Knight Ridder/Tribune
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- Michael Ball was 5 years old when images of the Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City flashed across a television screen. He absorbed everything: the rubble, the carnage, the tear-streaked faces of grief.

When a tornado rumbled near his Texas home that night, Michael asked his mom, "Is it a bomb?" He became terrified of death, to the point of crying when flowers wilted. He wanted to know, "What happens when we die?"

Linda Ball of Garland, Texas, didn't rely on the answers given by the world's religions to help her son. She's part of a burgeoning segment of the U.S. population that defines itself as "spiritual but not religious."

Dr. Robert Fuller of Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., said that 20 percent of Americans identify themselves in that way, according to sociological studies. Many care deeply about raising spiritual children but want to do it outside a structured religion.

"Spirituality means all kinds of different things to these people," said Fuller, who has a forthcoming book on the topic. "For some, spirituality remains more philosophical. For others, it means being actively involved in a meditation group. Or it could be nothing more than pausing occasionally and reflecting on whether they are living their lives the best they can."

Organized religions offer seemingly unlimited resources and programs to help foster a child's spirituality. But parents outside the structures are often left to their own devices.

Ball tells Michael, now 10, stories about Jesus, the Buddha and other religious figures. Sometimes they pray and meditate together. But rather than indoctrinate Michael into any religion, she tries to foster the spirituality that she feels is already within him. "You give children a chance and they have beautiful perceptions about what they believe and where they come from," said Ball, 38, who leads workshops on nurturing children's spirituality.

After the bombing, Ball told her son that people die, but their spirits live on. But it wasn't until watching a television show on dinosaurs that Michael understood what she meant. "Something clicked for him," Ball said. "He saw the dinosaurs' bones and said, `Everything else must go somewhere else.' After that, he wasn't afraid of dying."

Barbara Bianco, the New Age guide for the Internet site, explains the difference between spirituality and religiosity this way:

"Spirituality is really a state of being that comes from the inner core of a person," she said, "whereas religion is the kind of code that people agree on to be spiritual."

Her advice to parents who don't want to raise their children in a religion is to trust the "innate spirituality" of the children. "That's a very difficult thing for people conditioned in a religion to do," she said. "But the goal is to allow your child to experience a lot of different things and trust that their natural spirituality can guide them without harm."

Karla Marie, a feng shui consultant from Dallas, helped to develop a coming of age ceremony for her nephews and nieces to honor "the spirit within them." The ceremony is held for the children as they're becoming teens. "People are led to believe that the only place they can find God is in a church," said Marie, 52. "That's just not true. God is already in our hearts, and most people are too busy to listen."

At Marie's family reunion in California last summer, the men in the family held a ceremony for her nephew, while the women held one for her niece, 13-year-old Becca Krauss of Minnetonka, Minn. Becca was taken to a room where her mom and three aunts painted her fingernails, gave her a massage and braided her hair with flowers symbolizing love, passion and joy. They shared stories of their childhood.

"The whole thing was pretty cool," Becca said. "My mom said they were honoring me becoming a woman. I felt honored. But I'm still sort of getting to the being a woman part." Becca also was taken to a vineyard, where each woman presented her with a gift, told her how special she was and shared their wisdom about being a woman. Her Aunt Karla Marie gave her a tiny rosary that belonged to Becca's deceased grandmother, who was a Catholic.

"I wanted to pass on the feminine lineage in some way," Marie said. "My point to her was there is tremendous spiritual guidance for us and it's always there and it's always available to us.

" Marie doesn't adhere to a religion, but prays and meditates daily. Her niece, who's a Catholic, describes her aunt as spiritual but "unorthodox," a word that Becca said she learned only a few days ago. "She's different from other people because she wants to be her own person," Becca said. "She's very spiritual, but carries herself in a different way than people in a religion."

Children learn about spirituality mostly by example, Bianco said. It's not just what their parents do, but also how they respond to life. "If you're doing yoga and your child starts imitating you, then invite them to participate," she said. "If you're meditating and they ask about it, then explain it at their level. But to force a child to do things almost always backfires and certainly doesn't respect their own inner spark." ...