We’ve been experimenting with a new parenting strategy over the last little bit. It started a couple of months ago when we were trying to get the kids to make meditation a normal part of their day and our kids were treating meditation like yet another excuse to have giggle fits three minutes before bedtime.
Let me back up.
I feel like I’ve really briefly touched on our “spiritual strategy” as parents but I don’t get into it a lot because (A) I do hate when blogs get preachy all of a sudden and (B) ours isn’t that universal so I don’t know how much value there is in reading about it. The thing is, we aren’t really a Christian household and that’s usually what people talk about. Kyle is Christian, at least in part, but I drifted away from that before we had kids and went from being split Christian/Buddhist (like Kyle is) to only having Eastern philosophies left. So, if pressed, I tell people that I’m a secular Buddhist.
I’m not a strict Buddhist for lots of reasons – I’m not a vegetarian and my own meditation practice is under construction at best. I would say that we practice secular Buddhism more than true spiritual Buddhism in that we treat it like a philosophy about life that we believe will make us happier in the long run. So we’re practicing it in our house but it’s very personal and there isn’t a set standard of whether we’re doing it “right” either in the world or in our own house.
That being said –
We never wanted to make spirituality so personal in our house that every man was for himself and nobody was influencing anyone because that’s not so much an open path for kids as it is a direct path to either Atheism or cult religions since those are the easiest ways to fill that spiritual vacuum. If our kids grow up to believe in nothing, so be it, BUT it won’t be because they weren’t presented with alternatives. For that reason, we do tell them Bible stories. Eva went to Sunday school for a while. We celebrate Jewish holidays and the pagan solstice celebrations and we’re reading a book about the Muslim faith because I know about as much about that right now as the kids do. And, of course, we’ve introduced them to Eastern religions and philosophies like Buddhism.
The tricky thing is that it’s hard to introduce a lot of conflicting ideas to young kids and not confuse the crap out of them. We’ve especially seen this in Eva, who came home from Sunday school with the militant faith of a TV evangelist and refused to consider alternative ideas for weeks. (Fun times, yo.) So, we sat down and thought about what exactly it is that we’re trying to do. Why are we cultivating their spiritual selves? Do we want to them to have strong feelings about religion or do we want them to just be well-rounded in a very shallow way? Do we want to just can the whole thing and let them figure it out for themselves?
We determined that we want them to keep thinking about big questions (the meaning of life, what it is to be a person, what it would mean to die, etc.) since those are things that will keep coming up for them regardless of what we do. We also want to have a space to talk to them about moral issues and things that have to do with their character and religious stories give us a good place to do that. Finally, we think a lot of spiritual practices, like meditation (or prayer) are healthy habits to get into early. So…we needed a plan.
Our plan: weekly family nights where we tackle a specific topic by discussing it over a special dinner, sharing a story or two, and doing some kind of activity that reinforces what we want them to know.
Sometimes that does mean bible stories or some other strongly religious text, since so many of those stories are shaped around life’s big questions, but so far we’ve found that we can actually have really good talks around kid books and toys that we already had around the house. Honestly, the first couple of attempts were a little intense but now we’ve pared it down to just enough “props” to give us a space to have a good family talk.
Not going to lie, it was (is?) super awkward to get started. It feels very forced to sit down and open a discussion on a character or moral issue with young kids. Preachy and also like we’re in some bad spin off of Sesame Street. However, once we get started it always gets good and the kids now look forward to those nights and that makes starting the conversation easier. It helps that we make an effort to make the dinner some kind of special event by planning an unusual menu or presentation.
Growth mindset sounds like one of those things you’d hear about at an employee retreat right between the trust exercises and the sexual harassment video. When you think about it, it’s one thing to tell your kids, “keep trying!” but a totally different thing to tell them that they need to cultivate a growth mindset at the core of their being. Say what? So awkward.
First, we put a family message and some new vocabulary words on the whiteboard that stays up all week. This one was particularly long because there was so much to think about:
We also read a book about having a growth mindset (such a good one – you need!) and I made index cards that had “bad” mindsets on one side and “good” mindsets on the other so we could chat about them.
We don’t always use index cards for the discussion but I usually like to write a quote down for the kids to keep after just to jog their memories. Calvin especially responds better when he has something tangible to take with him and since he’s still catching up on his reading it gives him something else to practice.
So I pulled Battleship out for this one because it’s used occasionally in elementary schools to talk about failing is just another way of narrowing in on future success but after I thought about it that was going to be way over the heads of both the four and six year old so instead we had our quick tea party dinner and did our family discussion and then went down to the basements and watched Meet the Robinsons, one of the most underrated Disney movies ever. It’s hit-you-over-the-head about growth mindset. Take a look:
Gratitude was easier because it’s a really simple concept for the kids to grasp and also harder because kid brains are not that interested in the idea that they should stop wanting things and be happy with what they have. At least our kids.
We talked long and hard about being happy with what you have, but it really is a bit of an elusive concept (especially for the four year old). It didn’t help that the books I pulled were middling at best. Two were more about self-sacrifice and the only one that was spot on was the dog and bone Aesop’s fable about the dog snapping at his reflection and losing his bone. I thought it was perfect but the kids reasoned that the dog should have just put his bone down before trying to bite the other dog. Nope. Point missed.
We had better luck with the activity, which was to write down things we’re grateful for on paper leaves and make a tree of gratitude on the wall. We had fun with that and it was a good way to have discussions about appreciating things that other kids might not have.
That being said, the evening ended in tears because Calvin wanted to put the last leaf on the wall but it was Eva’s turn and we reminded him that he should feel grateful that he got to put up so many leaves and appreciate how fun the activity had been and he was like NOPE GIVE ME THAT LEAF I NEED IT I CAN’T BE HAPPY WITHOUT IT I HATE ALL OF YOU which just goes to show that you can plan and make props and practice quiet focused breathing and still finish a family bonding experience by hauling your kid over your shoulder and dumping him in his bed.
Anyway, it’s been good for us overall, even if we might need to tweak the approach a bit, and it’s nice to feel like we aren’t quite so lost in the woods when it comes to talking about these overwhelming subjects. I’ll try to remember to take pictures so that I can keep sharing but other things we’ve done together have included yoga routines, pebble meditation, making paper chains, coloring on an oversized picture, and taking nature walks. Hope that sparked an idea for your family!