How can we foster spirituality in our children's lives?

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Q: We are not churchgoers but we realize our children might need a consciousness of spirituality in their lives. How can we help them develop that sense of a larger force, a higher power, God, without being attached to a worship community? Should we go to services for the sake of our children even though we, as parents, will just be "going through the motions?"

A: This is a tough question, as evidenced by the debates it spurred among the Family Project panel. Panelists Marcie Lightwood and Bill Vogler stress how important and valuable being part of a worship community can be for a child. Members of churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship provide enjoy support and caring from fellow members, in addition to spiritual guidance.

A worship community "becomes a second family," Lightwood says.

However, Vogler says, he's not comfortable with the idea of parents joining a religious community if they don't share its beliefs.

"The role of a family," he says, is "to pass down the values that you share, the values that you hold."

"Doing what's authentic and genuine is important," panelist Ann Friedenheim says.

The panel agrees that a child can have a highly developed sense of spirituality without participating in organized religion.

Teach children that spirituality can be experienced by seeing the beauty of nature or feeling connected to others and the world. Teach them the moral codes that are the foundations, for good reason, of many religions.

Guest panelist Gary Culp, recently retired after 18 years as pastor at Pebble Hill Interfaith Church in Doylestown, says the golden rule -- treat others how you would like to be treated -- "is almost universal" in religions.

You don't need religion to teach children "to be unconditionally loving, to not hold grudges, to keep their hearts open," he says.

Or to experience spirituality, which, in the panel's view, needs to be distinguished from religion. Religion is structure through which people express their spirituality, the panel says, not and the same with spirituality.

"Spiritual development is an integral part of a person's overall development, so parents do need to nurture that in their children," panelist Denise Continenza says.

Lightwood suggests that parents who don't take their children to religious services have them read important religious writings "so they are educated" about various beliefs. That strategy will also enhance a child's "cultural literacy," Lightwood says, because religion has played a major role in shaping society as a whole.

"Reading and studying about religion is enlightening and broadening when a person is on a spiritually searching journey," Friedenheim says. "It is one avenue to understand the various theologies and ways of conceptualizing key concepts."

Then again, Friedenheim says, "words can't describe what I experience as spirituality."

Do talk about spirituality, in whatever terms make sense to you, with children, the panel agrees. Spirituality is important, Lightwood says, because it "gives you a sense of awe, a sense of your place in the universe. You're not the center of the Universe."

And panelist Joanne Nigito cautions against broadcasting to your children that you are an agnostic or an atheist, if that's the case.

Children need a sense of God, Nigito says, because sometimes that is where "you get your strength when times are tough."

"Children will thrive much better in an environment that has a belief system in place," Nigito says.

There have been studies claiming that youths who practice religion have sex later than other youths, are depressed less and are less likely to abuse drugs.

But ultimately, the panel says, you have to make up your own mind about it how you offer and represent religion and spirituality to your children. But before you do that -- and this is something the panel agrees on -- reflect deeply on your own religious thoughts and feelings.

"Get your own spiritual consciousness in order," Culp says. And then discuss what you decide is your family's spiritual "culture" with your children, Continenza says.

That, Culp says, will help you get your children to "the highest point they can be in terms of their spiritual and emotional consciousness."

HOW TO HELP DETERMINE THE RIGHT SPIRITUAL PATH FOR YOUR FAMILY

Family Project panelist Marcie Lightwood suggests the following exercise:

Think about these words and what they mean as you ponder the form your family's spirituality will take. They might help you come to a decision.

Spirituality. Morality. Ethics. Awe. Forgiveness. Comfort. Culture. Community. Cultural literacy. Respect. Reverence. Higher Power. God. Values. Ritual. Tradition. Connection. Doctrine. Dogma. Sin. Salvation. Meditation. Purpose. Creation. Death. Immortality. Birth. Religion. Faith. Worship. Prayer. Support. Belonging.

RESOURCES

Resources for parents wondering about how to teach their children about spirituality:

Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health -- A Duke University Web site that describes studies showing the positive mental and physical effects religion has on people of all ages: www.dukespiritualityandhealth.org/research.html.

"What Should I Tell My Kids about Religion?" -- An About.com guide by Austin Cline of the Council for Secular Humanism. According to Cline, it is best for non-practicing parents to have children sample various religious services and learn about different religions.

If not, he writes, children could "adopt a very bizarre and/or extreme religion" later in life because they don't have the experience to evaluate theological beliefs: //atheism.about.com/ library/FAQs/ath/blathq_kidsteach.htm.

Search Institute -- A nonprofit organization that "provides leadership, knowledge and resources to promote healthy children, youth, and communities. On its Web site, www.search-institute.org/, it provides a list of "assets" that help youths navigate their lives. One of the assets is "religious community."

CONTACT THE FAMILY PROJECT

Offer comments, suggest topics or ask questions. E-mail: familyproject@mcall.com. Mail: "The Family Project," c/o Morning Call Features Editor Linda O'Connell, P.O. Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260. Phone: 610-820-6562.

THE TOPIC TEAM

Parenting experts and guest panelists who helped with this installment of The Family Project:

Gary Culp, retired coordinating minister, Pebble Hill Interfaith Church, Doylestown.

Denise Continenza, family living specialist for Penn State University's Lehigh County Cooperative Extension, South Whitehall Township.

Ann Friedenheim, clinical supervisor for Confront, Allentown.

Marcie Lightwood, program coordinator for Project Child, a program of Valley Youth House.

Joanne Nigito, registered play therapist and parenting educator, Bethlehem.

Bill Vogler, executive director of Family and Counseling Services of the Lehigh Valley, Allentown.

Roberta Zelleke, Assistant Director of Early Head Start, Community Services for Children, Allentown.

PARENTING CLASSES

Project Child offers parenting classes Mondays at 7 p.m. at the Project Child office, 2200 W. Broad St., Bethlehem. $15. To sign up, call 610-419-4500, ext. 373, or e-mail projectchildlv@aol.com. Parents who are overwhelmed can call the Project Child/Valley Youth House Parent Line at 610-691-1200. It is a 24-hour confidential support and referral line.

familyproject@mcall.com

610-820-6562

The Family Project is a collaboration between The Morning Call and parenting professionals brought together by Valley Youth Houses's Project Child, the Lehigh Valley's child-abuse prevention coalition.

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