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Spiritual practices for children and youth

By Michelle Richards

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Since children are naturally full of wonder and are still able to see magic in the world, they do not need spiritual practices to help them connect; they need them in order to stay connected as they grow and mature. While children are born with an innate spirituality, most of them will lose it as they grow older and are taught (explicitly or implicitly) to ignore their perceptions in favor of intellectual pursuits.

However, engaging in spiritual practices does not necessitate leaving behind reason and logical thinking. Expressing spirituality is a way of connecting with our souls, our innermost spark, the deepest parts of ourselves; any avenue that gets us to that point is a spiritual practice. Spiritual practices are simply opportunities that enrich our journeys through life.

A spiritual practice may be as simple as lighting a candle and saying a blessing before a shared meal, or as complex as a vision quest or silent retreat at a monastery. It can be a brief, verbal expression of gratitude as part of a bedtime prayer, or it can involve the entire body like the yoga Sun Salutation. Some people find their connections through dance; others prefer inspirational reading of sacred texts. Still others may find meaning with mindfulness meditation or experience the awe of the natural world while standing under a starry sky and brightly lit moon.

Children often express their spirituality most naturally with their physical selves, particularly those who are kinesthetic learners. For them, yoga can promote inner peace as they physically manipulate their bodies into various poses. The martial arts can help them establish discipline, concentration, and focus. Free-style dancing (“as the spirit moves”) is another great avenue of spiritual expression for children—at least until their inner critic kicks in. While my teenage daughter is moved to create poems and original songs that she sings with abandon and great feeling, my seven-year-old son is a runner. He loves to run as fast as he can, feeling the wind breeze by him as he soars forward. Whether or not this love of running will stay with him as he matures remains to be seen. However, they have both found meaning in these activities for themselves and have been encouraged to develop these interests while being exposed to many other forms of spiritual expression.

For, although children naturally express their spirituality through physical movement and teens often prefer creative expression, that doesn’t mean their spiritual practices need to be limited to those pursuits any more than an adult must feel limited to intellectual pursuits that expand the mind. In the East, children often learn meditation as soon as they are able to sit upright, and for centuries, Native American children have been engaging in vision quests or sitting still and silent for an hour or more while experiencing the wonder of the natural world around them. While this may seem amazing and even preposterous to those of us who are dominated by a culture of busy-ness and multi-tasking that equates stillness with lethargy, these children have seen this behavior modeled by adults and older children.

Since a child’s attitude toward spirituality is derived for the most part from his or her parents, the spiritual practices we engage in or introduce to our children will have an impact on their lifelong view of spiritual expression. Therefore, it only makes sense to honor our yearnings by pursuing those practices that give us the most meaning. And while our children may not ultimately choose to express their spirituality in exactly the same way we do, they will feel the freedom to explore and engage in spiritual practices that provide meaning and enrich their lives.

What spiritual practices do you find meaningful? Do you share them with your children? Why or why not? Do your children and youth engage in spiritual practices that you don’t share?

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