Growing up, my South Asian friends referred to me as a “hamburger Hindu.” While most Hindus avoid beef, my family regularly ate burgers. We celebrated Christmas as well as Diwali, and we rarely made it to temple services. Religion just wasn’t something we really talked about or did much with. In fact, after several years at a Catholic school, my concept of “God” became a mash-up of Jesus, Ganesh and Athena the Greek goddess of wisdom.
I’m still trying to sort out exactly what or in whom I believe. I don’t reject the idea of God outright, but I’m not drawn to organized religions, either. Like many Canadians, I fall somewhere in the messy middle. According to recent data gathered by University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby and the Angus Reid Institute, only 30 percent of Canadians embrace faith, while 40 percent call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”
Since becoming a mother, however, I find I’m questioning my ambivalence more and more. Given how frenetic, hyperconnected and competitive our culture is, shouldn’t my kids have some kind of moral foundation to help ground them throughout their lives? Is there a ritual that might give them some comfort during tough times? I want to give my three boys the best start possible—and that includes fostering a healthy spiritual and moral life.
There’s a growing body of neurological, sociological and psychological research that links faith with a series of long-term benefits. The findings are astounding. Studies show that mindfulness meditation causes measurable changes in the brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. In fact, MRIs of people with a strong sense of spirituality show a thickening of the cortex tissue in the brain, which is key to warding off depression. Plus, in an exhaustive meta-analysis of epidemiological and longitudinal studies, Lisa Miller, the director of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, found that spiritually connected teens are 60 percent less likely to suffer from depression and 40 percent less likely to abuse alcohol or other substances than other teens, and that spiritually connected teen girls are 80 percent less likely to engage in unprotected sex.
As soon as I read those stats, I was tempted to round up my boys and head over to whatever church, temple or synagogue would take us. (Then I remembered glibness isn’t terribly spiritual.) The thing is, that while organized religion is wonderful for many people and an intrinsic part of their lives, it isn’t the right choice for my family. But spirituality—developing a sense of gratitude, contemplative skills and a connection with something larger than ourselves—that I could do.
“What our research shows is that deliberately and actively fostering a child’s spirituality can have an incredibly positive impact in adolescence,” Miller says. “While religion is the traditional way to cultivate this, it can also be achieved with regular time spent in nature, in community service or with family—it’s about fostering the framework, language and practices for spiritual living.”
If developing a spiritual mindset might help my kids better navigate the world, then I’m all for it. But where does the average time-pressed agnostic start?
Graze the spiritual smorgasbord
Just like the concept of God, spirituality is a notion that has many perspectives, all of which are personal and change throughout our lives. Before you begin, it’s worth investigating different religions and cultures. See if there are principles and rituals that resonate with you.
That’s the approach Rakhi Henderson, who was raised Hindu, and her husband, a non-practising Christian, took. “We’ve adopted the Hindu principle of karma, and we do pujas [prayers] at home. We celebrate all the major Christian holidays, and my kids go to a Christian-based youth group.”
Adopting and exploring cultural and religious differences is also an opportunity to teach kids to consider multiple points of view. It can be as simple as saying, “Some people, like your grandparents, believe in X; other people, like your friend Samson, believe Y. But what do you think?” Objectively sharing stories from various religions gives kids a framework—a sort of religious studies for the elementary set. That greater awareness can also make things easier when they talk to friends and family who are religious.
“I’ve had people say I’m confusing the kids,” Henderson adds. “But I completely disagree. I can see that the kids enjoy it—and on top of that, they’ve learned to see the similarities between faiths and people rather than the differences.”
Embrace the unknown
One of the benefits of most religions is that they provide clear-cut answers to thorny life questions. The idea of conjuring up your own dogma is incredibly daunting. But Miller assures me that you don’t need to have an answer for everything. “It’s absolutely OK to say to your child, ‘I don’t know what happens when we die, but I’ve often thought about it, and I’m interested in what you think or feel happens.’ In fact, not having an explanation can lead to good discussions—what’s important is to make these issues a part of daily conversation.”
Be sure to listen to what your kids say, suggests parenting expert Alyson Schafer, especially in the case of talking about death. “It’s easy for them to misunderstand and come to faulty conclusions—like, ‘I touched Grandpa’s hands, and he had a disease, so now I am going to die.’ You will have to answer questions, clarify and, mostly, be calm and reassuring when you speak, as proof that we all endure grief and live with our own mortality.” Share what you believe in an age-appropriate way, and plan to have several conversations about it—human existence is a weighty issue, and kids will need time to digest it all.
Develop your own family values
On days when the idea of cultivating spiritual kids seems so removed from the reality of what is happening at home, I try to stay focused on the fundamentals: If we can just teach them the Golden Rule—doing unto others as they would have done unto them—they’ll be fine. I’m trying (key word, trying) to model the behaviours I want to encourage, and then acknowledge it when my kids exhibit these traits.
When my boys are a bit older, I plan to create a family motto. The goal is to talk about what our shared beliefs and principles are, and then have the kids come up with a slogan using these ideas. The motto can be displayed to provide a daily reminder.
Set aside some time
Most traditional religions do mandate some regular shared rest as a change from daily life and for the chance to reset. But going to church or observing Shabbat aren’t the only ways to do this. A walk in nature, playing board games or reading together can help reconnect you as a family and offer a break from the everyday.
Doing these activities on a regular basis can be especially powerful for younger kids, as routine is so reassuring, says Schafer. She suggests incorporating a practice from your childhood. When Schafer was growing up, she would say the same non-denominational prayer her father had said when he was little. She, in turn, taught it to her own kids. “My girls loved that their grandpa said it as a child and their cousins all said it, too,” she says. “The continuity of family is very powerful and grounding for children. It helps them feel part of something bigger than themselves.”
The best spiritual advice mother-of-two Donna Bishop received was from a priest, when she and her husband were deliberating about whether they would baptize their son. Regardless of their decision, the priest said, it was more important to make spirituality a part of daily life. “It’s something we have since tried very hard to do,” says Bishop. “At bedtime, we all say thank you for the day, and really use that time to encourage our kids to experience gratitude by finding something good to focus on and feel grateful for—no matter how the day went.”
Taking just a bit of time to reflect can make a big difference. “As parents, we do so much to help our children,” Miller says. “We run them around to activities, games and tutoring, and yet this is nothing compared to the impact of giving them a strong spiritual life.”
Stay in the moment
Regular mindfulness exercises lead to improved focus and productivity, emotional intelligence, creativity and innovation, as well as adaptability and flexibility, researchers have found. (This might be why organizations such as Intel, NASA and Google have all launched some form of in-house program.)
These simple breathing and mind exercises, focusing on cultivating attention and personal perspective, have also been linked to similarly positive results in children. For instance, earlier this year, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that fourth and fifth graders who regularly practised mindfulness techniques were better at regulating stress, were more optimistic and helpful, and showed improved year-end math grades. When we help our kids quiet their thoughts and pay attention to what’s happening in the moment, it increases the likelihood of them noticing or connecting to the sense of the spiritual—in whatever form that takes.
Emily Ridout is the co-founder of The 889, a yoga, Pilates and meditation studio in Toronto, and a mother of three. She tries to do a simple five-minute meditation with her children at least four times a week. “After our meditations together, our older kids, who are five and three, always become more physically tactile and loving together—hugging, laughing and rolling around,” she says.
Even such easy actions as lighting a candle together before dinner or holding hands before bed can help focus quiet thoughts and create these benefits.
Be ready for your own change
When it comes to religion, I’ve always thought belief preceded action, but with spirituality, it seems the opposite might be true. Over the past months of researching and experimenting with different rituals, I found my own views have started to shift.
Regular Sunday family yoga classes make me feel like we are a stronger and more peaceful unit, and that good feeling carries through the week. I’ve started to use mealtimes as a chance to connect. Before we dig in, we each say what we are grateful for; I’ve noticed how that shared moment of quiet can set the tone for the meal, and it’s helped me to better appreciate the little things. On a larger level, I found that by exploring how to cultivate spirituality in my children, I began to realize just how inherently spiritual being a parent actually is—something that can be difficult to remember in the chaos of to-do lists, grocery runs and school schedules. Regardless of what you believe, the opportunity to experience that sensation makes it worth all the effort.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2015 issue with the headline, “Raising a question of faith,” p. 74-76.