A new year is right around the corner and many of us are thinking about our lives last year and considering what we might do differently or seek to improve. (I am certainly thinking a lot about this!) I’d like to share with you some thoughts about how to create spiritual space for our children. In this article, I am specifically speaking to our role as the parents of 3-8 year olds, but in the future I would like to discuss this role as pastors or religion teachers as well.
What do I mean by spiritual space? Webster’s Dictionary defines “space” as the following: 1) a continuous expanse extending in all directions; 2) area or room sufficient for or allotted to something; 3) an interval or period of time. And when talking about our children’s spirituality, all three of these definitions can apply. We are talking about time and a family’s rhythm. We can be talking about a physical space. And we are referring to something that will extend out in all directions in their lives and influence every aspect of their growth.
Here are some things that I think can help us to make room for our children’s spiritual growth:
1) Pray and believe that God will engage your children. I know many people who are anxious about their child’s relationship (or lack of) with God. Relax. God lovingly created your child and He will take every opportunity to build friendship with her. I also know other people who feel that prayer is a passive activity and that they must always do something. While there certainly are things that we can do to encourage our child’s relationship with the Father, praying and believing is a way of giving up our control. It is acknowledging that we are not at the center of the universe and everything does not depend on us. It is acknowleding that a gracious God is at work in our child’s lives regardless of our failures or triumphs. Believe me, the God who became a man in Jesus wants your child to know Him much more than you do.
2) Make spiritual downtime for your children – time to talk about who He is, read a Bible story, pray together. Children need distraction-free, unencumbered time to reflect just as adults do. Find a time that works best for your family’s rhythm. For years, we tried to do morning devotions, but most of the time it was too rushed and became just going through the spiritual motions. I discovered this past year that my children needed this time with God at night in order to process their day and were much more open in the evenings. Some nights they just want to “be”, but often they are very much wanting to talk and share what is going on in their hearts and minds.
Find ways to do this that appeal to your child. Maybe there is a good children’s Bible or devotional book. You might use Godly Play. Or tell stories yourself from the Bible or about other Christians, saints or historical figures who have experienced God in their lives. Or ask your kids to tell you the stories. One of our most meaningful evening times together this year was during Advent when I happened to have some nativity figures lying around and I asked my son and daughter (ages 7 and 5) to tell me the story of Jesus’ birth. They alternated and amazed me with their insights and choice of words. One might also use the church calendar as a catalyst by highlighting topics and biblical stories that coincide with the church calendar. Singing songs is another great way to spend time with God together.
And perhaps this happens in a specific location in your house or apartment. My kids love to gather on our sofa or on my daughter’s bed and snuggle as we are spending time with God.
3) Allow your kids to see spirituality in your own life. Pray authentic prayers with simple language. Admit when you don’t know the answers or when you have questions about something you don’t understand. (We set our kids up for failure when we pretend to get it right all the time!) Examine how you express your relationship to God and include your kids in it. Maybe it is by caring for the needy. Maybe it is through art. Talk about how your faith influences your decisions. We are our children’s first teachers and if they sense that school, job and doctor’s appointments are a higher priority, then those things will also trump spiritual space in their lives.
4) Cut down on organized activities. Children need time to use their imaginations and play. Where I live, there is a children’s class for everything. I haven’t yet seen a class entitled “Underwater Basket-Weaving for Childen”, but I’m sure that Prenzlauerberg has one somewhere! Your child doesn’t need to learn or be good at everything or have a playdate with every friend from school. They need time to explore and express the world and their life. When they don’t have this free time, they are easily stressed.
5) Don’t be frustrated if your child does not show interest or seem motivated. Children go through phases. The last thing that will help is making their spiritual experiences like school. I have come to believe that a Montessori-type approach where a child is encouraged to explore his particular expression of relationship with God is ultimately the healthiest. Let’s face it, as individual adults and even as whole churches, we highlight a only a few aspects of God’s character at best. None of us alone live out the full Gospel in it many diverse forms and neither will our children. That’s why we together are the Body of Christ and not all-encompassing, self-sufficient, autonomous spiritual beings. Interdependence is part of God's plan.
My sincere hope and prayer for those of you reading this is that God will help you create the spiritual space for your children that they need. Just so you know, being a children’s pastor doesn’t make me an expert and I am learning all of this myself! Please feel free to share your ideas as well. And as we say in German, “May you slide well into the New Year!”