Children’s Spirituality and its relevance to family life

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I used to think spirituality wasn’t a Christian thing. It seemed a bit of a diversion from or dilution of Christian faith.

However, when I read Rebecca Nye’s book Childrens’ Spirituality – what it is and why it matters over, I began to realise that spirituality is at the heart of faith. Without it, all the practices, beliefs and lifestyle are pretty empty.

What’s more, since “all human being are spiritual people” (as Paul Butler writes in his preface in the book), it makes things of faith accessible to people who might not feel comfortable with traditional Christian practices.

This article is the beginning of me trying to unpack Rebecca’s excellent book (read it if you haven’t already!), and apply it to family faith at home. Her book is intended to be applied to any places where children are: church, school, home, but it is rare that I meet a parent who’s read this book and applied it to their family life. This is what I’ve been seeking to do for the last decade, and I wanted to share some thoughts on what this can look like, and some questions to help more people discover the joys of spiritual growth in their home.

Rebecca starts by exploring what spirituality is, although, as she says, “Spirituality is not something that likes to be confined in words – which making writing (and reading) about it horribly difficult!” I was so glad she starts here as it makes me feel in good company!

She quotes Rabbi Higo Gryn:

“Spirituality is like a bird; if you hold it tightly, it chokes; if you hold it too loosely, it flies away. Fundamental to spirituality is the absence of force.”

I love this! There is something reflected here of how the all-powerful God of the universe chose not to force his presence and will on us, but came as a helpless baby and invited us into relationship.

When wanting to help our children grow spiritually, it is impossible to treat it like teeth brushing! We can’t make people grow spiritually. Spiritual growth is something which can be assisted but not forced. It is like a plant which needs soil and space, water and sun, protection from frost and bugs but which grows itself using the resources packed into the seed from which it grew.

This is hard for us adults, but important to wrestle with as we approach this topic.

Rebecca then shares a selection of quotes by people trying to define spirituality and encourages the reader to try writing their own, or at least think about which of these they like and why.

One of the things she points out is that our definition of spirituality can exclude children if it depends on having adult capabilities.

One of the simplest definitions she offers is that children’s spirituality is “God’s way of being with children and children’s ways of being with God.”

For me, this is helpful as it allows me to start looking into children’s lives for their experiences of God, and, as Rebecca points out, it starts with God, and so I know this isn’t something I have to initiate or create, but rather make space for and change my focus so that I can see it.

I find this is true for so many things in being a parent. For example, a room which looks to me like a chaotic, messy play room can to a child be a world created for small world play. My husband is not a fan of using recycling as toys, and so to him the world my daughter has created for her Shopkins out of cardboard veg punnets and loo roll inners looks like rubbish which needs recycling. But to her it’s the outpouring of her imagination, and a gift she’s created for her toys!

It’s also true of spiritual experiences. It’s hard for us to see when children are having a precious moment connecting with God, as often it doesn’t look the same as our own experiences. We might also be able to communicate our experiences to some extent in words, which children may not.

This is one of the tasks we can help with: once we begin to ask the right questions and see with the right lenses so as to be aware of some of children’s spiritual experiences, we can offer them language which they might choose to use to express their experiences. Note I say offer, as often children can use metaphors and similes in ways we would not, which can offer us a deeper richness in our understanding of our own experiences!

One thing we can do to start tuning into our children’s spiritual life is to ask them open-ended questions such as ‘When did you feel closest to God this week / today?’ If we ask these honestly, with no judgement or critique we will give space for them to start using words to describe their experiences.

It might also be useful to ask ourselves this question, along with thinking about how we would define spirituality and how that relates to children. By doing this I’ve found I started to see things a different way, much like a painter see a landscape differently. I’ve stopped expecting children to have their deepest spiritual experiences during bedtime prayers or in church, but have started to appreciate the every day-ness of spiritual life. I’ve discovered that children are much less compartmental in the way they live, meaning that more than me, they live far more of their life aware of their own spiritual nature, and this is something I would like more of in my life!

If you’d like to find out more, I’d really recommend reading Rebecca’s book: Children’s Spirituality.