My Search to Raise Spiritually Healthy Kids Without Dogma

Our home, photo by Ashley Thalman

Have you ever tried reading a plain English version of the biblical Book of Ezekiel to a 10-year-old?

I have, and it’s weird. On a whim one Sunday morning, I pulled it out to read to my son, recounting how Ezekiel finds a brick, draws a picture of Jerusalem on it, and lays on his right side for 390 days — only to then lay on his left side for 40 days while intermittently yelling at the brick and eating bread baked on human feces.

What’s the lesson there for a 10-year-old? After five chapters, my son didn’t want to hear another word.

So I thought I’d return to something wiser: the Sermon on the Mount. But reading a plain English version to my son immediately after our experience with the Book of Ezekiel highlighted some of the more uncomfortable passages.

“If you say that someone is worthless, you will be in danger of the fires of hell.”

“It is better to lose one part of your body, than for your whole body to end up in hell.”

“I tell you not to divorce your wife unless she has committed some terrible sexual sin.”

“Oh, geez!” my son said. “That’s disturbing.”

It is disturbing. As I read the text to my son, it was clear to me that there are passages in the text that I don’t want him to accept wholesale. (I’d be mortified, for instance, if I found out that he’d repeated any of those lines to his classmates at recess.)

And yet there are so many other passages that I want him to take to heart.

“Don’t worry about tomorrow. It will take care of itself. You have enough to worry about today.”

“Treat others as you want them to treat you.”

“Don’t store up treasures on earth! Moths and rust can destroy them, and thieves can break in and steal them.”

So I’m stuck with a tension I’m struggling to resolve:

On the one hand, these ancient texts carry the baggage of ancient worldviews — worldviews that contain certain dogma we’ve thankfully dropped, such as the notion that the only valid reason for divorce is if the wife, and only the wife, commits a serious sexual sin.

On the other hand, the ancients had a strong connection to nature and to something transcendent that makes today’s world, with its fixation on earthly treasures, look colorless. The still small voice, the kingdom of God within: That which you can’t sense without stillness but which is the spirit (the breath, the ineffable essence) of life.

It appears in glimpses and metaphors throughout the Bible and other ancient texts from all traditions, from the Tao Te Ching to the Bhagavad Gita to the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and so on. As the scholar Philip Novak writes, “These great wisdom traditions remain our most resourceful guides to the Infinite.”

So, what’s the best way forward? How do I raise children unfundamentalist while still exploring the essence of life — while, that is, embracing healthy spirituality?

I’m clearly not the only one struggling with this tension. Perhaps you’ve seen the stats: Total church membership in the United States hovered around 70% until two decades ago. Then it plummeted to 47%, with a sharp drop in the last few years.

Source: Gallup

And the drop isn’t just driven by millennials. People of every age are now less likely to claim a religious affiliation than they did a decade ago. And those who stay with a religion often feel that they have to moderate the most dogmatic, authoritarian views that their kids hear at church.

Whether religious or not, we face an urgent need to help kids nurture their natural spirituality. As Lisa Miller, professor of psychology at Columbia University, writes, “In a culture where often enormous amounts of money, empty fame, and cynicism have become toxic dominant values, our children need us to support their quest for a spiritually grounded life at every age.”

Through her research, Miller has found that “children who are raised with a robust and well-developed spiritual life are happier, more optimistic, more thriving, more flexible, and better equipped to deal with life’s ordinary (and even extraordinary) traumas than those who are not.”

“Children who are raised with a robust and well-developed spiritual life are happier, more optimistic, more thriving, more flexible, and better equipped to deal with life’s ordinary (and even extraordinary) traumas than those who are not.” — Lisa Miller, professor of psychology at Columbia University

In short, I know that spirituality matters, but I’m still floundering to see how to best help my kids. I belong to a mindfulness community, which is fantastic but understandably just for grown ups. I’ve also tried a secular-minded Sunday group for families but found it too quick to disregard the wisdom traditions and anything that hinted of spirituality. As such, it was less about the heart and more about the head. But I’m searching for transformation, not just information. And I’m not alone. “In the absence of sound knowledge and credible science, parents have told me they felt stuck,” Miller writes. “We have books, blogs, online sources, and other media advisers on nearly all sides of parenting, but not for this crucial inner resource of spirituality.”

As a result of not finding a way forward, I’ve been in conversation with friends about what such a resource might look like — a resource that integrates the best of the wisdom traditions alongside the latest psychological and mindfulness research. From these conversations we’ve built the beginnings of a lesson library and curriculum that helps kids find their inner compass and develop their natural spirituality.

We’re under no delusion that this resource will by itself fill the lack that parents experience when trying to embrace a spiritual approach to parenting as opposed to a strictly material approach. In fact, we believe just the opposite — that the future of spiritual parenting requires a community of people working together in partnerships to, in the words of the writer Charles Eisenstein, bring about “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”

The alternative, I believe, is a dead end. I look at our consumer-driven landscape and see an abyss, a horror in every shoddy popup center or boxy beige building lining our highways—cheap, thoughtless, investor-led projects going the way of abandoned shopping malls.

Photo credit: Seph Lawless

Too many institutions have us working overtime to produce flimsy stuff that rusts in junkyards or digitally distract us from what we crave most: meaningful relationships with friends, family, nature, and the transcendent. Too many amass wealth by preying on the vulnerable, fixated on growth for the sake of growth, all while missing the essence of life.

In light of all this, I’m curious: What sources do you turn to for spiritual strength? What should I check out? Really. I’m asking. I’m a parent looking for help.

What I know for certain is that introducing Ezekiel to my 10 year old didn’t work.

I’m seeking for what does.

Photo credit: Holly Mandarich

Want to join along? Visit UpliftKids.org to get a free lesson and weekly insights.