little theologians

My two year-old son isn’t quite in the stage of the never-ending “why?“(he’s still navigating - and enjoying - the never-ending “no!”). But it will come. And as I observe parents around me wrestling with the constant why’s of their children, I realize there is an immense pressure to “get it right.” As parents, it’s natural. We want our kids to turn out okay. Our desire to be wise parents, however, is often accompanied with a deep sense of helplessness - we don’t feel adequate to give a full answer to the why’s. Or seemingly worse, we ourselves don’t have an answer to the why’s. What to do!?!

Jewish rabbi and children's author, Sandy Sasso, has this to say about our desire to be good parents:

"I think society does a very good job of teaching us how to be consumers and a very good job in teaching us how to be competitors. The question I think parents are struggling to answer is how do we not just teach our children's minds, but how do we teach their souls? We want our children to be gracious and grateful. We want them to have courage in difficult times. We want them to have a sense of joy and purpose. That's what it means to nurture their spiritual lives."

In a podcast interview on Being (formally Speaking of Faith), “The Spirituality of Parenting,” Sandy Sasso describes the need for parents to see their kids as “little theologians.” In her life as a mother and work as a rabbi and author, Sandy has come to realize a depth in the why’s of children - their “big, deep questions.”

Where does God live? Why did Grandpa die? Will you die? Why isn't life fair? Is God real? How can God be everywhere?

And if our children are deeply spiritual, parenting is naturally spiritual as well. I find these ideas inspiring for my own relationship with my son, while also realizing just how difficult it can be to give him the attention he needs. A couple things from the interview struck me in particular:

Children connect with story and mystery

There seems to be an innate spirituality, a great sense of wonder, spontaneity, imagination and creativity, and a connection to something larger than themselves. What children seem to lack is a language to give expression to that sense of something deeper. And I think, as parents, our responsibility is to provide them with a language, an opportunity to have a conversation about these matters that they care very deeply about...And I've always claimed the language is story, because that's how children make sense of their world is through narrative and story.

Out of this framework of story, Sasso goes on to discuss how ritual and experience can create a lasting impression on children and how they process their why’s - a need for concrete expressions of the unexplainable. This is where reading can be invaluable, in Sasso’s opinion, “a spiritual exercise.” Personally, some of my best memories as a child are of listening to stories read to me by my parents. I can still feel the sense of “it’s going to be okay” when I reflect on those moments of exploration and intrigue in the imaginative works of Lewis and Tolkien. As my son begins to explore the complex world around him, will I attempt to tell him how it is (in abstract ideas he cannot comprehend) or will I tell him my story or other’s stories? Or will I be content to let Nintendo or Youtube (a current favorite!) direct his exploration?

Part of the answer to these questions depends on our ability as parents to accept mystery as a valid category.for answering the why’s of our kids. Unfortunately, as parents we have trouble admitting we don’t have all the answers. Unknowns are a sign of weakness or defeat. But do our kids really think that, Sasso wonders? Which leads to my second observation:

Children need space for silence and dialogue

It's very important to pray with children, mostly, because our children are so bombarded with noise and activity and there's very little time for silence and reflection. We do know that of all the questions that teachers ask children, teachers answer 80 percent of them, because we abhor vacuums, we don't like silence. And I think in moments of quiet and silence, children give us a glimpse of their souls.

What if instead of answers, our kids just want our time, our attention? - especially difficult in an age of busyness and technological distraction. And if we think of the impact of technology on the lives of children in the past 30 years, it’s not hard to recognize why silence or intimate interaction is such an awkward experience in our culture. Children today are accustomed to noise - music, television, computers, cell phones, portable dvd players, and so on. Children are expected to keep up. And in many cases they can and should. But when the why’s are asked, technological noise can be more of a distraction from true exploration. I wonder if part of this spirituality of parenting is to temper our uncritical embrace of all things new?

The point, according to Sasso, is to create space for connection with our children. She refers to faith and spirituality as a journey, a journey our children are already on. Key then, is conversation, and unless we’re patient enough to connect on our children’s level, we’ll always feel the tug of the next thing on schedule. In Sasso’s words, “there are questions, and there is the conversation, and there is the journey.” This is the spirituality of parenting in the face of why’s.

This week our son has started needing a 10-minute snuggle with Julie or I before bed. My first reaction was “great, what about the hockey game!?!” Then my wife commented, “what’s the rush? Our son wants to be with us.” Hmm. Very true. It’s pretty hard to pass on the spiritual experience of a snuggle with my little theologian!

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