Most parents have had the experience of being humbled bytheir children. Maybe it was the kid who saved his allowance for monthsto buy a coveted video game and then, almost out of the blue, gave themoney to a homeless shelter. Or maybe it was the child who agonized allweekend over being cool enough to fit in and, come Monday morning,befriended a playground pariah. These moments, which sometimes seem so out of character, may beglimpses into a child's true character, into what educator MarshaSinetar calls "spiritual intelligence." We are all born with it, she says, but many of us lose it on theroad to adulthood. If we can learn to recognize it in our children, wemay learn to nurture it in them and revive it in ourselves. Sinetar, in her book "Spiritual Intelligence: What We Can Learn Fromthe Early Awakening Child" (Orbis Books), defines spiritual intelligenceas a "heightened awareness" that results in a range of virtues that manyparents believe must be instilled in children: insight, intuition,creativity, compassion, strong moral conviction, inner authority, and anunwavering sense of vocation or purpose. Sinetar believes that all children show signs of spiritualintelligence and its attendant virtues. But she argues that someexceptional children--she calls them "early awakeners"--are soconsistent in their insights or behavior that adults refer to them as"little old souls" or remark that they are "wise beyond their years." "Certain blessed children display such hunger for some sacred ideaor truth burning within that they, or at least selected patterns ofbehavior, can be guides," she writes. "The young can show us how toexpress our own spiritual truths."
Sinetar builds her case for spiritual intelligence on scores oflittle examples: brief anecdotes from famous lives and snippets fromlesser known ones. She sees spiritual intelligence at work when a youngDorothy Day burst in on a neighbor who was kneeling in prayer. From thatday on, Sinetar says in an interview, Day, a champion of the poor andhomeless and a founder of the Catholic Worker movement, prayed every dayon her knees. Another example comes from a colleague, Sinetar said, whose6-year-old recorded her spiritual musings in a Disney diary. "Booda andJesus our here for me," the child wrote. "Goodness leads to God. Mysister might think that being good makes you an Angel but I think Godand everyone makes sure that I'm an Angel in my own way." "The timeless heart of childhood understands that wit and virtuemake for happy endings," Sinetar writes. "Inspired youngsters figureout, without directly being told, what the word 'spiritual' involves." Difficulties arise when adults don't take into account a child's ownspiritual intelligence or try to suppress it, she said. "I think we domore harm than good when we take it upon ourselves to fix a childaccording to our own specifications." Parents should provide love,discipline, structure, and resources--and "then get out of the way." She is skeptical of the notion that virtues may be taught by anymeans except by example. "I do believe that it takes one to developone," she said. "An adult has to set up a climate at home that willencourage and draw out the potential that already exists in the child."
In both book and interview, she resists specific parenting tips,which she believes are rarely relevant enough to be of any real use. Sheprefers principles and general guidelines. A "good spiritual parent," for example, affirms "life in self andothers," chooses "the path of peace," uses "creative endeavors" for thegreater good, sees "heartache" as a teacher, and relinquishes "falseguilt." Sinetar keeps her discussion general, focused on spirituality ratherthan a specific religious tradition. She said she values religion andpractices it herself but wants her book and the examination of spiritualintelligence that she hopes it inspires to be inclusive. That emphasis may be problematic, said Thomas H. Groome, professorof theology and religious education at Boston College and author of"Educating for Life: A Spiritual Vision for Every Teacher and Parent"(Thomas More). An essential part of nurturing spirituality in a child involvesgrounding him or her in a specific religious tradition, Groome insists,whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, or any otherlong-standing spiritual practice. Children are, by nature, contemplative, he said, born with a senseof awe, reverence, creativity, and an openness to mystery. But thosequalities soon dissipate if a child has no way to express them.
"We can't be spiritual in general," Groome said. "We have to bespiritual in particular." A spirituality that cannot be expressed inwords, symbols, and ethics will not stand up to the rigors of life.