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.