Discussing Spirituality and Religion with Young Children

I was recently asked to join a select group of bloggers who are working as contributors to The Mother Company’s wonderful blog. I am very happy to be a part of their team, as their mission is very much in line with my own: “Helping Parents Raise Good People”.

This month I had the good fortune to interview Dharmachari Nagaraja, the author of one of our favorite children’s books (“Buddha at Bedtime: Tales of Love and Wisdom for You to Read with Your Child to Enchant, Enlighten and Inspire”). Nagaraja is also a psychotherapist, long-time Buddhist practitioner and popular presenter on England’s BBC Radio 2. I was honored to have the chance to speak with him about his thoughts on ways parents can discuss spirituality and religion with their young children.

An Interview with Dharmachari Nagaraja

Although neither of us would be considered “religious,” my husband and I both have spiritual beliefs and figured that our son and daughter would have them too, eventually. We thought we’d simply handle any spiritual questions from our children with basic honesty. I hadn’t factored in how difficult honesty can be when talking about something that you either haven’t given much thought to or have conflicting feelings about. With these questions reaching a peak during the Holiday Season, I asked Dharmachari Nagaraja, author, psychotherapist and long-time Buddhist practitioner, to weigh in on children, spirituality and religion. ~ Gina Osher, The Twin Coach, TMC Contributer

What is the best way to introduce the concept of spirituality to children?

Most people get caught up in the idea of whether God exists or doesn’t exist, or where you go when you die. But spirituality is a way of thinking about things, learning to live with differences, investigating differences. When we allow children to see that their actions have consequences and to think through their experiences, they are allowed to reflect more deeply. Asking children “what do you think” instead of answering questions directly or pointing them to an external God figure for answers invites children to participate and develop an interest in investigating their thoughts and feelings about things. Once they become used to doing this, they begin to see spirituality as more than a discussion about God but about understanding one’s place in the universe.

If one parent is religious but the other isn’t, how do you approach the subject?

How parents negotiate their differences is what is important when it comes to children. Kids are watching to see if their parents respect each other’s differences. When it comes to how we live our lives, children are looking to us to see how we become more self-aware, how we manage suffering, how we handle anger and disappointment. How our religion or spiritual self manifests in our lives is what children are looking at. What we say matters less than what we do. Thus, if one parent believes strongly in the value of attending religious services, but respects the other parent’s belief that God is all around us and that he or she doesn’t feel a calling to organized religion, the children will grow up with a respect for both ways of looking at spirituality and religion. Parents in this situation also need to be tolerant of the child wanting to try on both ways of looking at the subject.

When it comes to religious holidays and rituals (such as going to church etc.), what is the best way to discuss why we do or do not participate?

As with everything, being honest with your child is the place to begin. If you’re not participating out of a sense of cynicism or distaste for the particular religion you grew up with, you can discuss this in age-appropriate ways. If, despite this, you feel it is important for your child to have a connection to those rituals or that religion, it’s important to take a look at why you feel this way. Having done that, if you find it is still important to you, go together with your child to services or make the decision to celebrate a holiday and connect with the parts of the religion that speak to you. Finding what you lost touch with and seeing it not only through the eyes of your children, but also as an adult who now has the freedom and experience to question things, allows you to share those parts that have deeper meaning for you.

What if extended family is very religious (or not religious at all), how do you handle that?

In general, humans don’t like change. It can be very threatening to find that someone in our circle (or even outside of it) is choosing something that is different from our own beliefs. People tend to want everything fixed and constant. It is safer than how things really are, which is in a constant state of flux. If your family doesn’t feel comfortable with you thinking for yourself, it can feel like a spiritual and psychological crisis and you may start to become aware of who is actually listening to you and who is not. When you really think about it, both Buddha and Christ went against the accepted social norms of their time in order to be true individuals and to follow their own paths. So we can ask ourselves as parents if we are going to sacrifice our child’s individuality in order to satisfy someone else.

If you differ from your family in religious or spiritual beliefs, there are a few basic things you can try:

Don’t rub their faces in it. Be as respectful of their beliefs as you hope they would be of yours.
Do try to include them in what you are doing. Sharing books, articles and events is a nice way to try and expand their thinking, but don’t push it on them. And be willing to accept their disinterest.
Have straightforward conversations about your beliefs and why they are important to you.
Remember that you can’t make everybody happy.

What can we do with our children on a daily basis to bring a sense of spirituality or religion into their lives?

The Zen master and spiritual teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, encourages the practice of bringing mindfulness into every moment. Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment, and appreciating the freshness and beauty of what meets our senses. It’s easy with young children, as they very naturally do this on their own without knowing it. In experiencing mindfulness with them, you begin to see that even the most mundane details of life are precious. When you do this together, your children truly become your teachers. Their sense of wonder is intact and reveals the world to you in a way that you may have forgotten.

Parents who believe in God will naturally regard the revelations of mindfulness as evidence of the greatness of God and can talk about that to their children. But this is not the only way to have a spiritual connection to the world we live in. Buddhism, for instance, is non-theistic but encourages sensitivity and devotion to the well-being of all creatures. Learning to appreciate the specialness of seemingly insignificant moments, we recognize that everyone is involved in something special. Thus, even the ordinary is significant. And what is significant is worthy of being noticed and celebrated. Simple acts such as fogging up a cold window with your warm breath or even a household chore like washing dishes can become a spiritual moment for you and your children.

Take your time, notice the details, focus on the feelings each act elicits and share your experience. Ask your children what they enjoy most about what they’re being mindful of. You will notice in doing this that we all have the ability to live each day in appreciation. This practice of mindfulness does not clash with or contradict any religious belief. It actually gives you the root of direct experience that gives nourishment to your faith.

Dharmachari Nagaraja is the author of “Buddha at Bedtime: Tales of Love and Wisdom for You to Read with Your Child to Enchant, Enlighten and Inspire”. He was a regular guest presenter on BBC Radio 2, where he used traditional Buddhist tales to communicate the Buddha’s teachings to a UK audience of 7.7 million people. He has been a practicing Buddhist since 1988, taught at and managed the Covent Garden Meditation Centre, London and has now returned to his native Scotland where he works as a psychotherapist, teacher and occasional broadcaster.

When There Are No Words

How do we, as parents, comprehend what happened today in Newtown, Connecticut? How can a parent begin to imagine what it must be like to have lost a child because a heavily armed gunman entered their elementary school after killing his mother and then murdered TWENTY children and 6 adults? Honestly, there are just no words that can begin to explain the pain and sorrow this town must be experiencing.

And yet, I feel compelled to make some shred of sense out of what seems like senseless tragedy. Many people are calling for stricter gun laws, some are focused on the fact that there needs to be more help for the mentally ill and still others are crying out to stop politicizing the event. It is all reaction to the unimaginable.

As my children came home, laughing, dirty and filled with stories of a day of fun at school, I felt a sharp pain knowing how many have lost so much. My hope is that none of you were directly affected by this event. My hope is that all of your children are too young to know even a portion of what happened. My hope is that your children are asleep in their beds, warm and safe, as I write this note.

It’s been a terrible day here in the United States, and especially in Connecticut. But I think everyone around the world feels the pain of those mourning in Newtown tonight. This tragedy will forever change those who survived it, those who were the first responders, those who were connected in some way to each family affected. My prayers go out to all of you.

If there is even a shred of something good to come from this, let it be that we each stay mindful of the love we have for our children, remembering that all we love could be gone in a moment. Remember this, not in a morbid way, but rather as a dose of reality that sometimes there just isn’t another chance to give one more hug, one more “I love you”, one more moment to connect.

Love those children of yours. Show that love to them, even when it’s hard. Don’t waste a minute of your precious time together.

*For all who have asked, the sculpture in the photo above is called Memorial Of Unborn Children by Martin Hudack of Slovokia. Although it was specifically created to honor women who have lost children through miscarriage, I think it captures the grief anyone feels who has lost a child, no matter the circumstance.

Empathy, Conflict Resolution And More: A Review Of The Friendship Show

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
~ Anaïs Nin

Around about the same time I began this blog, I came across a site called The Mother Company. Because my focus here is connected parenting, I was immediately intrigued by their aim to encourage social and emotional learning for parents of young children through articles, books, music and more.

Because I am also a parent who closely monitors and limits what my children view, I was so happy to find their show “Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show”. My children loved Ruby and all the beautiful video segments that helped give them words to express and understand their emotions. I was hooked!

I am thrilled to say that The Mother Company has done it again with their new show “Ruby’s Studio: The Friendship Show”. As one’s children grow older, their blossoming struggles with friendships take center stage both for parents and for the children themselves. Ruby beautifully helps children explore topics such as empathy, bullying, conflict resolution and the golden rule.

“Join lovable host, Ruby, as she welcomes kids into her magical art studio for a day of creativity, fun and friendship. With the help of adorable animated segments, art projects and inspired original music, Ruby guides children through an adventure of learning about empathy, conflict resolution, The Golden Rule, and other ways to make and nurture lasting friendships.” ~ The Mother Company

friendship-launch-invite-4I watched a preview of this episode with my children this weekend and they were both enthralled. My daughter, who rarely gushes about movies or TV, kept whispering to herself as we watched “Oh! I love this!” and at the end wanted to watch it all over again.

Both of my kids seemed particularly intrigued by the episode “One For All” which is about bullying and the golden rule. My daughter’s personal favorite was Garden Theater – Casey Caterpillar Feels Left Out where the Garden Theater bugs learn important ways to become compassionate, considerate, and caring friends. And me? I really enjoyed it all, but I especially loved the simple art project Ruby does with the children where they create friendship trees which helped the children develop a deeper consideration of the friends in their lives.

Both of The Mother Company’s Ruby’s Studio episodes are beautifully shot and art directed. They’re a joy to watch. I am especially grateful that they produced this second episode because now that my children have moved out of the protective bubble of preschool, I see how developing the skill of making and maintaining friendships is needed.

I highly recommend Ruby’s Studio: The Friendship Show even for children younger than mine. It’s colorful, slow paced, and very, very charming. The show can be downloaded on to your computer or tablet now. And you can pre-order your DVD, available December 14th!

If you happen to be in Santa Monica, CA, The Mother Company will be holding a FREE premiere of their new show on Sunday December 16th at The Aero Theater where your children can get a chance to get their pictures taken with Ruby herself! Click on the flyer just above for all the details.

Full disclosure: I occasionally write for The Mother Company and was given a copy of Ruby’s Studio: The Friendship Show for possible review. I was, however, under no obligation to do so and all opinions expressed are solely my own.