Our spiritual development begins at birth, with the connectedness and trust an infant feels in being held, fed, and cuddled by his parents. Toddlers' spirituality reflects how absorbed they are in the wonder of creation. They want to touch and know everything.
Kids soak up knowledge of God in lots of ways--from the Sunday school teacher who tells them "God loves you"; from the teenage Fox stars who drawl, "Oh, my God" and roll their eyes; from the grown-ups who mutter God's name (paired with other choice words) when they get cut off in traffic.
In more subtle ways, children's everyday experiences with the authority figures in their lives--adults who may be loving or cruel, close or distant, judgmental or accepting--teach them a great deal about what they can expect from God, and about whether it is safe or even possible to open their hearts to God.
My favorite story illustrating this point is the one about the young Samuel and his spiritual guide Eli. One night they are asleep in the Temple, and in the darkness the Lord calls Samuel's name. Samuel, thinking it is Eli's voice, comes running to the old priest and wakes him. Eli, bewildered and a little groggy, sends Samuel back to sleep. They run through this middle-of-the-night routine, all too familiar to many parents, a couple more times until finally Eli realizes what's going on: Samuel has outgrown his teacher and is hearing the voice of God directly, in his own heart.
"Go, lie down," Eli tells his young charge, "and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for thy servant hears.'" Like Eli, parents and spiritual nurturers often need a wake-up call. Our job is not just to talk to children about God, but to encourage them to relate to the God they already know.
When I give workshops for adults on family spirituality, I hand out crayons and paper inviting them to draw pictures of the way they connected with God as children. "Think back to some of the special moments when you were eight, or six, or four, and you felt a real sense of connection," I tell them. "Maybe you were aware that you were connected to something larger than yourself, or to everyone around you. Maybe you knew somehow that life made sense, or that you were blessed."
Once in a while, people make drawings of their childhood church. They'll draw themselves singing the hymns, or walking up and receiving Communion in the midst of the whole congregation. But more often, they'll color a scene of family life or times outdoors. They may draw a grandmother cooking soup, or a great-uncle whittling wood, and remember how peaceful it felt to spend a long afternoon with them. Or they'll cover the paper with a giant redwood under a blazing yellow sun and recall sitting in the hollow at its base, feeling small and protected. Or they'll picture themselves lying in a canoe on a summer night looking up at a star-dotted sky stretching out like a vast, velvety blanket.
I've been leading these workshops for fifteen years now and am always struck by how many adults kept their childhood spiritual lives a secret. "I never told anybody any of this before," people often say. "I guess I didn't think anybody would be interested. Anyway, I didn't really connect it with anything they talked about in church."
Those comments come back to haunt me when I'm talking with children about faith. We adults need to make sure we're not working so hard at teaching that we fail to honor the children's own experiences of God. When a child doubts or questions an aspect of a Sunday school lesson or a bedtime Bible story, we need to listen and not rush in to "correct" them. We don't have all the answers. Often a comment or question that sounds overwhelming or off base to us--when a child asks whether Jesus was resurrected with his real body, for example, or tells us that God is part of the sunset--comes out of the child's active struggle to piece together aspects of her own spirituality.
That's why instead of judging or answering children's questions directly, we help them most when we recognize that they are wondering aloud and that our primary role is to encourage them to keep on wondering. When we participate in our children's questioning rather than trying to hand down truths, our conversations are inevitably more fruitful and surprisingly touching.
One winter's day, I sat at the kitchen table with my daughter, who was then 3 years old.
"I'm not sure," I stammered. "Why don't you open the envelope and read it?"
She opened the imaginary envelope and "read" aloud. "Dear People, I hope you are having a nice time down there. I love you. Love, God." In the creative way preschoolers have, she was expressing her basic trust and her sense of being cradled in the universe. She shared it with me when I managed to set aside my own concerns about what to say and instead joined her in play. The rest was between her and God.