Spirituality for Kids

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    How and when is it appropriate to introduce your children to ideas about God?

    Dear Miriam,

    I have a toddler and an infant, and they attend a secular daycare/preschool. So far my kids are becoming familiar with Jewish rituals as we celebrate holidays or Shabbat at home, but I am struggling with when/how to teach them about God and the spiritual side of our faith.

    Signed,
    Spirituality for kids


    Dear Spirituality,

    This struggle is so interesting to me because I think it's both incredibly common and rarely talked about. Most adults, even if we are part of a Jewish community, aren't used to talking with each other about what we actually believe about God. Beliefs are personal. Talking about them makes you vulnerable. Most people like to avoid that combination. Then again, you're already a parent. You probably once thought that going to the bathroom was personal and that sharing that experience with others would make you vulnerable, and I'm guessing your views on that have changed, probably more out of necessity than preference, but still. Being a parent opens you up to conversations and experiences you never expected to have and that you don't know how to have, and yet you're already doing it every day. 

    As your children get older and get more comfortable with the Jewish rituals you're practicing at home, they're going to start asking different kinds of questions. They'll want to know what the prayers mean, and they'll probably ask you, "What is God?" Once they ask once, they will probably keep asking, and the conversation will develop naturally. You can wait until they ask and follow their lead about what sorts of answers they might be looking for. When they do start to ask, encourage their questions and avoid displaying whatever uncertainties or discomfort you might have. 
     
    My husband and I have also struggled with how to talk about God with our kids, as opposed to "just" ritual, and one very successful strategy has been to have other people to turn to. Beverly Socher-Lerner of Makom Community is masterful at helping kids work through tough questions, and one of the stock answers in our house is to theological questions is, "Let's ask Beverly about that." This tactic isn't only because she's an expert – it's also because I want my kids to know that other trusted adults besides their parents can be sounding boards and sources of information, and that lots of adults have different sorts of answers to the same questions. 
     
    I also turned to Cantor Rebecca Carl for help writing this column, and the most important advice she has to offer to parents talking to their children about God is to, "Answer honestly, even if you don't know the answer." She suggests exploring children's literature on the topic, including the book, Does God Hear My Prayer?, which is part of a nondenominational series on spirituality for kids, and the many books by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, including God In BetweenIn God's Name, and God's Paintbrush. I would add that you should preview a wide variety of such books before sharing them with your children to see which ones speak to you. Sharing books with your kids that are also meaningful to you will help increase your comfort, which will help your kids to be more comfortable asking additional questions. 
     
    There's no rush to introduce such huge concepts to kids in a formal way, though I would bet that once you start the conversation, you'll see that your kids have as much to teach you as you hope to impart to them.
     
    Be well,
    Miriam