Last Sunday morning began like most other mornings around our house. My two young sons stumbled downstairs with bleary eyes and tousled hair. They ate breakfast, watched an episode of "Phineas & Ferb" and played with a few toys. The mood was carefree, relaxed and lazy.
Until, that is, I announced that it was time to get dressed so that we could leave for church.
"Ugh! I don't wanna go to church!" my 6-year-old wailed, his younger brother quickly mimicking his complaints.
"Why do we have to go to church?" he squealed with that sing-song whine that makes any parent's skin crawl.
I was annoyed and slightly confused. My son rarely balks at going to church as our Unitarian Universalist church has a very child-friendly atmosphere. At Sunday services, the kids are not forced to mutely endure an adult-focused worship service; rather, they participate in an age-appropriate class that includes songs, moral stories, simple prayers, painting and sometimes, paper airplanes. All in all, they get an understandable spirituality lesson in a laid back, playful environment.
I repeated my instruction to get dressed hoping to avoid any confrontations. I was not in the mood for whining or push-back. I hadn't had nearly enough coffee yet to deal with complaints, much less questions about the role of religion in our family.
"But why do we have to go to church?" My son asked again with genuine inquiry.
"Because that's what we do," I responded wearily. And I instantly regretted it. Certainly, there was a better response to the question of "why do we go to church?" than the proverbial "because I said so."
But what? What is the appropriate answer to this question? How can I explain to my young children the importance of religious community? How can I explain the importance of spirituality in a relevant and applicable way? How can I speak understandably about God and the role of religion, especially since my views on God are amorphous and unconventional?
Religion, to me, is about faith community and spiritual connection, not dogma and theology. So while I value church attendance and community participation as vital roles to my spiritual development, there are no easy answers, slogans or catchphrases on which I can rely when answering these tough questions. I want to provide my children with the framework for their own faith journey -- regardless of where that faith journey eventually takes them -- without creating negative associations with faith and religion. Much like Jennifer Dorr recently described in this post, "I want my children to think about their values on a daily basis, and that is difficult to do in a secular society in which children are running from school to sport to homework. I want my kids to have spiritual community."
Certainly it is possible for parents to impart values and morality into their children through a wholly secular approach, but for a variety of reasons, my husband and I have decided that participating in a spiritual community is an important activity for our family. Even so, I struggle with how to convey this message to my young children without infusing messages of guilt, obedience and conformity that are all-too-often associated with a dictatorial religion. Admonishments of "because I said so" might be appropriate when it comes to wearing a jacket in chilly weather or eating your vegetables, but the "because I said so" response is not the approach that I want to take when it comes to imparting the value of spirituality and religious community.
A few minutes after my son had sulked upstairs to get dressed, I went to him and tried to answer his question. I explained that it is important to take care of our bodies, our minds, our hearts and our spirits. I suggested that some of the ways that we take care of our body are by eating healthy, exercising and playing sports. We take care of our mind by going to school. We take care of our heart by being with our families, friends and people we love. And some of the ways we can take care of our spirit is by praying and going to church.
I explained that it is important that we tend to all parts of ourselves so that we can live a balanced life. He nodded, agreed and finished getting dressed without complaint. I breathed a huge sigh of relief that the crisis had been averted -- at least for the time being. Nonetheless, I want to be prepared for the next time my son balks at going to church since, like any 6-year-old, he is likely to protest any activity that doesn't coincide with his playtime plans.
So in the hopes of minimizing the frequency of these protests and in order to lay the groundwork for a liberal, open-minded faith, I have devised the following strategies:
- To focus on church as a positive experience, rather than a chore.
- To pray together as a family more often, listening to the personal prayers of each family member.
- To talk more openly about God as a loving network of kindness, empathy and forgiveness, and avoiding easy religious catchphrases.
- To emphasize the importance of learning more about our own personal faith and the faiths of others.
- To attend church as regularly as possible and combine it with other fun family activities, like trips to a new park, picking up donuts or going to the zoo.
Do you encourage your children to attend church services? If so, what techniques do you use to explain the reasons for regular church attendance?
Christine Organ blogs about life, love and humanity at Random Reflectionz.