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.

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.

As a child I used to spend the summer at the New Jersey shore with my family. I especially loved the ocean, until one day I was toppled by a large wave and the strong pull of the tide made it hard for me to regain my balance. I was shaken by the experience.

When my father joined the rest of the family at the beach that weekend, he noticed something about me had changed. I no longer ventured into the ocean, but remained content to play where the water barely lapped at my ankles. Despite my fear and occasional protest, he took me out into the ocean. When a large wave threatened, he playfully lifted me up and carried me in his arms. I learned once again to trust the waves.

My father had short arms. But it was in those arms that I learned about God and trust and faith. I think of God, even today, as the arms that carry me over the waves and coax me to do a little more than I imagine I can. We can help our children grow in faith by providing them with experiences of people who live out faith.

We help them also by linking them to a community that celebrates faith through ritual, prayer, and deeds of loving kindness. If our children participate with others in worship and celebration, they learn they are not alone in the world, that there is a place they belong and there are others who care about them. If our children see us offering a prayer before meals or bedtime, they will imitate us and in the process, learn the importance of gratitude and quiet reflection. If they join us in collecting food for a city shelter, they begin to recognize their role in reaching out to others. Children delight in doing things over and over again this makes ritual a perfect vehicle for religious education.

Faith is not an extracurricular activity to be taken up at a defined age and later discarded. It needs to be built into the fabric of everyday experience from infancy through adulthood.

It is never too early to begin.

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