We are trucking along with this celebratory “How to be a _____ Parent series” I am incredibly delighted to have Thalia from the fascinating, kinda lighthearted but also pretty deep blog, Sacraparental, talking about raising her family in a sacred sort of a way. I love how she discusses her spirituality in inclusive and accesible terms and she often prompts me to pause and ponder love, beauty and connection amidst the craziness of family life. ( I have loved each contribution to this series so far. If you missed them, check out the ones from the last few weeks- How to be a Feminist Parent, an Expat Parent and an Eco Parent. We have some flipping BEAUT ones coming up too…)
It’s a word that’s often followed by ‘but-not-religious’ so it’s brave of Lucy to invite me, a Baptist minister on maternity leave, to comment. But I have a nose-ring and we co-sleep with our toddler, so that gives me some street cred, right?
Anna Maxted recently wrote a reflection on parenting for the Guardian, worrying about her secular family’s lack of ‘spirituality.’ She wants her boys to have a sense of wonder, a respect for religious tradition and a moral compass to develop empathy and character, but also a scientific worldview. She decided after some thought and research that all are possible, and I agree with her – none of those are mutually exclusive.
My own spirituality is based in the Christian tradition, but I’d like to make this post an invitation to consider a broader kind of spirituality in your family life, illustrated by how we do things in our family. I hope you’ll take it in the inclusive spirit offered, and find a point of connection that meets your family’s experience.
Have you ever been to a singing workshop, or a fitness class, or a yoga session, where you were encouraged to stretch your body to its fullest extent? Go up on tiptoes, extend your arms to the sky and out wide, maybe even poke out your tongue?
Use everything you’ve got. Stretch as far as you can. Don’t confine yourself to the usual or the obvious – in posture or in awareness of the world.
If being or becoming a ‘spiritual’ parent is something that catches your eye, here are some stretches to try to make the fullest use of your inner life, connect yourself in different ways to the wider world and help your kids to stretch high and wide, too.
Listen to your life
There’s more meaning in your daily life than might be immediately obvious. Doing the washing-up is an act of love towards your family, a chance to muse or sing while your hands are busy and a bringing of order out of chaos – it needn’t be merely a mucky necessity. Can you find meaning, purpose and connection to the wider world in your grocery shopping, gardening, accounts and nappy-changing?
One piece of the spirituality puzzle is mining your usual life, mundane and exciting, for all the meaning, connection and potential in it.
This might come through a spiritual or secular practice of mindfulness, through meditation or just through consciously looking at your life more carefully.
One of my favourite writers, Frederick Buechner, calls it ‘listening to your life‘:
I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even such a limited and limiting life as the one I was living on Rupert Mountain opened up onto extraordinary vistas. Taking your children to school and kissing your wife goodbye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly. . . . If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
Live out loud
You might be a pro at finding God in everyday life, or seeing the spiritual angle of your routines and choices. In my observation, many kids don’t notice this in their parents. Churches I have been part of are full of kids who would be astonished to know why their parents actually follow Jesus, because the subject simply hasn’t come up. If you want to model spiritual stuff to your kids, you’ll have to live it out loud.
We are developing language in our family to do this. When I see the first glimpse of sky in the morning, I instinctively, habitually, think of God’s goodness, which is, in the words of the Bible, ‘new every morning.’ But my son can’t know what’s going on in my head, or make these connections without help, so when we open the blinds in the bedroom in the morning, we say, ‘Good morning, Wellington! Thank you, God, for a new day.’
Similarly, as well as having ‘thank you, God’ routines for mealtimes and bedtime, we say ‘God speed that ambulance’ when we hear emergency sirens. When his dad leaves for work at the hospital, we call it ‘going to help people for Jesus’ to make the connection between work and spirituality obvious.
Writing this is reminding me to update our repertoire as he grows (he’s now 22 months old), to connect his growing empathy with an awareness of God’s love for other people and our repsonsibility to show love and care to friends and strangers.
He has picked up on our ‘bless you!’ when someone sneezes or coughs, so perhaps adding ‘God bless you’ when we talk about someone being sick or sad might be the next step for us. What about in your house?
Be part of a faith community
Together and alone, in company and in silence: most spiritual traditions have elements of solitude and elements of community.
There are huge benefits for all kinds of families in finding a community to belong to that supports your kids’ spiritual development.
A religious community, if it appeals to you, can offer educational support (mentoring, children’s programmes, group activities), practical help (meals for new parents, extra ‘grandparents’ for your kids, support for vulnerable families) and a shared context for exploring the sacred. For older children in particular, it is powerful to find that adults outside your family respect, believe or practise similar things.
Maybe, like Anna Maxted, you’d like your kids to develop a sense of wonder about and in the natural world. Joining an outdoors club or community as a family might help make this a regular thing in your life and surround you with other people to support your children as they explore the world.
It’s really important to our family that our son is surrounded by people other than his parents who will encourage him to thank God at dinner time, practise hospitality and kindness, read stories about Jesus with him and when he’s older, talk with him about their own experience of God. It’s hard to do this stuff alone.
Speaking of which…
Get yourselves some ‘godparents’
Whether ‘God’ is a word you use in your house or not, it can be brilliant to get your child a ‘godparent,’ someone who is explicitly given the role of encouraging them in their spiritual development. This doesn’t have to be a formal church arrangement, you can just ask a friend to be a special person in your child’s life, and define that in whatever way makes most sense to you.
Our son is lucky enough to have four godparents, two in each of our home countries. As well as thinking the world of him, this is the job we asked them to take on, in the words of the Church of England service:
[Minister:] The church receives this child with joy. Today we are trusting God for his growth in faith. Will you pray for him, draw him by your example into the community of faith and walk with him in the way of Christ?
[Godparents:] With the help of God, we will.
What would you want to ask a godparent to do? I’d be keen to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Keep some rituals
I’m not much for routine, truth be told, and we have lived most of our son’s life as international nomads. But I am appreciating the daily rituals that are a necessary part of child-raising. It can be oddly freeing to have the anchor of young children in the house.
You may or may not eat or go to sleep at regular times (we don’t, really), but your kids will still eat, sleep and brush their teeth sometime, so you can attach small rituals to enrich those kinds of daily events.
We say ‘grace’ when we eat. At the moment my son just says ‘Thank you, God. Amen.’ But we’re just on the cusp of making it more elaborate as he becomes more articulate. I have plans of writing out a few family-friendly grace options to keep on the dining table. I’ll let you know when/if this eventuates (I’m sure Lucy has a crafty solution to make it gorgeous!).
Read and feast
As I said, my own spirituality is part of my identity as a follower of Jesus Christ. What Christianity offers beyond the kind of spirituality Anna Maxted seeks for her sons is a shared narrative of how the world works: there is a God who is bigger than our universe, who is revealed to us through Jesus Christ’s work in the world, and who connects with us directly now through God’s Holy Spirit.
If you identify with organised religion, either as a matter of personal belief or belonging, or as part of your family history, there are a few key things that can help connect your kids to it as well. Belonging to a faith community helps, of course, and the other biggies are helping your kids to engage with your tradition’s sacred writings and following the festivals and seasons of your faith.
The topic of children’s Bibles is a huge one, both philosophically and practically, and I haven’t yet tackled it online. But I can tell you that I have bought over a dozen copies of The Jesus Storybook Bible for special children of my acquaintance, and the biggest hits in the Jesus genre in our house are a lift-the-flap book called Who Am I? and a retelling of Daniel in the Lions’ Den that (this is the popular bit) has a dog and a cat sprinkled through the illustrations.
So far almost all of these celebrations have been outside of a regular church community while we’ve been travelling – so I can confidently say you can participate in the rhythms of the year whatever your situation.
What do you think, friends-of-Lulastic? Does exploring spirituality in your parenting interest you? What do you do in your family that we could try? What are your best tips and resources to share? I’m very keen to hear your ideas in the comments below.
Thanks for having me, Lucy!