Second of three parts
Children as young as 3 want to know where they came from and if God is real. Here is an age-by-age guide to encouraging your child’s spiritual growth:
Birth to 3: Learning to trust
Can even an infant or toddler learn something about her parents’ beliefs? “Absolutely,” says Jerlean Daniel, president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and professor of child development and child care at the University of Pittsburgh. “When a child is born into a family, that’s when her spiritual life begins. That family’s value system starts to get passed down by the way family members treat each other.”
Even though babies and toddlers obviously won’t ask too many questions about God, the first three years of life are when many of their basic attitudes are formed.
“Children learn to trust from the time they’re born,” says Martha Ross-Mockaitis, a clergywoman with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “If they cry and an adult responds to their needs, they come to believe the world is a good place. This lays the groundwork so they will eventually learn that God is good, too.”
Even though children this age are too young to understand what is going on during a religious service, don’t think they are not taking in important messages. “Faith begins with what children touch, hear and see,” says Ross-Mockaitis. Thus, hearing you sing hymns or say prayers can make a long-lasting impression.
Here are other ways to nurture spirituality in a baby or toddler:
If you plan to attend services regularly, seek out a warm, welcoming congregation. It’s important, for instance, to look for a church or synagogue where all ages are welcome; the nursery should offer toys and appropriate activities. If you take your little one to a service, bring quiet toys, books, a bottle and snacks (if they’re permitted) to keep him entertained.
When your child asks questions of a cosmic nature, keep your answers simple and direct. For example, if your 3-year-old asks, “Who made this flower, Mommy?” you can respond, “God made this flower.” Don’t overload his mind with details, but do give him a sense of God’s role in the unfolding beauty of the earth.
Teach your child simple prayers and she’ll gradually come to think of praying as a natural part of her life. You might begin by teaching her a short prayer of thanks to say before meals. Then teach her a prayer to say at bedtime - it will help her let go of the day and fall asleep.
3 to 5: Satisfying curious minds
Although children this age aren’t yet able to comprehend the abstraction of a deity, preschoolers know there’s a being called God, and they’re curious to know more.
Given their rapidly expanding verbal skills and high-powered imaginations, preschoolers are apt to ask questions such as “Where does God live? What does God eat? What kind of clothes does God wear?” Of course, your answers to these questions will depend upon your beliefs. You might say, for example, “God lives inside each of us” or “God lives in Heaven.”
But be careful not to squelch your preschooler’s delightful ponderings with pat answers that stymie further questioning. To keep your child’s curiosity alive, you might respond to some of his more fanciful queries by asking what he thinks. You might ask, for instance, if he thinks God sleeps at night, or where he thinks God lives.
As any parent of a preschooler knows, kids this age have boundless energy. Even though it’s hard for them to sit still, they are often willing participants in Sunday school classes and love to be included in services and other rituals.
Here are ways to nurture your preschooler’s spiritual growth:
Energetic 3- to 5-year-olds learn best by doing. When enrolling your child in a church or temple school program, look for one that takes a hands-on approach. Ideally the class will include activities such as coloring and other crafts, singing songs and dress-up.
Kids this age love Bible stories. Noah and his Ark or David slaying Goliath speak volumes about God’s power and love. Other books your children might enjoy include “Where Does God Live?” by Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman (William Morrow), “The Dreamer,” by Cynthia Rylant (Blue Sky/Scholastic), and “Does God Have a Big Toe?” by Rabbi Gellman and Oscar de Mejo (HarperCollins).
If you take a preschooler to a worship service, explain what will happen before you go. Don’t be afraid to whisper brief descriptions about what he sees at the service - the windows, the altar, what the priest, minister or rabbi is doing.
Make God a part of your everyday life. “Talk about religious matters around the dinner table. Ponder the important questions. Ideally, faith becomes part of family life, not something you do for an hour a week,” says clergywoman Ross-Mockaitis.
Continue to say prayers with your preschooler at meals and bedtimes, but now you can also encourage her to pray whenever the spirit moves her. “I teach my children to take time during the day to stop and give thanks,” says Tammi Lozano, mother of three and director of sound facilities at MCA/Universal Studios in Universal City, Calif. “We’ll see a sunset and they’ll say, ‘Dear God, thank you for painting the sky. It’s very beautiful.”’ Such free-form expressions of praise and thanksgiving encourage children to see God as part of the world around them.
Next week: Teaching spirituality to children 6 and up.
MEMO: From Working Mother Magazine; distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Anne Cassidy is a free-lance writer and mother of three.
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