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Nurturing your child's religious imagination

Young couples will often tell me that they have decided not to join a synagogue or church yet. They say they will make a commitment to belong when their children are of school age. After all, young parents are busy; there are many other priorities in their lives. They will introduce their children to the necessary religious instruction when the children are "ready."

Underlying this decision is the assumption that young children are not able to make sense of religion; that they are too young to understand abstract ideas and concepts. The life of the spirit must await their cognitive development.

But the spiritual life does not begin in the abstract, it begins in concrete everyday experience. As parents respond to their children's cries for food, shelter, and love, the kids learn to trust the world. This is where faith begins.

Research tells us that by the time they reach school age, with or without formal religious instruction, all children have a concept of God. Every child has a spiritual life, an innate natural religious curiosity. We need to feel at home in our child's landscape of the sacred.

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There is a story of a young boy who frequently ventures into the forest near his home. The forest is a dangerous place and the boy's father becomes increasingly concerned. Not wanting to stifle his son's burgeoning curiosity he asks him why he likes to go into the forest. The son answers that he goes there to look for God. The father, pleased but still eager to protect his child responds, "Don't you know that God is one and the same everywhere." "Yes," says his son, "but I am not."

If we are to nurture our children's religious imagination, we need to begin where they are and we need to begin early, well before school age. It would never occur to us to wait until our children have reached the physical maturity for gymnastics to encourage their appropriate muscle development. It would never cross our minds to think that sharing books with our youngsters is useless until they can read. Our homes are filled with toys to promote motor development, stories to encourage language development and a life-long love of reading. Religious ritual, story, prayer, and song likewise provide vehicles for spiritual growth.

How we care for our children, the earliest experiences we provide for them, are the foundations of their spiritual formation.

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Rabbi Sandy Sasso
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