CHICAGO We are a nation of believers. Mostly.
Believing in God doesnt necessarily translate to belonging to an organized religion. And parents who do not belong to a religious institution, as well as those who dont believe in a higher power, are faced with a difficult question: How do they instill spirituality and faith in the children?
Kara Powell, assistant professor of youth and family ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., says parents need to make themselves available to talk about spirituality and religion at home. They should be diligent in making faith a topic that can be discussed so children wont be confused or ashamed about any observations or questions they might have.
Even if there is no organized religion in the home, she says, holidays such as Easter and Hanukkah and their rituals can be an entry point into the discussion.
(Another) thing weve seen thats powerful is using current events, says Powell, whose book Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Zondervan), offers parents ways to develop long-term faith in teenagers. Why would God allow X amount of people to be killed in a hurricane or earthquake? Use it as a springboard to talk to kids.
Indeed, getting the ideas of spirituality, faith and respect for faith across to our kids is a challenge with or without organized religion.
Wendy Mogel, author of the best-selling parenting book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Penguin), says society is awash in irony and cynicism.
We have gloom and doom, a cynical, mocking culture, she says, and that will be your familys religion if parents dont actively balance that by showing examples and other counter-cultural ways. That means not being cynical, not being apathetic, and not being extremely prejudiced in your beliefs.
That also means letting kids see your values: how you treat others, what your priorities are, how you spend your time.
Children, absolutely, from birth are theologians and philosophers, she says. If were not careful, she says, we can kind of burn it out of them.
There are endless opportunities to instill spirituality. Start with meals. Mogel points to the Jewish tradition of the leisurely meal of Shabbat and says the idea works for any family, any religion (or nonreligion).
Its an opportunity to slow down our speedy lives and appreciate what weve been given rather than what we want to go shopping for tomorrow, she says.
That principle can be applied elsewhere: Make sure in your family schedule theres time for music, for being outdoors, to talk and listen to each other.
Dale McGowan, editor and co-author of Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion (AMACOM), is an atheist. He gets his kids to think about the implications of evolution.
One of the fun things is to chase it as far as you can, he says.
Tell them its nice to take a walk in the woods, but its a different experience when you realize youre related to those trees. Were related to our dog, were related to our front lawn. Most of these are spiritual realizations.
Raising a child outside religion has other hurdles. Theyll hear about God from their friends and will have questions for you. And neighbors or other family members may object to your parenting.
Mogel says to explain to relatives your reasons, and they can then take it or leave it.
She says she encourages children who are not being raised in a home where theres religion to go to religious services with friends.
Parents can treat this as cultural anthropology, an opportunity to learn and not be prejudiced about religion.
Even if the kids go to visit their grandparents and the grandparents drag them to church or the synagogue, I would hope parents would be OK with that, in the spirit of, Lets look at the whole wide world and see whats happening in it.
McGowan, too, sees family playing a role, if the relatives can be trusted not to frighten the children or scare them into beliefs, talking about hell, about making God angry and such.
The best course a parent can take is to show their character through their actions.
Absolutely, Powell says. Kids pick up far more from what we do than what we say. Who we are makes more of an impression than what we say. For parents who dont come from a particular faith persuasion, who dont have a religion that is motivating them, when they show character, they should explain what motivates them.