I was raised within a Christian framework. Growing up, I went to church every Sunday. I still go to church. I take my children to church. For me as an adult, it is a place to get away from the busyness, to reflect and to be thankful for the blessings in my life. I value the song, the symbolism in the stories and, most important, the sense of community. I do, however, remember my early church experiences as a child—struggling to see beyond the horizon of the row in front of me, the musty smell of wood intermingled with incense, porcelain statues with eyes that tracked my every move, and the temptation of the tiniest orange pencil that I had ever seen perched upright in a most curious hole on the top side of the pew rack. The stained glass windows and the red plush kneelers broke the monotony of voice that hypnotized me into lethargy. This description perhaps sounds oddly more romantic than it likely was for me as a child. So when I see my own children getting fidgety in church, I have to temper my frustration and embarrassment with some understanding and empathy. I confess sheepishly that after-service coffee time, in particular the sweet treats, becomes a powerful bribe in desperate times.

So I ask myself: what is it that I really want my children to get out of this experience? I want them to feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves, to hold tight to their sense of wonder, to love and be loved, to discern the gifts that they are meant to share in the service of others, and to have a sense of personal meaning and purpose. I want them to possess a faith and hope that sustains them through their trials and to be thankful for the bounty of their lives. This to me is what is meant to be spiritual. It is a component of being a human being, a wisdom that is irrespective of religious practice.

Yet, when it comes to nurturing my children’s spirituality, I feel like an imposter. I can read. I can write. My comfort with numbers is acceptable. I have good manners. I value the importance of healthy eating and physical activity. I can impart this wisdom to my children. But ask me who I am meant to be or where my place in this world lies? These are questions that I myself am challenged with on a daily basis.

Compounded with this insecurity is the knowledge I hold as an educator and a mother. I grapple with how to reconcile my own spiritual/religious upbringing with what I now know about how children learn. Children make meaning and come to understandings best when the learning is relevant, hands-on and when they can draw on their own personal experiences. The ability to sit still in a pew for an hour may demonstrate commendable focus and self-regulation, but I know that it is not enough to satisfy my children’s spiritual development. It is an area that I must mindfully and deliberately attend to through a more child-centered lens.

Embrace Uncertainty
“If God made us, then who made God?” My four-year-old son never ceases to amaze me with the complexity of his reasoning. My typical response to difficult questions such as this is to defer to my husband, sparing myself from having to admit that I simply don’t know.

In the presence of my children, I often feel like I have to have all the answers. After all, how could they possibly have confidence in someone who doesn’t? What I forget is that spirituality is about mystery and wonder. I am working hard at being comfortable with uncertainty and the unknown. I have learned from my children that questions are natural, answers optional, and wonder sacred.

We can nurture our children’s sense of spirituality by honouring their questions, even if we don’t have the answers. It’s okay to say, “That’s a good question, I don’t know the answer.” In doing so, we model humility. We also help our children develop the virtues of discernment, patience, and trust that the answers will reveal themselves in due course. “Just Because” as an answer to our children’s persistent “Why?” questions may not be such a bad response after all.

Rituals in the Everyday
I remember clearly the final months of my fourth pregnancy. Consumed by fatigue, it was becoming harder to mobilize my troops for church on Sunday mornings. I simply didn’t have the wherewithal to effectively manage the children. My focus at church revolved around praying for good behaviour, both theirs and mine. After a couple of inner core meltdowns and having to haul the children out midway through the service, I decided that until the baby was born, we would do church at home. God would understand.

The children thought it all quite amusing. At their request, we lit candles and proceeded into the living room. “Someone needs to stand at the front and tell a story,” my two eldest reminded me. We decided that we would read from The Family Virtues Guide, picking out a specific virtue and discussing what it meant to us. “Let’s sing a song to begin,” my son proposed. I awkwardly began chanting Alleluia to a made-up tune, but it lacked energy, passion and authenticity. “You choose something,” I suggested to my eldest daughter. She began singing, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” the song she uncomfortably sings when put on the spot. “C’mon, be serious!” I barked. But then I paused to listen mindfully to the words. She couldn’t have picked a more appropriate song, so simple and ordinary, yet so sacred.

Through this example, my children taught me a valuable lesson. I don’t need to pour over piles of parenting books and reference material or desperately surf the internet in hopes of someone else telling me how to nurture my children’s spiritual worlds. The experts reside under my very own roof. Here is what I have come to:

1. Begin with Belonging. It is hard to know your place in the world without a sense of belonging. As parents, we can nurture our children’s spiritual development by helping them find places where they can feel “at home,” whether it is within the walls of a religious institution, connecting with nature, doing things together as a family or living in community with others.

2. Children love and need rituals as a means of connecting to the world and to others. Rituals also provide little lives with stability and a sense of constancy. Change the ordinary into something meaningful and bring the spiritual back into traditions. The celebration of birthdays is an example of a ritual with actions and symbols that are deeply spiritual—we gather, we sing with joyfulness and appreciation and we light candles to celebrate the gift of life.

3. Children love stories. Read broadly across different faith traditions that promote values, morals and virtues that you feel are important. Parables like the Good Samaritan are very insightful for younger audiences but there are also many fables and old folk tales from around the world as well as general children’s books that teach good lessons. In our home, we enjoy the Zen Ties series by Jon Muth as well as On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier. Additionally, those “When I was young” stories from your own upbringing are often filled with examples of joyfulness and wonder as well as other virtues like courage, perseverance and fairness.

4. Create routines of reverence. Add a sacred dimension to everyday acts. For example, make the commitment to eat together as a family, take turns at the dinner table to share one thing for which you are thankful that day, read stories together at bedtime, and schedule time to connect with nature.

5. Sing! Singing is an outlet for the expression of our deepest emotions—our sorrow, our joyfulness. I remember floating around the living room with my eldest daughter as a baby and singing “Top of the World” by the Carpenters because it was the best way for me to convey how I felt about this new gift in my life. Spine-shivering songs remind us of our spirituality. “The Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog can be just as inspiring as Handel’s “Messiah.”

6. Engage your children’s sense of awe by exposing them to new life—babies, puppies, seedlings. I am always amazed to watch how babies gaze curiously at each other or how the most boisterous child mellows in the presence of a newborn, somehow knowing to show loving respect and gentleness.

7. Encourage “I wonder” questions. Allow your children to come to answers on their own and in their own time. Offer them opportunities to tell you what they think.

8. Give your children permission and space in their lives to explore their world and to make meaningful connections. This could entail time for stillness and personal reflection as well as time for them to be of service to their world.

Learn from the Past
I fondly recall the image and words of my mother-in-law the day she first held my eldest child. Bracing my daughter’s tiny six-pound body within the length of her forearms and gently cupping her delicate head in the palms of her hands, my mother-in-law stood entranced by my baby’s deep brown eyes that, without words, conveyed the wisdom of an old soul. “She has a knowing because she has come from the unknown, a place we no longer know, one that we have forgotten,” my mother-in-law whispered reverently.

When I start to anguish over the meaning of life for myself as well as for my family, I take comfort in my belief that my children have an inborn sense of spirituality: joyfulness expressed through unfettered laughter…grace and tenderness shown towards their baby sister…the way time is embraced on their terms, much to the frustration of my hurried schedule…imaginations and dreams brimming with idealism…their ability to uncover the beauty of “wishberries” and dandelions…purposefulness in piling rocks on the bottom of the park slide, pouring water from one bucket to another, spinning around in circles…“Tell why” questions that relentlessly chisel away at the surface of life in an attempt to expose a deeper meaning…excitement and enthusiasm in simply being.

As far as my children’s spiritual development is concerned, I now recognize that my job is not to instill but instead to help them sustain what it is they already know. And when my memory fails me, I am learning to look to my children to help me reconnect with my own sense of spirituality and to be more open to the mysteries and wonder of life.

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator and Salt Spring Island mum of four children, aged 1, 2, 5 and 6. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” on local Salt Spring Island airwaves at CFSI 107.9 FM or online at web link. She is also a trained Virtues Project Facilitator.