Last of three parts
A child’s spiritual life doesn’t flourish in a vacuum. It needs our understanding and guidance and in different ways at different stages. Last week we offered tips for encouraging spiritual growth in very young children. Here are more ageappropriate guidelines:
6 to 10: Growing in faith
If there is a golden age for learning about God, this is it. Kids are better able to comprehend abstract ideas; they can now fathom that God is a power and a force like the wind felt but unseen.
As children’s cognitive skills grow and they learn to read and write, they can participate more fully in rituals. But along with the literacy and intellectual growth come questions of a more pointed nature than “Where does God live?” Children this age don’t hesitate to point out any perceived inconsistencies in the things they are taught.
Since children this age are very rule-conscious and susceptible to the notion of God as omniscient - a being who knows everything they think and do - it’s helpful for parents to remind children that God is also loving and forgiving.
Here are other ways to nurture the faith of 6- to 10-year-olds:
Because they are watching you so closely, be sure to practice what you preach. Don’t drop your children off at Sunday school and skip services yourself. Use your own failings to emphasize that no human being is perfect, but God can help us to do better. Make Bible stories relevant. The tale of David and Goliath is the story of a man who held on to his faith and stood up to an enemy. Naturally your child won’t have to stand up to a giant! But he might, for example, act on his conviction to help those in trouble by standing up for a boy who’s being bullied.
Kids this age are doers. To give them an outlet for exercising their faith, suggest that they join you in reaching out to the community by collecting clothes or canned food for the needy.
If your child tires of Bible stories, help her find God in real-life tales of human compassion and bravery, suggests Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in “When Children Ask About God” (Schocken Books). Two good stories to try are those of Anne Frank and Helen Keller.
Should your child balk at going to church or temple, encourage him to find a new role to play there, suggests the Rev. Mitzi Noble. His interest might be renewed if he becomes an altar server, gives a reading during a service, joins a children’s choir or acts in a pageant.
11 to 13: Growing to maturity
These years are a time of questioning but also a time of religious maturity, when kids prepare for confirmation or a bar or bat mitzvah. If you’ve laid the foundation, your children may well embark on a life of faith that they will eventually share with their own children.
Kids this age typically ask critical questions about life, death and human suffering. For instance, they may question why God permits atrocities such as war between nations or ethnic groups.
“Some kids say things like ‘If God controls what happens, I want him to do a better job,’” notes Rabbi Steve Glazer. “I teach these children that God doesn’t directly cause what happens, that God sets everything in motion and leaves us to make the world a better place.”
Your child may ask tough questions, but clerics note that it’s important not to take offense. Remember, it’s healthy for your youngster to probe life’s mysteries. Now is the time to grow with your child, to say, if you’re stumped, “That’s a question people have been asking since time began. What do you think the answer is? Let’s find it together.”
“I’ve developed my beliefs along with my kids,” says Sallie Rouse, a personnel specialist for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health and a single mother of three teenagers. “We’ve done Bible studies, and it has taught them to think for themselves.”
At this stage, friends are increasingly important. To keep kids involved in religious activities, be sure to belong to a church or synagogue with a dynamic youth program. Here are some other ways to encourage your youngster:
Bolster your child’s faith by sharing your own experience. “A lot of people get caught up in talking about beliefs, but they forget to share their experience of God,” says Jonathan Robinson, a psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, Calif., and author of “The Little Book of Big Questions” (Conari Press). “For instance, tell your child about an answer to prayer, or how you perceive God’s love.”
Don’t make religion punitive. This is true throughout childhood, but especially now, when the potential for rebellion is high. Stress that tenets like the Ten Commandments are guidelines for living a moral life; don’t stress punishment. Point out that although all of us sometimes fall short, we must keep trying.
If your church doesn’t have an active youth group, you may want to consider switching to one that does. If that’s not possible, suggest that your child invite a friend to your place of worship. Rouse does this with her children: “It keeps them interested when a friend goes, too.”
As your kids grow, their faith will continue to evolve. In fact, it’s not unusual for adolescents to go through a period when they resist attending services as a sign of independence. If that’s the case at your house, don’t become discouraged. What’s important is that you’ve given your children a place to start.
“Religion is a gift we give to our kids,” says Rabbi Amy Perlin. “We don’t know what they’ll do with it as adults, but for now we’re giving them a religious identity, a relationship with God, a sense of spiritual wholeness, knowledge that even if they’re alone and lonely, there’s a presence in their lives.” Above all, let your child know that, if she desires, the dialogue with God she began at birth can last all the days of her life.
MEMO: From Working Mother Magazine: distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Ann Cassidy is a free-lance writer and mother of three.