A discussion about parenting and liberal religion, with Michelle Richards, author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting. | Welcome | Subscribe
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Many Unitarian Universalist families still struggle with how to “do” spiritual practices—and even with the word “spiritual” itself. Perhaps it could help to think of it this way: theology is what you believe, and spirituality how you feel or express it.
While religion is usually passed down through the generations, spirituality is often passed upward. Children have an innate sense of spirituality and awe. Our job is simply to help them keep that wonder alive and allow ourselves to be open to it as well.
Beyond the physical, obvious, and logical, spirituality is the experience of life itself. Spirituality does not have to be something distant and elusive. It can be part of the everyday moments when we allow ourselves to tune into the here and now and feel a connection to the universe. Spiritual practices like prayer and meditation can be the vehicle that helps us to make those connections and allows us to focus our minds.
Furthermore, the prayers, unique stories, and customs of a religious tradition serve as a language that allows us to live out our beliefs and share them with children. You might even say there is a universal human need for prayer and meditation, since it is a crucial part of so many religions and has been around in some form since the beginning of recorded history.
Yet, most people grow up with the impression that prayer means reiterating memorized words, unaware that it can be an important tool for psychological well-being—no matter what your personal theology is. Sure, reciting certain prayers or mantras may be powerful, but we need to be open to the idea of prayer as a fluid process. Traditional prayers may be comforting and easier to express because the words written were crafted by someone else, but open-ended prayers allow us to go into a whole new territory.
When children create their own prayers, they are free to express themselves from the deepest parts of themselves. Like meditation, prayer allows the expansion of our minds and suspension of ordinary thought. Listening to our children verbalize their gratitude, their concerns, or their hopes for the future can be a powerfully moving experience for us parents. Listening to their words spoken from the heart can not only help us to understand who they are as a person, it can deepen and enrich the very connection between parent and child.
Essentially what we do when we encourage our children to pray is to allow them the opportunity to experience a connection to the divine. Through expressing their hopes, dreams, and wishes, along with their gratitude for the world around us, they learn to appreciate what they have and grow compassion for others.
Until adolescence, children’s minds are inherently concrete and their thinking is highly relational. They can easily grasp the idea of sending healing energy to another person as a warm light or relaxing their own highly active brains by visualizing a gentle waterfall or bubbling creek.
During adolescence, it can be a challenge to help our teens tune in to the now and shut off that internal critic. If we have laid the foundation for using prayer or meditation when they were children, then it becomes much easier to simply reinforce and encourage them to continue. If not, we will need to be more creative in encouraging such practices and helping them to understand the value of allowing time and space to quiet our thoughts and connect with the divine.
Finally, we need to remember just how important it is that we fill ourselves with energy from our own spiritual practices. For only when we are centered and energized are we able to give to our children without draining our own reserves.
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Regardless of your personal theology—be it theist, deist, pantheist, atheist, or anything in between—as a parent you will inevitably face questions about God. Images of the divine are all around us and deeply embedded in our culture. God is mentioned in television programs and popular music, thanked by celebrities for their perceived success, and even mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance spoken every morning in public schools across our nation.
Even if you yourself do not believe in God, or hold an image of the divine that is not anthropomorphic or close to the traditionally male father-figure of the major monotheistic religions, your child will undoubtedly form an image of such a God in his or her mind. As is the case with Santa Claus, it is not hard for children to believe since the evidence seems to be all around them. However, even very young children are able to embrace mystery surrounding the divine because they find the whole world mysterious. In fact, many children have been disappointed, hurt, and confused when their parents have given the impression that any inquires about God are unwelcome or forbidden.
Last Sunday, my family visited our local mosque as part of our Unitarian Universalist church’s religious education program, which includes units focused on learning about other religious traditions. As we were preparing to leave and return home, I was surprised to find my nine-year-old son in the worship space with his forehead pressed to the carpet as he had seen the Muslims pray. I thought he was merely imitating what he had witnessed and “trying it out” to see what it was like, but he later confessed to me that he wished we prayed at our congregation.
While I tried to explain that we did indeed engage in prayer-like activities such as meditation and spoken words which inspire connections to the divine and the universe or all humanity, he was still not satisfied. He wanted to be able to use his body to pray and humble himself in front of an all-powerful being which he could pay homage to. Once again I was humbled—apparently even I, with my supposed vast knowledge of faith development and religious education philosophy—was completely unaware that my child wanted to pray.
We have done yoga and meditation, walked a labyrinth full of wildflowers, said grace after lighting our family chalice at meals, and explored many other spiritual paths. However, the one that I neglected to introduce—and he apparently craved the most—was prayer. Because he also seemed to appreciate the kinesthetic aspects of the body prayer he witnessed, we are now exploring other traditions that utilize body prayers and working on creating our own bedtime prayer where he can express his thoughts, his longings, and his joys.
For it seems that even if you as a parent have come to conclusions that are meaningful for you, it is still necessary to teach our children that the questions they ask about the nature of the divine have not been answered to the satisfaction of a great many freethinkers and that questions about God are tough to determine because of the nature of our knowing. With maturity and physical growth, faith development also expands—and our children may expand their thinking about the divine over time, or may not. And with that, we should never make assumptions about what our children are looking for in terms of spiritual practices.
Even if you regularly engage in meditation as a spiritual practice yourself, it may be challenging to help your child learn to do it and even appreciate it, at least initially. Since so many children under the age of twelve find staying still for five or ten minutes to be difficult, the very idea of meditation can seem daunting. However, meditation can help children discover that they can not only quiet themselves for a brief period of time, but do so at will. This can be a powerful experience for a child, especially one who is able to develop this skill after much effort.
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If you are just introducing your child to meditation, try to keep your sessions short; in fact, the younger the child, the shorter the initial sessions should be. Children who have been meditating for some time can tolerate longer sessions, but a general rule of thumb as you are starting out is to strive for one minute per year of age.
It is also crucial to minimize distractions and establish a particular place as the mediation space—one intentionally free of toys, video games, and television programs. Having designated pillows or cushions for you to sit on can also establish this time and place as “meditation time” as well as provide comfort while sitting. This last point is important, since it is difficult enough to eliminate stray thoughts from your mind without the distraction of an uncomfortable body.
You can start by helping your child concentrate on their breathing, focusing upon each breath as it is inhaled and then released. Encourage them to try making their inhalations the same length as their exhalations. Remind them that it will be difficult to keep their mind focused on their breath and, from time to time, their mind may wander. Sometimes, it’s helpful to simply acknowledge, “That’s a thought,” and go back to concentrating on breathing once again.
If your child needs more of a focus point than just breathing, invite them to think about breathing in “peace” and breathing out “love.” They can say these words aloud as they breathe, or simply hold them in their mind as they meditate. You may also turn on some meditative music or tune in to the soothing sound of a water fountain.
Teenagers are generally more capable of keeping their physical bodies still. However, they are less likely to be skillful at keeping their minds quieted, particularly if they are new to meditation. In fact, our youth are much more skilled at filling up their minds—with music, texting, TV and computer games. Today’s adolescents are highly skilled at multitasking, but meditation requires the opposite of multitasking, which may seem foreign and uncomfortable for many youth at first. However, given time and repeated efforts, the benefits of meditation for quieting the overactive minds of our youth cannot be overstated.
When teaching meditation to adolescents, many of the same guidelines apply: eliminate possible distractions, establish sacred space, and keep the sessions relatively short at first. It is also important to work with your youth to establish a time and place that works for him or her. Since teens may have the additional challenge of turning off that inner critic which is ever present, practicing meditation in their own time and space is critical.
Finally, because children often mimic what they experience, if you do engage in meditation yourself, set aside some times when they can witness your practice. While it may not be as effective for you to meditate while your child is around, it can be helpful to remember that modeling is one of the easiest ways for children to develop skills. So have your private meditation time, but also create opportunities for them to see you meditate and think of ways you can communicate the benefits you gain from the practice.