Recently a number of friends have confided to me that they’d had “the talk” with their kids. No, not that talk. I mean the talk about spirituality: aboutG‑d, about the afterlife. About what it means to be human, and how each of us fits into the grand pattern of the universe.
Often, “the talk” comes when we’re not ready. “Where did Grandpa go when he died?” a child might ask, or “If G‑d is good, why did Grandma get sick?” Many of us never hashed out own our thoughts about these issues, and find it difficult to help our kids work through them today.
“Yet “the talk” is unavoidable (your kids are bound to bring up their spiritual thoughts with you), and when handled with sensitivity, can bring us all closer together. Here are six ways to get started.
1. Recognize Your Child’s Innate Feelings
There is a beautiful Jewish story (Talmud, Niddah 30b):
During the nine months a baby is in its mother’s womb, its neshamah, or soul, spends its time learning Torah. For nine entire months, each soul is completely immersed in G‑d, communing directly with its maker.
Just before each baby is born, G‑d sends an angel, who reaches out and touches the baby’s mouth. With this touch, the baby forgets all the Torah it learned in the womb, and is ready to be born.
Thus, each time we are exposed to teachings about G‑d and spirituality, we’re naturally drawn to them, as we already learned about them once, long before. Each one of us has a faint trace of a memory from those months of communing with our Creator.
If you ask an adult, “Do you feel that G‑d loves you?” it’s likely they’ll roll their eyes; a question like this simply isn’t considered sophisticated in the modern world. Yet ask a child if G‑d loves them, and you’ll likely get an enthusiastic“Yes!” Children’s simplicity is often dismissed as naiveté these days, but in the Torah view it’s seen as proof of young people’s high level of spiritual awareness.
2. Lose the Cynicism
One of the reasons kids are so much more eager to discuss spiritual matters is that they haven’t yet learned the cynicism of us adults.
Being cynicism is a natural defense: it’s our way of guarding ourselves against disappointment. (I’d love to win the lottery—but I don’t think I will—so it’s tempting to be cynical: nobody ever wins, it’s a dumb way to spend one’s money, look at all the lottery winners you read about who say winning didn’t make them happy anyway . . . )
But this kind of pessimism is poisonous: it strangles hope, and makes us mock the very things we often, deep down, actually yearn for.
When you feel yourself descending into skepticism, think of the biblical figureNoah, who built an ark and lived in it during the famous storm that lasted forty days and forty nights.
The Torah recounts how G‑d commanded Noah to build a mammoth ark, and then to choose animals of every type to fill it with before the storm. In fact, Jewish tradition teaches that Noah spent 120 years constructing his massive ship, and that during that time the entire world mocked and made fun of Noah for his impossible-seeming task.
Yet Noah never gave into embarrassment or cynicism. He withstood the gibes of all the peoples of the world, and never lost his innocent faith. Though he was reviled for so many years, Noah never stopped viewing the world as a place of promise, and his place in it as one of holiness and importance. In fact, the Torah comments on Noah’s purity: Noah is described as “righteous and wholehearted,” and it is said that “Noah walked with G‑d.”
Unfortunately, this purity is easily lost in today’s more cynical world. One way to encourage our children to be spiritual is to discuss their concerns and questions seriously, without being dismissive or negative about their thoughts.
3. Be Grateful
Get in the habit of pointing out your blessings, from big things, down to the things many of us take for granted, like electric lights or the fact that our car started this morning.
Gratitude makes children (and adults!) more sensitive, and open to noticing G‑d’s blessings in their lives.
4. Admit You Don’t Know Everything
A friend once told me that after a close relative died, her son asked her if the relative was in Heaven. “I broke it to him that there’s no Heaven,” my friend told me. “Then I told him that even though some people think so, there’s no such thing as…,” and she listed a litany of religious ideas and precepts.
All I could think of was, “Really?” How do you know? I felt so bad for her son: here he was, in a vulnerable position, trying to make sense of his very confusing world.
When our kids ask us difficult questions, sometimes the best thing we can do is admit we don’t know, and try to find answers together.
5. Explore Jewish Texts Together
I went to Sunday school as a kid, and there my teachers answered my questions—all of them. There was nothing they didn’t have an easy answer to, and I grew up thinking there was one “right” answer to every question in Judaism.
When I looked at traditional Jewish texts as an adult, however, I found people wrestling with the sorts of questions I wanted to explore.
Three thousand years ago King David asked, “Why do you stand far off, O L‑rd? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalms 10:1). And the questions have never stopped coming.
One way to encourage our children to grow spiritually is to study Jewish texts together. Each of us has the benefit of thousands of years of Jewish questioning and wisdom; setting a time to sit with our kids and read through some Jewish texts is a great way to tap into it.
Plus, learning together brings us closer, as both parents and children watch each other wrestle with important ideas.
The great Rabbi Joshua ben Perachiah advised each person to go out and find a teacher for themselves (Pirkei Avot 1:6). This might mean learning with a trusted rabbi or educator. With luck and time, parents and children can be each other’s teachers too, bringing the whole family closer together.
6. Seek G‑d Everywhere
A truly spiritual person is one who is able to see the Divine everywhere.
Encourage your children to turn to G‑d, to speak to Him. This can take the form of traditional Jewish prayers, or can be more free-form. Start reciting the Shema prayer (“Hear O Israel, the L‑rd our G‑d, the L‑rd is one”) with your kids at bedtime.
Remember that there are divine sparks in other people too. The Torah teaches that every human being is created b’tzelem Elokim, in G‑d’s image. In Judaism, one of the highest ways to honor G‑d is to honor our fellow men.
When we speak to each person gently, when we deal with others honestly, when we approach the world with optimism, we model spiritual behavior for our children.