Week 4 – Spiritual Life with Children
A few days ago, I was working in my study when my seven-year-old daughter came in to talk. I put my arm around her, and we started talking about our day. When she finished telling me about all of her schoolwork (great job by the way, Mum!), I asked her, “Where did you see Jesus today?” Without so much as a second thought, she said, “He was with me on the swings.” I asked her to tell me more, and she said: “Well, Porter (her 6-year-old brother) was being mean to me while I was swinging, and so I asked Jesus to help me.” I asked her if her brother stopped being mean, and she said, “No, but it was ok because Jesus was still there with me, and so I wasn’t sad.”
At that moment, I found myself wondering why I didn’t spend all of my time with her.
Sometimes I can get so distracted and concerned with “grown-up” things that I simply don’t expect to receive much from the small people running through my house. As it turns out, they can be profoundly deep, and one might even argue that, in their own innocent and beautiful way, they are wise.
On several occasions in the Gospels, Jesus taught that children are the gateway into the Kingdom of God. Children, by nature, are rowdy, messy, and unorthodox.
They are willing to take risks, to make mistakes, and create as if no one is going to judge them.
They live with their hearts wide open – even willing to interrupt Jesus himself so they can jump up in his arms (Mark 10:13-16). But in the first-century worldview children had no rights, were of little importance, and were best kept quiet and out-of-sight.
Like most things with God, it seems to be the powerless, the weak, the vulnerable, and the easily ignored who have an advantage when it comes to entering God’s reality.
Children seem to have these in spades. Jesus’ view of children was not only revolutionary for his time but ours as well.
I sincerely believe that children can and do have rich experiences of God long before they grow-up, or even have the adequate words to describe it. While they are still growing in their levels of cognition and rationale, children come into the world with their ability to experience and express emotions fully in-tact. As we grow into adulthood, we learn to label, judge and compartmentalise our emotional and bodily centres, learning what is “good and acceptable” social behaviour. Though children don’t have the ability to articulate their inner world fully, they still have an abundance of outward expression. Even disruptive or negative behaviour are invitations for what Lacy Borgo calls a child’s “bidding for connection”.
Focusing on the spiritual development of our children transitions our role as parents from merely behaviour management into helping cultivate a connection with their Creator (and with us as well).
It becomes easy to think that our children’s spiritual formation is being completely taken care of by the various programs, pastors and leaders with a “Children’s” or “Youth” label in their title. If this is the case, then our children and we are truly missing out on a beautiful exchange. Children can teach us about who God is. If we are willing to humble ourselves, be vulnerable and present with them, it will be an experience that causes all to walk away changed.
Poet, Jane Tyson Clement, suggests that perhaps our engagement with our children’s spirituality goes beyond only transmitting correct thoughts about God.
Child though I am meant to teach you much,
what is it, in the end,
except that together we are
meant to be children
of the same Father,
and I must unlearn
all the adult structure
and the cumbering years
and you must teach me
to look at the earth and the heavens
with your fresh wonder.
We need to hold the tension between giving answers and encouraging our children’s wonder and imagination. We are not just transferring knowledge about God but opening up space for children to experience God. For our children, and with ourselves, it is good to remember that Jesus didn’t save us because we have all the facts or can tick all the boxes. He saves through His loving grace and mercy that chases hard after us and our little ones.
Ultimately, we can trust the Holy Spirit’s action and guidance in their lives, and he holds them safely in His hands.
Several years ago, I was serving as a spiritual director at a men’s retreat. During a break, a father of young children approached me wanting to chat. During our brief time together, he expressed his longing to have a rich spiritual life, but lamented that with his work demands and his responsibilities as a husband and father he simply didn’t have time to focus on his spiritual life. In one sense, I, as a father of young children also, understood exactly what he was feeling. In another sense, it broke my heart to see that he thought he had to choose between his work, his family and his spiritual growth.
I think for some of us, we need to begin to rethink our categories and realise that our connection with God isn’t waiting for us solely in our prayer closets, or outside of our daily routines. The time we spend at work and with our family is our spiritual life.
The whole of our life is spiritual, and as we begin to recognise this, we find that the invitations for transformation and growth with Jesus are literally everywhere. These precious moments with our children not only help shape their lives but can be engaged with as formative experiences of prayer for ourselves as well. Not only the words that we say to God but the very acts of loving, caring and playing with our little ones can, in itself, be an act of worship and a profoundly spiritual and sacred practice.
I, possibly like others, am still on the journey of learning to remain open and present with my little ones. I still experience many frustrations, lack of patience, and moments of having my insides spark and short-circuit. But this unique season in which our world finds itself invites us to reclaim our little homes and families as hallowed ground, where our children can learn that Jesus is with them, even when their brother is being mean to them on the swings.
So, what can we do as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and primary caregivers to instil and help cultivate this reality for the children that we love? Here are some practical steps and things to keep in mind as we journey on the path towards a deeper connection with our little ones and with God:
Firstly, if we want to help our little ones connect with God in times of prayer and spiritual practices, it is essential that we are engaging in these practices in our own lives. It is a common saying among spiritual directors that you can’t help people go where you haven’t been yourself.
It is good to remember that any spiritual discipline (prayer, fasting, study, scripture memorisation, writing, worship, silence, solitude, etc.) are invitations for our children to be with God. They should never be forced or used as punishments.
2. PRAYER/WORSHIP THROUGH ART AND PLAY
Children are often much more open to giving full-bodied expression to what they are feeling. Put some worship music on and sing and dance together (close the curtains if you are concerned that the neighbours are watching). Be serious or be silly! Pay close attention and follow their lead. Look for moments of authentic expressions of joy or sadness and when you finish, ask them what they were feeling/thinking about in those moments. If there is joy, celebrate and thank God for His goodness. If there is sadness, take time to pray together and thank God for his closeness when we are hurting or scared.
Ask them to draw or paint a picture for Jesus. When they finish, sit quietly and let them tell you all about it.
Take time aside to sit down and play with them. Before you start, ask your children if they would pray and ask Jesus to come and play with you. You might be surprised, but He does! Look for moments of connection and openness to participate in sharing God’s love, joy, and care for them.
We can invite our children into the practice of fasting by seeing if there is a particular toy, game, screen-time, or treat that they would like to set aside for a day/half-day. Instead, invite them to spend time together with you.
You can go for a walk, read a story about Jesus from the Gospels or a Psalm. Ask what that story/poem meant to them and what they thought about it. Remember, this isn’t time for teaching, but for listening. If you can, read from a child-friendly translation (some will be better than others, but here are a few age-based suggestions).
4. CONFESSION or TRUTH-TELLING
Some of us may have had little practice with this specific discipline, and others may have only negative memories. But the practice of confession is a beautiful and transformative practice that needs reclaiming.
Confession (feel free to pick another name, like “open sharing” or something else, if it is helpful), provides an opportunity for our children to learn the gift of telling the truth. Here they are free to talk about their experiences in the openness and safety of their own home.
Confession does not need to be a dumping-zone of negativity! Truth-telling also includes telling the truth of what is good about their life! Ask them to share about the beauty and gifts which God has placed in them. Ask where they have been using those gifts for good in their world that day! If they have a hard time identifying their gifts, encourage them by letting them know what you see in them.
When we relate to our children by honouring who they are at any given moment, we teach them to honour themselves.
True humility is the ability to see yourself in the proper light; knowing your strengths and weaknesses and holding them both in the reality of God’s grace and mercy. The cultivation of this much-needed virtue can begin with the practice of (healthy) confession.
Bedtime with our kids may be the most special of all. In these final moments of their day (when we simply want them to hurry up and go to sleep), they can often be the most open and honest with us. But if we can find the patience, ask them three simple questions:
1. Where did they see goodness, beauty, or something that was right (this is the sense of truth/Godly justice/help)?
2. Where did they feel/see Jesus with them?
3. How would they like Jesus to help them tomorrow?
Again, sit in silence and give them your full attention. As kids, their thoughts will undoubtedly run all over the place, and they’ll want to get six drinks of water and go to the toilet five times, but there will be a moment in all the craziness where Jesus comes and meets you both, and you will walk away changed.
Much of what I have written today I have learned from Lacy Borgo. She is a writer and has done ground-breaking work in the area of children’s spiritual development. She has developed a curriculum for children’s spiritual formation and has written several books which I would highly recommend. She is also offering a free copy of her digital book, Life with God for Children at her website:
Borgo, Lacy Finn, “Spiritual Direction with Children the Next Natural Step in the Christian Historical Progression of Children’s Spiritual Formation” (2016) pp. 30-56.
Clement, Jane Tyson, “No One Can Stem the Tide: Selected Poems” (2000) p. 39.