As parents, we want our children to develop a strong faith in God and to deepen that faith throughout their lives. We bring them to Mass on Sundays, enroll them in sacramental prep, and teach them moral lessons at home. But if that’s where it stops, we’ve missed perhaps the most important aspect of spirituality — a real relationship with the living God. And the only way to have such a relationship is to develop a spiritual life. So how do we encourage this in our children?
Young children are especially open to spiritual truths. Their innocence, curiosity, and present-moment living often makes them more receptive to the workings of God. To build on this in your little ones, or to encourage your child’s spiritual life at any stage of development, here are 10 things to pay attention to as a parent:
Welcome the big questions they ask.
What happens when we die? Will our dog go to heaven? Why do we have to keep saying the same prayers if God has already heard them a million times? Why are we here? Children are often much better than adults at asking meaningful questions and pondering life’s biggest mysteries. It’s important to welcome these questions, even when they leave us stumped, because they’re part of a child’s search for understanding, meaning, and identity. In some cases, we’ll have answers — even if imperfect or incomplete — and in other cases we won’t and we can say so. But if we welcome our children’s questions rather than brush them off or dismiss them, they’ll continue to seek and ask questions as they grow older, which is an important component of the spiritual life.
Spend time in nature with them.
Educator and botanist George Washington Carver once said, “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour if we will only tune in.”
Throughout the ages, saints, monks, and spiritual masters have sought and found God in forests, caves, mountains, deserts, and at sea. It can be the same for all of us. Time in nature tends to quiet our minds, stirs our souls, and inspires reflection. Children are drawn to the natural world, so make sure they spend time there, even if it’s just in a local city park. Point out the sights and sounds, the changes in seasons, the plants and animals. Talk about God as the Creator of it all, and how we are connected to this incredible, majestic world.
Expose them to beauty.
Beauty isn’t only found in the natural world, but in great works of art around us — paintings, sculpture, architecture, music, film, novels, crafts, etc. If you live near any museums, make regular short trips with your kids. When walking or driving around, point out interesting buildings and monuments. Play a variety of beautiful music at home and in the car. Encourage the arts in your children’s education.
There’s plenty of beauty to be found in every day life, too — the birds that regularly come to the feeder in the backyard, the colorful bouquet of flowers in the grocery store, a treasured heirloom, the impeccable presentation of a meal, the face of a new baby or beloved grandparent. When we teach our kids to be attuned to beauty, we are encouraging their spiritual life.
Bring the Holy Trinity into daily life.
As parents do we talk about God as our Father? Do we bring Jesus into our daily conversations and speak of Him as a living Person in our lives? Do we call upon the Holy Spirit when we need help or inspiration? And do we do this aloud, in front of our children, as well as quietly in our own prayer time? Kids need to see that their parents have a relationship with God, that He is real in our lives, and that we make regular efforts to grow in our own spiritual lives.
Read the Bible together.
Scripture is the living Word of God, and we can spend our lives reading the same passages over and over again and still receive something new. Open the Bible with your children. There are various editions designed for children at different stages. With older kids, consider you might do the daily Mass readings together — a subscription to Magnificat is helpful for that. [And Magnificat has an edition for children, too.)
Institute quiet times.
It’s a noisy world and children today rarely experience quiet time. But knowing how to be comfortable with silence is important to a spiritual life. One of the best ways to help with this is to institute a quiet time each day where your kids must read or play quietly for a certain period of time. Once children have the ability to sit still for a few minutes, you can begin to teach them the basics of Christian meditation by introducing them to ancient practices in Catholic spirituality. One place to start is a book called Sitting Like A Saint: Catholic Mindfulness for Kidswhich takes prayer practices from the lives of saints and helps children learn to be still and attentive to God in the moment.
Talk about saints and angels like friends.
Children are naturally fascinated with angels and saints, who are helpful aids when it comes to developing our spiritual lives. Encourage your child to regularly call on his or her guardian angel. Help your child to identify some favorite saints to be close friends with — perhaps a saint that your child is named after, or whose feast falls on your child’s birthday, or whose story resonates with your child.
Serve others as a family.
Part of the spiritual life is being aware of our connection to other people and our call to care for each other. When children are exposed from a young age to the needs of others, they grow in empathy, charity, and gratitude. Depending on the age and sensitivities of your child, consider volunteer activities that allow you to serve others as a family.
Go to confession regularly.
Once your child has made his First Confession, don’t make it another year until you bring him back. Instead, try to attend Confession once a month — and go together. Print out a child-friendly Examination of Conscience and review the sacramental prayers with your child. On the way there, and afterwards, talk about God’s mercy and love for us and how regularly confessing our sins and receiving absolution helps us to grow in our relationship with God.
Have prayer routines at home.
There are many ways to pray as a family at home. Family meals, first thing in the morning, and bedtimes are perfect times to do so. Prayer routines with your children helps them to understand that we depend on God every moment of our lives. And don’t forget things like fasting, which is a kind of prayer. Abstaining from meat on Fridays, going without dessert, or making special sacrifices during penitential seasons like Lent and Advent, are all helpful ways to incorporate spiritual practices into children’s lives.
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