Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been longer than I care to admit since my last confession. The thing that has been gnawing at me for some time is the lack of a spiritual home for my children. As I fall back on my own religious background, I’m not finding many answers. I firmly fall into the categories of “raised Catholic,” “lapsed Catholic,” and “Millennial,” and I’m not alone.
According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, people born between 1981 and 1996 are unaffiliated with any organized religious group at a rate of 35% and growing, with only 16% identifying as Catholic—on top of which, nearly 49% only identify “culturally” with being Catholic and NOT necessarily based on religious belief or dogma.
Spirituality and religiosity are no longer defined by religious scholars and sociologists as being one in the same. And further surveys indicate my generation is “not necessarily religious but rather spiritual.” And if you were to ask my husband his preference, he mostly falls in line with the demographic but errs on the side of being Agnostic.
I struggle with returning to and introducing my children to a religious institution that has systematically allowed, passively or actively, the abuse of children. It’s something I don’t know I will ever come to terms with. That being said, I LOVED the church growing up. I sang psalms loudly, took communion proudly, and religiously served as a lector from the time I could reach the podium to adjust the microphone.
I attended retreats where I felt my sense of understanding went beyond myself and helped me to grapple with the trials and tribulations of teenage-dom.
I explored other denominations but always came back to my home church. But I haven’t stepped foot in that old sanctuary since my oldest was born five years ago. Suffice it to say, my children are un-baptized heathens, and though I don’t fear (anymore) they are going to hell or purgatory for it, I still feel an innate need to provide them with some religious or spiritual guidance, or at least a framework from which to operate.
Both of my kids are enrolled at a day school run out of a Methodist Church, which has been a welcome introduction to some Christian rituals, like prayer and tithings. We’ve even made it a tradition to attend the church’s Advent and Lenten festivals.
We’ve “practiced” going to a neighborhood church, where a more contemporary service is all at once intriguing and awkward, especially for someone who is used to knowing all the words to all the songs.
I’ve researched ways to introduce my children to other religions and am grateful once again to our day school, which invites families of all backgrounds to share their culture and rituals in the classroom.
However, my spiritual reawakening is largely tied up in a battle between wanting my kids to have a firm grasp on reality and yet still possess a sense of wonder about the world. Thus, in times like these I turn to maybe not “The Good Book,” but usually a book, and I found one that is helping me understand my need to provide this faith formation for my children and the significance it could play in their lives.
In Dr. Lisa Miller’s recent publication, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, she explores what she considers to be the “next big idea in psychology and parenting: the science and the power of spirituality.” She talks about the drivers that bring parents to the position I find myself in and the thoughts that derail us from pursuing spirituality, in whatever form it presents itself. The book also talks about how children view the world and demonstrate an innate spirituality that is now being scientifically documented and measured against a child’s future tendencies towards risk-taking behavior, or positive self-image and health.
A combination of neurology, psychology, and 15 years of clinical and anecdotal evidence supports the claims I feel are true about the positive effects of fostering spirituality in children, but it goes a step further in providing practical advice on how to cultivate what she calls “children’s natural spiritual assets.”
She likens honing these assets to learning practical subjects like math: while we are not born knowing how to do addition, subtraction, or the like, we are born with “the capacity for mathematical thinking.” Given the structure and language to discuss spirituality, we can build on a child’s personal capacity and develop strengths that attributed to some startling real-world implications:
These studies correlate an active spiritual mind with things like:
- 40% less likelihood to abuse substances
- 60% less likelihood of developing depression as teenagers
- 80% less likelihood to have dangerous or unprotected sex
- A greater likelihood of having positive markers for thriving and high levels of academic success
Finding opportunities in everyday life to practice spiritual growth requires a few strategies described in the book, including:
- creating a vocabulary to describe spiritual experiences and using it daily to express gratitude, forgiveness, and even disappointment
- developing rituals that build connections and engage in nature and relationships with animals
- being deliberate and explicit about sharing our experiences with our kids through thoughtful narrative (basically telling them stories about our own spiritual journey)
Meanwhile, there are studies that suggest what many of us know: abiding by “The Golden Rule,” practicing empathy, and treating others as you would want to be treated is a tried and true method for rearing kindhearted and conscientious individuals, no supernatural or other-worldy beliefs required.
While it’s somewhat comforting to know that I haven’t damaged my children in any conceivable way by maintaining a mostly secular approach to life, I still want to be able to share this spiritual connection with them.
So, we practice gratitude by sharing “highs and lows” at the dinner table. We also try to acknowledge that while we are responsible for our own feelings, we can be encouraged or disappointed by the actions of others. It feels like the right time to start exploring a deeper meaning, and while my own experience has left me rudderless, I definitely think The Spiritual Child has put me on the right course to helping my children find their spiritual compass and their way in the world. If nothing else, we’ve done our penance.