Most parents have had the experience of being humbled by their children. Maybe it was the kid who saved his allowance for months to buy a coveted video game and then, almost out of the blue, gave the money to a homeless shelter. Or maybe it was the child who agonized all weekend 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 be glimpses into a child's true character, into what educator Marsha Sinetar calls "spiritual intelligence." We are all born with it, she says, but many of us lose it on the road to adulthood. If we can learn to recognize it in our children, we may learn to nurture it in them and revive it in ourselves. Sinetar, in her book "Spiritual Intelligence: What We Can Learn From the Early Awakening Child" (Orbis Books), defines spiritual intelligence as a "heightened awareness" that results in a range of virtues that many parents believe must be instilled in children: insight, intuition, creativity, compassion, strong moral conviction, inner authority, and an unwavering sense of vocation or purpose. Sinetar believes that all children show signs of spiritual intelligence and its attendant virtues. But she argues that some exceptional children--she calls them "early awakeners"--are so consistent 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 idea
or truth burning within that they, or at least selected patterns of behavior, can be guides," she writes. "The young can show us how to express our own spiritual truths." Sinetar builds her case for spiritual intelligence on scores of little examples: brief anecdotes from famous lives and snippets from lesser known ones. She sees spiritual intelligence at work when a young Dorothy Day burst in on a neighbor who was kneeling in prayer. From that day on, Sinetar says in an interview, Day, a champion of the poor and homeless and a founder of the Catholic Worker movement, prayed every day on her knees. Another example comes from a colleague, Sinetar said, whose 6-year-old recorded her spiritual musings in a Disney diary. "Booda and Jesus our here for me," the child wrote. "Goodness leads to God. My sister might think that being good makes you an Angel but I think God and everyone makes sure that I'm an Angel in my own way." "The timeless heart of childhood understands that wit and virtue make for happy endings," Sinetar writes. "Inspired youngsters figure out, without directly being told, what the word 'spiritual' involves." Difficulties arise when adults don't take into account a child's own spiritual intelligence or try to suppress it, she said. "I think we do more harm than good when we take it upon ourselves to fix a child according 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 any means except by example. "I do believe that it takes one to develop one," she said. "An adult has to set up a climate at home that will encourage 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. She prefers principles and general guidelines. A "good spiritual parent," for example, affirms "life in self and others," chooses "the path of peace," uses "creative endeavors" for the greater good, sees "heartache" as a teacher, and relinquishes "false guilt." Sinetar keeps her discussion general, focused on spirituality rather than a specific religious tradition. She said she values religion and practices it herself but wants her book and the examination of spiritual intelligence that she hopes it inspires to be inclusive. That emphasis may be problematic, said Thomas H. Groome, professor of 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 involves grounding him or her in a specific religious tradition, Groome insists, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, or any other long-standing spiritual practice. Children are, by nature, contemplative, he said, born with a sense of awe, reverence, creativity, and an openness to mystery. But those qualities soon dissipate if a child has no way to express them.

"We can't be spiritual in general," Groome said. "We have to be spiritual in particular." A spirituality that cannot be expressed in words, symbols, and ethics will not stand up to the rigors of life.

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