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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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).
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