How to talk to kids about religion: Spiritual multiculturalism is absolutely essential

Before kindergarten, kids are curious about spiritual expression and hungry to learn. Here's how to teach them

Published May 23, 2015 7:30PM (EDT)

   (<a href=''> MidoSemsem </a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
( MidoSemsem via Shutterstock)

Excerpted from "The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving"

If a spiritual compass, commitment to family, and spiritual community as a sustaining source of love are must haves for children’s life journey, then spiritual multilingualism is their passport. Having our own spirituality and sense of community, whatever that may be, is important to a child. But you want your child to be able to see the sacred in others. Spiritual multilingualism enables us to cross familiar borders and embrace the essence of spirituality in its many cultural narratives.

Children come to understand that diverse spiritual traditions share common themes and often have parallel ideas and observances: the rhythm of the seasons, the birth of a baby, ceremonies of commitment, or rituals around death and mourning. Having your own spiritual or religious orientation but being able to hear and understand others doesn’t only make it easier to engage with other people; it also enhances your own access to sacred experience by making these universal inner connections available to you wherever we go. A child who is conversant in the “many names, many faces” of spiritual practice can find the sacred in others— engage more meaningfully with other people in our diverse global culture.

“The biggest mistake people make when first beginning to look at unfamiliar perspectives is immediately to make comparisons between the familiar and the unfamiliar,” writes Buddhist feminist theologian and author Rita Gross. “The power of the comparative lens comes not from making positive and negative comparisons; rather, it comes from seeing each perspective clearly, in its own right. In other words, one gets a deeper understanding of one’s own perspective by understanding how others understand their own perspective.”

In childhood, natural spirituality of the heart very quickly attaches to the names, stories, and rules to which our children gain daily exposure. Starting as early as age four and certainly by age seven, children absorb the language and customs of thought used to express spirituality in their family or spiritual community. Research shows that for children these names are prioritized as spiritually “more real.” A team of Harvard psychologists led by professor Mahzarin Banaji, investigated whether very young children, ages four to six, already had in- group versus outgroup—my God is better than your God— perceptions around the names of the higher power. The team found in controlled experiments, a child as young as age six will rate “God” as named by her faith as more omniscient than “God” as named by another geographically remote unfamiliar faith. No matter what we may think about religion, we want to be sure children are open to other possibilities. You want your kid to be as open minded as possible. As parents, we want to act early, deliberately, and swiftly. We do not want a child to build tribal superiority, which has nothing to do with a clear and open pipeline for natural spirituality. Theology competition is a misguided form of implicit socialization that ultimately distorts access to transcendent love in all three forms of self, other, and higher power.

The early mental packaging of a child’s natural spirituality makes imperative— read urgent— that our children become, in essence, spiritually multilingual and multicultural from an early age if we genuinely want them to have respect and appreciation for natural spirituality in other people and cultures. This “many faces, many names” perspective is the opposite of religious chauvinism and all other “isms.” Offer your child a window into the religions of other families and peoples. As ambassadors, offer the opportunity to feel transcendence in many places and ways.

Well before kindergarten, but certainly by elementary school, kids are primed to want to learn about spiritual expression and they are hungry to learn. Walk by any house of worship— a mosque, a temple, church, or a cathedral, a Spirit Hut— and a child will be curious and want to explore inside. They see a house of worship built for prayer or contemplation, or spiritual community life, and they want to experience it too. They are already little universal beings. Explain to them that God and spirituality has many faces as seen by humans. Teach them, too, that all people of genuine, loving spiritual nature share a fundamental sense of goodness in how they view others and the world we share. Your child is ready to understand other faiths, traditions, and cultures. Speak with her about other religions with interest, share what you know, learn more together, and see where your own spirituality can find expression in other faith traditions. Talking together will give her language to speak about other forms of spirituality and also give her words to discuss her own choices and spiritual views.

Jane (who earlier shared her epiphany of walking with God through the grass as a six- year- old) had grown up in a tiny farm town of one hundred people and attended a small community church and Sunday school most Sundays. There, she said, “I had imbibed a sense of a boundless and loving God—no fundamentalism, no dogma, just a belief in an all-powerful divine being whose presence made the universe fundamentally good.” That open and loving religious backdrop “permanently changed my view of spirituality, and gave me confidence to know that our connection with the universe, or with God, or what ever we define as the uniting energy, is a deeply personal one, and that it doesn’t have to be bounded by any dogma or sectarian rules,” Jane said. “I have been grateful for that many times, because I believe it helped me remain open to learning about all faiths— including the Buddhism embraced some thirty years later by my husband at the time, a lapsed Catholic. It has also given me hope in times when I felt alienated from religions of all kinds.”

Spiritual multilingualism isn’t only about accepting others. We also grow as spiritual beings more able to fully engage our human experience. Rolland, a young man of nearly thirty, told me how his grandmother died of a sudden illness when he was eight. She lived in India, her homeland, and— unlike Rolland’s family in the United States who were Baptist— she was Hindu, something he heard for the first time when he heard his parents talking about her funeral arrangements. His grandmother was much beloved, and as he felt the loss reverberate through his family he also found himself thinking for the first time about aspects of his religious upbringing that he had never really thought about before: how death was explained in his Baptist community, and other religions’ different views of the life, death, and an afterlife. Learning of his grandmother’s Hinduism inspired Rolland to feel and know transcendence through the path of his grandmother’s spiritual practice.

As children grow and take in more and more of the world— events, debates, conflicts at home and globally— a foundation of respect and an awareness of universal spiritual themes will help prevent them from seeing fellow human beings as distant others or inherently wrong because of different religious or spiritual expression. Fluency in many spiritual languages can deepen and permanently strengthen their capacity for heart knowing, including seeing the transcendent in people who look and pray differently.

More schools are venturing into spiritual multilingualism as part of their curriculum in global, multicultural education. Foote School, a progressive and culturally diverse day school in New Haven, Connecticut, sends its sixth- grade class— eleven- and twelve- year- olds—on a series of field trips to augment their study of world religions. The program is part of the humanities curriculum, designed to give students experiences to help them be global citizens in our diverse world. I was invited to accompany the class on a field trip, focusing on the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

To get to know these faiths at least a step beyond classroom study, the students were taken to three landmark houses of worship in New York City: St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in the United States; Temple Emanu-El, generally considered the most architecturally spectacular Reform synagogue; and the Islamic Cultural Center Mosque, spiritual home to the city’s Muslim community, all of these houses of worship accommodating countless international visitors each year. Each structure is breathtaking, exceptional, and vast.

From the grand cathedral to the grand synagogue to the grand mosque, the children craned their heads up and around and a breathy universal choir of “Wow!” echoed through each sanctuary. At each stop our school guide and the welcoming clergy took the students through these great halls of worship, and pointed out architectural highlights that reflect aspects of the faith’s spiritual foundations. At St. John’s, the crucifix and the stained glass windows depict the biblical roots of Christianity. In Temple Emanu-El’s historic hand- scribed Torah scrolls the students could see the durable expression of an ancient spiritual story and people. And at the Islamic temple, the sea of men kneeling in midday prayer was a vivid reminder of spiritual devotion embodied in each and the many gathered together.

At various points along the way these children on the cusp of adolescence asked the clergy respectfully about different prayers, rituals, and symbolism. They listened intently, absorbing the distinguishing features, and the commonalities, of the different faiths. Their questions and comments reflected their growing capacity for reflection and a probing desire to connect this practice in this place of worship, with their own inner knowing of the heart. In one activity, the teacher asked the children to draw in a journal something from anywhere within the great structure that touched them with personal meaning or significance. A Jewish girl drew the votive candles at St. John the Divine. A non- Jewish boy drew the Torah scrolls from the sanctuary at Temple Emanu- El, and a group of nearly half- dozen children stood attentive and respectful for quite a while before they drew the kneeling men at the mosque.

As we stood outside waiting for the bus, a chaperoning teacher explained to me that the school hoped the children would “respect the differences,
but more fundamentally find the common ground between faiths,” she said. “We want them to truly feel at home in all three spaces, rather than just passing by on the street, wondering what goes on inside.” Judging from the students’ enthusiasm, the trip accomplished that. Equally important, as evidenced by their responses to the drawing assignment, all of the children found something of personal meaning or significance, and many did so in houses of worship and religious contexts that were not familiar to them previously.

You don’t have to wait for a school field trip to broaden your child’s spiritual horizons. You can go on those walks together, visit houses of worship and respectfully explore, or search online sources for information and commentary, or virtual tours of historic religious sites and spiritual communities around the globe. You can encourage your child to hear at the level of their heart the wisdom contained in a world of faiths as well as from those on their own spiritual journeys.

You can’t order up moments of transcendent illumination, but you can open the space for them by supporting your child’s sense that spiritual connection exists everywhere and at all times— and that they can find it in people everywhere. You have your own inner spiritual wisdom through which to experience the wisdom in traditions around us. Even if in our family we have a strong one of our own, we can learn different things from other spiritual traditions. All are valuable to our own understanding of spiriutality.

If you welcome questions, they will come. The child is making sense of messages from without, trying to link up these messages with experiences of the heart. The child also is a keen empirical scientist of spirit, making observations that are consistent or inconsistent between family and cultural messages and knowing of the heart. Sometimes these are moral questions, sometimes they are big structural cosmic questions, sometimes they are picking up something within their own heart.

So they will ask you foundational questions: They will hear about something— let’s just say reincarnation— and the questions bubble forth:

If you were born a rabbit, can you come back as a human? Could I come back as rabbit? You don’t have to be an expert in world religions to honor your child’s questions, welcome the conversation, and explore the world of ideas together, whether that’s through online resources or from your own—and your child’s— perspective. You can ask: What do you think? Have you ever sensed you may have been a rabbit? How so? Let your child’s curiosity drive the exploration. If you hop on board to visit these questions together, you give importance to the discoveries for both of you.

Silence is the worst thing you can do to your child’s spiritual development. Silence sends the implicit message that a child’s transcendent experiences and feelings are “off the map,” not “really real,” or are not important enough for your family to discuss. This can be the accidental side effect of a parent’s own avoidance of spiritual questions, or a side stepping of cultural or religious blending within a family. But losing the place of natural spirituality in the home is a loss to the child. A young teen girl explain it this way.

My mother was raised Hindu. Well sort of— that is what she really is. But she went to Catholic school, and she believes in Jesus, so officially she is Christian. My father was raised Jewish, but did not really observe as a child. So because they did not have the same religion we got rid of it as a family— and we are atheists. Well, not really atheists. We just don’t talk about it.

This highly articulate girl went on to share that she felt joy and felt uplifted when visiting a beautiful cathedral on a class trip, but she had no frame of reference for understanding these feelings as coming from a source of spirituality within her. Her parents’ rejection of religion had prevented the recognition of spirituality as a natural, personal faculty of direct knowing, and connection to a larger universe through head and heart. Spiritual multilingualism can hold on to direct knowing, far better than silence, if a single religious “language” does not make sense for a family.

No matter how complicated or ill prepared you feel approaching this spiritual conversation, there is always a way to do it. In a religiously “mixed marriage,” it’s less important in which religion or spiritual language you land. The essential point is that you provide your child with a way to explore natural spirituality. You don’t even have to have a clear stance on your own spirituality. You simply need to show that you respect the quest and support the exploration. Divorced from the field of love, language and symbolism can be misused to teach prejudice, bigotry, and beliefs in religious superiority—in effect, being used to kill off experience and close minds. Within the field, spiritual multilingualism opens up things, broadens the conduit to heart knowing and a child’s inner compass. Now is the time—in this first decade—to sustain the spiritual conversation in the way you welcome questions and conversation. As learners and as spiritual beings, our children need to be free, not held in place by systems of reasoning and limitations of language and socializations.

Excerpted from "The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving" by Lisa Miller, Ph.D. Published by St. Martin's Press. Copyright 2015 by Lisa Miller. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher. All rights reserved.

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