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What to expect at this age
Though preschoolers are too young to grasp abstract concepts, they have other skills that serve them well in terms of spirituality: They have no problem believing in things they can't see, and they live almost entirely in the moment.
"Kids this age have an incredible sense of wonder – they're innate spiritual beings," says Marianne Neifert, a pediatrician, author, and mother of five.
This is the perfect age to begin nurturing your child's spiritual side as a way to give her strong moral footing, a sense of family history, and a connection to her community and the larger world around her. A solid spiritual foundation can make her more resilient as she encounters challenges in life.
How to nurture your child's spirituality
Clarify your own beliefs. Whether or not you practice an organized religion, you'll need to decide what you believe in order to foster spirituality in your child. That doesn't mean you have to have all the answers, but you can take time to consider the questions:
- Do you believe in God?
- Do you believe there was a divine element in the creation of the world?
- What do you think happens when a person dies?
In addition to your own beliefs, consider what kind of spiritual education you want for your child:
- Will your family join a church, synagogue, or other house of worship?
- Do you want your child to attend services regularly?
- Do you plan to send him to a religious school?
If you and your partner have different beliefs, it's wise to decide how you'll approach spirituality with your child now – before he's old enough to get confused by your differing opinions.
Introduce spirituality early on. "Young children don't understand who God is, but they don't really understand who a grandparent is either," says Neifert. "Still, you want them to know Grandma, so you start talking about her from day one. It's the same thing with the idea of God."
Just as your child takes your word for it that Grandma is an important person in her life (even if she rarely sees her), so she'll take your word for it that God is, too.
And by introducing spiritual practices when she's young – such as lighting candles or singing hymns together – your child will view them as a natural part of life, and you'll have a spiritual influence on her before other people do.
Even if you don't believe in God or see God as a single all-powerful being, it's worth talking to your child about it. "Kids are going to hear about God all over," says Neifert. "If you don't put your own spin on it, with your own values, they'll absorb someone else's."
If you don't believe in organized religion, you can still encourage her to respect others' beliefs. And learning right from wrong, developing a sense of family history, and demonstrating a caring attitude toward others all help build the foundation of a rich spiritual life.
Don't pretend to have all the answers, and keep it simple. When your child asks where people go when they die, answer honestly: "Nobody knows for sure, but some people think they go to heaven to be close to God. Other people think they're born again in a new body." Keep it simple and to the point. His reasoning at this age is still pretty black and white, and he may even be bored with a long explanation.
Inevitably, your child will ask what you think. If you have a strong belief, share it. If not, it's okay to admit that there are some questions people spend their whole lives trying to figure out – and this is one of them.
Use daily events to teach spirituality. Big ideas don't always require big actions. You can demonstrate that spirituality is a part of everyday life by incorporating it into ordinary actions and words. When you open the curtains in the morning, you can say, "Look at this glorious day Mother Nature made." At bedtime, you can sign off with, "God bless you, sweetie pie."
Instill an appreciation of nature. Nature is a great place to find inspiration and a sense of spirituality. "Kids learn with all their senses – they love to pick up a rock or jump in a puddle or chase a butterfly," says Neifert.
Help your child see nature as something precious by demonstrating your own love and respect for it. When you go for a family hike in the woods or a picnic on the beach, clean up after yourself (and even others), and be considerate of creatures in their habitat.
Plant a garden with your child, and make it part of your daily routine to check on the progress of the plants together. Start a compost pile so your child can watch mealtime leftovers turn back into soil that you'll use in your garden. Introduce her to the idea that the Earth is a gift, and that our survival depends upon the survival of the planet.
Tell stories. The world's spiritual traditions are full of stories designed to explain everything from how the world was created to why people sometimes do bad things. Introduce your child to the notion that different people have different beliefs, myths, and traditions by drawing on this wealth of literature. Read stories together from an illustrated Bible, a book of Hindu mythology, or a collection of Jewish folk tales, amending and simplifying as you see fit. Even if you're reluctant to foster a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, for example, reading such stories will give your child the opportunity to ask questions.
Build on family traditions. Spirituality can connect us to the divine, to each other, and to the past. If you're raising your child in the same spiritual tradition that you were raised, be sure he knows that he's carrying on family rituals that were passed along by his grandparents and even great-grandparents.
Show him pictures of his grandfather taking his first communion. Let him help polish a pair of Sabbath candlesticks that were handed down by your parents. And be sure to tell the same family stories at holiday time that you listened to as a child.
Family traditions can be nonreligious as well. Volunteering at a food bank at Thanksgiving or planting a tree on Earth Day reinforces your child's connection with the family and helps him realize that the world can be a better place because he's in it. He's old enough now to show concern for others, so it's a great time to act on that feeling by modeling generosity and showing him how meaningful service to others can be.
Make it fun. Religion and spirituality should be more joyful than somber and serious. Encourage your preschooler to paint a picture of God, make up her own story about how the world came to be, or simply imagine what heaven looks like. Together, act out plays or put on a puppet show based on creation stories or your own spiritual themes.
Above all, do what spiritual people have done for centuries – sing and dance! If you don't know any traditional tunes, many CDs and MP3s of religious music are available. Don't forget to explore songs and chants from other cultures or traditions as well.
Practice silence. Once a day or once a week, take a minute to sit quietly with your child, encouraging him to be silent and listen to his inner voice or even to the sounds around him. This can be a calming break in a noisy day and help him get in touch with the "big picture."
Introduce a simple form of prayer. If prayer is part of your spiritual practice, let your child know that it isn't something that's saved up just for Sunday morning, or for times when she needs help. It's a tool for communicating with a higher power anytime.
So invite your child to join you in saying a prayer at different times of the day – for example, when she sees something beautiful, when she does something new for the first time, when she wakes up, or at bedtime. A simple prayer of thanks before or after meals can be an easy and effective way to instill appreciation for the basics of life.
If your child is too young to make up her own prayers, help her along with what Neifert calls "ping-pong" prayers: You suggest a simple phrase such as, "Thank you, God, for..." and she fills in the blanks. The idea is to let your child know that God, or the divine spirit, is always available. "If the being who created the whole universe can listen to you, that's pretty good," says Neifert.
If your family's not religious, you can still teach your child to practice gratitude by stopping for a moment to feel thankful for her comfy bed, a best buddy, or a sweet-smelling flower. Set an example by telling her, "I'm so thankful we have this sunny day to play in the yard, aren't you?"
Stress the spiritual side of holidays. Try to balance the commercialism of the holiday season with activities that underscore its deeper meaning. Volunteer at a local charity. Donate food, clothing, or toys to a shelter, and have your child do the same by choosing a few items he no longer plays with. Participate in church or synagogue events centered on holiday themes.
On the fun side, share some holiday crafts with your child: Create a homemade nativity scene out of cardboard and fill it with little dolls, craft a menorah out of modeling clay, or make a Kwanzaa kinara to hold the symbolic candles representing the principles of the holiday – unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
Consider joining a faith community. By regularly attending services and social events at a place of worship, your child will come to see that spirituality plays a central role in the life of the community. She'll also grow up more comfortable with the liturgy and rituals of your faith and come to see a house of worship as a place where she can feel comfortable and secure.
"Kids thrive on predictability," says Neifert. "Whether it's a Catholic child seeing the communion bread and wine, a Jewish child hearing the Hebrew prayers, or a Hindu child smelling the incense in the temple, by experiencing rituals kids come to appreciate the predictability of a religious service, if not the deeper meaning." Most churches and synagogues also have children's services that introduce kids to the tenets of a religion in a way they can understand and enjoy.
Consider joining a community organization. Community organizations offer participants a sense of commitment and fellowship similar to faith-based organizations. At this age your child is learning to share and consider the feelings of others. By regularly volunteering at an animal shelter or a food bank, for example, you show her she can make a positive difference in the world.
Follow your child's lead. Let your child ask the questions, and give him plenty of opportunities to discuss his own notions of issues such as who God is, what heaven looks like, or what happens to people after they die.
Try not to dictate the answers to big questions. If he asks you where God lives, begin your answer by asking him what he thinks. Or ask him to draw a picture and tell you about it. Spirituality is a two-way street: If you listen carefully to your preschooler, you might discover something you never thought of before.