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How to Raise a Spiritual Child

What you can do to nurture your child's spirituality

Reprinted from MSN Family. This article was written for non-Muslim audiences but has a lot of good and relevant advice for Muslims too.

What to expect at this age (baby to pre-school)

Though preschoolers are too young to grasp many of the abstract concepts that go hand-in-hand with spiritual life, they have other skills that will serve them well on the road to 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, mother of five, and the author of Dr. Mom's Prescription for Preschoolers: Seven Essentials for the Formative Years.

This is the perfect age to begin nurturing your child's spiritual side -- as sustenance for her soul, as a way of answering her cosmic questions, and as a means of strengthening her interpersonal skills. Every religion has some kind of belief embedded in it about loving your neighbor. And giving your child a foundation in faith will also give her something to fall back on in trying times later in life. "As recent events have shown us," says Neifert, "in times of crisis, people turn to their faith. It's a way to ground ourselves, and a way to interpret events that we don't understand."

What you can do 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 her to religious school? If you and your partner have different religions it's wise to decide how you'll approach spirituality with your child now, before she'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 early on -- 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."

Don't pretend to have all the answers. 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." 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 a tangible manifestation of the divine. "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 sacred 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 ideas about God 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 not only connects us to the divine; it also connects us to each other and to the past. If you're raising your child in the same spiritual tradition that you were raised in, be sure she knows that she's carrying on family rituals that were passed along by her grandparents and even great-grandparents. Show her pictures of her grandmother taking her first communion. Let her 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.

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, a wealth of CDs and cassettes of religious music is 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 her to be silent and listen to her inner voice. Your moment of silence needn't be introduced as some lofty practice of meditation, but simply as a calming break in a noisy day. Whether your child uses this time to commune with the divine or simply to rest and recharge, it'll help put her in touch with the "big" picture.

Introduce a simple form of prayer. Let your child know that prayer isn't something that's saved up just for Sunday morning, or for times when she needs help with something. It's a tool for communicating with a higher power anytime. So invite her 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.

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 she 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.

Follow your child's lead. Let your child ask the questions, and give her plenty of opportunities to discuss her 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 she asks you where God lives, begin your answer by asking her what she thinks. Or ask her 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.

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