How to be a Spiritual Parent

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…)

Spiritual, eh?

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.

Stretch high

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.

For older children, I’d make special mention of Joy Cowley’s The Easter Story and Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Jesse Tree.

As for festivals, well, who doesn’t like to party? We follow the church calendar, more or less, including doing a bunch of things to mark Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost.

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!

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35 Responses to How to be a Spiritual Parent

  1. Valerie says:

    ahem, I am a Mormon Mama, (in the UK, I am not American). And lets be honest, among the Christian denominations, the Church Of Jesus Christ Of Later Day saints is often picked apart the most. I have a live and let live outlook to it, because after all, what sins or actions we commit or don’t commit are between the individual and their God (and its not my place to tell you what to do and vice versa).
    I have a 22 year old daughter and a 4 year old son (yeah I know it is a big gap, and yes he was most definitely planned). My daughter has been baptised in our church, but we do not believe children have accountability for their actions under the age of 8 (and therefore cannot enter into a covenant with God fully either), so my 4 year old has not been baptised yet. But hopefully he will be (its his choice of course).
    We have family prayer, and family scripture reading daily, and it is brilliant to just step away from the world at the end of each day and focus on the things we are thankful for and to talk about what we want to be better at and how Jesus is our role model. I don’t think you need religion to do that (apart from the Jesus bit obviously lol). But we didn’t do it daily before we joined the church.
    In the Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints, the church asks families to keep their Monday evenings free from activities outside the home and to have what is called ‘Family Home Evenings’. It does not matter what you do really (although the church website gives great ideas if you are stuck), so long as you start and end with a prayer, and do something uplifting and all together in between. Some families are very spiritual during this time, some focus on fun and some are a mix of both, and its all fine. (we have watched bible cartoon stories on You tube, had treasure hunts, did drawing and colouring in, bible story reading, hymn singing, and there is always a food treat).
    I would also like to add, that my husband has not been baptised but he participates in all of this because he cares about us, and wants to support us in our spiritual journey, even if his own is in a slightly different place.
    I hope that will give some ideas about how other families tuck religion and parenting in nicely together.
    Valerie recently posted…⋆Little Dudes Fashion Trends⋆My Profile

  2. Vicky Myers says:

    What a wonderfully inspiring post.
    My search for the divine in a Christian church is extremely important to me, even if I struggle with some of the fundamentals of Christianity. It matters enormously that my children are welcomed, and have real relationships within the church community – particularly as it was these relationships when I was a teenager that gave me space/encouraged me to explore Christianity for myself as an adult. So one enormous thank you to all those adults who take that time with children, such an important role. Those that run Sunday schools, and Messy Church, café churches:) What a difference to my childhood where I sat bored counting the hymns until church ended!
    I am challenged to “live out loud”, something I shrink out of, partly due to the ages of my kids but the real reason being some of my struggles. And I am definitely off to explore the books:)
    Thank you so much for this post, Vicky

  3. Becca says:

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this. Thank you so much. I’m not even a parent but think I can use some of these ideas for how I look at the world and go about my day.

  4. Lucy says:

    Thanks so much for this Thalia!
    So… my understanding of the Bible is that soooo much of it has to be unpicked in order for the sentiment of it to be understood (exegesis :P)
    Whenever I have tried to read Kid’s Bible Books to Ramona I have felt that they haven’t captured the Big Picture, that they fail to get across the beauty of God and Love. I often just end up changing parts of it (BLASPHEMMMYYYY!) in order to try and inspire her with what the story PROBABLY meant, pahaha, and not freak her out by an angry God who would flood the world.
    Do these books you suggest do this? Can you and my sister, Jo, get together and produce a series of kids books that tell the stories in the way they were meant to be heard, with all their grace and love?
    Lucy recently posted…How to be a Spiritual ParentMy Profile

  5. Oh, such good questions, and such a big topic.

    Short answer: yes and yes :)

    I’ve mostly linked to the Book Depository in the post, but if you check those books out at Amazon you can usually peek inside and read a few pages to get the flavour (and then buy at your local bookshop…)

    I think most children’s Bibles are not just pretty awful/useless but actually harmful in the way you describe. The three biggest problems, I think, and the things to consider when choosing one for a child are a) the selection of extracts is both weird (why do we pick stories of murder for children’s first Bibles?! Daniel, David and Goliath, Noah…) and unrepresentative (I didn’t know the epistles even existed until I was a teenager) and b) the context and genre of each piece of the Bible is absolutely crucial for understanding it and those things are stripped away in kids’ Bibles and c) the place of each story in the Big Story is also crucial, and that’s completely disregarded.

    The Jesus Storybook Bible does extremely well at b) and c) and better at a) than any other I’ve come across. It even has a section on the prophets!

    See my review (linked in the post) for this kind of discussion re the Easter Story – I think you’ll LOVE that book.

    Bottom line with kids’ Bibles – you can’t just do an easy-English translation and hope to convey anything helpful. You’ve got to do a complete retelling with lots of extra stuff to get the right tone across to kids.

    Looking forward to working with Jo :)
    Thalia Kehoe Rowden recently posted…Magic Words #3: ‘I love to watch you play’My Profile

    • Jo T says:

      I really appreciated this post, especially as since moving 18 months ago we’ve yet to connect with a faith community. I often feel like spirituality is something that comes pretty naturally to my kids. They’ve heard about God and Jesus at home, school and church but also seem to have a wonder about creation and humanity that is difficult to explain scientifically. We try to make our faith part of our everyday with prayer, song and conversation. We also find that, probably because of our own background and systems of belief that when we’re talking about broader themes of justice, equality, love and friendship the God of all of that is very much present.
      I’ve been really turned off by a lot of children’s Bibles, commentary and teaching for all the reasons you mention Lu. Although the writing something is entirely Lucy’s idea, I do wonder if it may be worth gathering a little group who might be able to explore this further. Hmmmm.

  6. Mammasaurus says:

    Now I must admit I am possibly the least spiritual person in the world, however, I have really enjoyed reading this post. I always find it really interesting to read about how others parent, there’s always something to be taken from it to use yourself x
    Mammasaurus recently posted…English Heritage – Porchester CastleMy Profile

  7. Lizzy says:

    Nice Post, I was also recommended the Jesus Storybook bible by a colleague and we find it a fantastic interpretation. Our routine is one story each night before bed. Brook looks forward to it and we enjoy reading it too. I’ve since gifted it to some friends looking for something positive and meaningful to add to their spiritual routines with kiddies. We also pray together and say grace. Thanks for the other tips too.

  8. Tamsin says:

    Love this post – thank you!

    Re books that show the “bigger picture” of God, beauty & love, without an inappropriate focus on violence, we have enjoyed:

    They’re based on Bible verses but very accessible to toddlers/small children. Eg “Life is wonderful and there is a time for everything; A time to be muddy & squelchy; A time to be clean & soapy” or “Just like the wind you are all around me”.

    Our toddler loves them! Hope that’s of some use.

    Tamsin recently posted…Light showMy Profile

  9. Great to read your post, as another Christian mother I’ll be coming over to check out your blog. Mich x
    Michelle Twin Mum recently posted…A family that plays together….My Profile

  10. Angela says:

    What a beautifully written piece Thalia, and what a wise and wonderful mother you are. Someone told me other day that our children choose which parents they will be born to(!), if so, your little guy chose very well!
    Angela recently posted…Finding a home. Finding your head.My Profile

  11. Elisabeth says:

    A beautiful and inspiring post!
    I have grown up in the rather closely knit community of my towns catholic church – and am now living in agnostic Denmark, where religion, if anything, is very very private. I’m having my own trouble with my faith but I want my children to experience the security and groundedness that comes with having a faith and growing up in a community. So far I haven’t even really started other than thinking about it.
    Your post really inspires my to take these tiny steps and to make some changes in how – first and foremost – I see the world, and later share this renewed view with my sons.
    …and, on a purely superficial basis: you have given me an idea what to ask for as a Christmas present from the Austrian part of the family: a bible that is suitable for three year olds. My mother will be thrilled, and my boys will love to read it with me.

    • Oh, this is so great to hear! Thanks for the reflections.

      All the very best with family life in Denmark, and with the Christmas Bible!

      You might also enjoy Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Jesse Tree, which goes through Old Testament stories, one every night of Advent, leading up to the Christmas story – it’s aimed a little older than three, but still might suit – have a wee look inside at the Amazon page.
      Thalia Kehoe Rowden recently posted…Before You Get EngagedMy Profile

      • Sorry, I didn’t mean to say it was great to hear you were struggling! But great that you are feeling ready to take some small steps. One step at a time… I do hope the coming week is an encouraging one.

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  13. I’m loving this series, and this post has resonated especially with me (thanks Lucy and Thalia!).

    We’ve just moved home, and we’re in the process of leaving our beloved, teeny, no-other-kids-except-ours faith family in order to find a church closer to home. It’s the right time for a move, but also quite hard, and it all leaves me feeling a bit unsettled. Anyway, I found this post sooo helpful in terms of reminders and inspiration for living out spirituality on a daily basis, which is really useful without our little church family nearby. Thank you for sharing.

    Will definitely be coming over to have a little read of your blog. :)
    LondonHeather recently posted…New Favourite Song: Says by Nils FrahmMy Profile

  14. What a brilliant blog post

  15. LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. Thanks so much Thalia and to Lucy for hosting. xx
    Morgana @ butwhymummywhy recently posted…A Little Legacy: Our autumn toffee recipeMy Profile

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