularly be around people from different ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. That way they understand that not everyone shares their exact experience.
McLaughlin says community is also valuable when many of us live far away from extended family. “We can’t do it alone,” she says. She adds that when children are older, it’s nice for them to have other trustworthy adults they can call on when they need help.
Focus on your own spiritual side
Finding time for any spiritual practice can seem daunting for busy parents. But the experts say that taking time — with our kids or on our own — can be just as helpful for parents as it is for children.
“The spiritual journey of parenting is about recognizing the good and the gifts in your child, and helping your child see them and practice them,” McLaughlin says. Taking time while you’re with your kids to breathe, re-center and find connection to your spiritual side may help make difficult parenting moments easier to manage.