Some children aren't spiritually inclined, but many are. Is this because their tender, innocent awe for all things alive and imagined hasn't yet been trounced by trauma, teasing and/or adult logic? Is it because angels, deities and saints are magical beings on par with elves, fairies, imaginary friends and Queen Elsa of Arendelle? Is it because their memories of past lives still feel fresh? Is it because it is the nature of the young, for better or worse, simply to believe?
Here's a tragic truth about those first metaphysical flashes: As soon as children start discussing with others—adults, or even peers—those deeply personal, intensely sacred moments, zzzap! Those moments cease being entirely their own and run the risk of being defined, interpreted, scorned and/or forbidden.
Harsh words, laughter, fear or prejudice can shatter that intimate, shooting-sparks connectedness a child felt with a hummingbird, a poem or the sea.
Yet long before children encounter the word "spirituality," their brushes with it shape their senses of identity and self-esteem. Their experiences, in their pre-judgment purity, convey a sense of welcome, of belonging not just to the seen world but to others beyond. Having those special moments questioned or condemned tells kids they've failed to follow—or wilfully broken—holy rules: in other words, they've failed. Or sinned.
Children are typically told that their families follow a certain faith, that this faith is synonymous with whom they are.
Talk about a mega-assumption.
To adults who make such assumptions, whether or not this identity-by-association suits a child's own spiritual tendencies is immaterial.
I was told not only We are Jews, thus YOU'RE a Jew but We are Orthodox.
This was problematic in many ways. First of all, Orthodox Judaism is a deep commitment whose mandated practices are plainly visible to the naked eye.
But our family didn't follow these practices—in terms of clothing, hair or prayer. We didn't keep the Sabbath. Our sole Orthodox-ism was two separate sets of kitchenware: one for dairy foods, one for meat. But we also had a secret third set, which we used for pork chow mein and shrimp fried rice.
Mom said: Always remember this: What divides you from other Jews is that you're Orthodox. What divides you from everyone else is that you're a Jew. Wherever Jews go, they're hated. Have a nice day!
Very few Jews lived in my hometown. I started school feeling automatically, inescapably excluded and loathed.
Meanwhile, I knew almost nothing of Judaism. I was never taught Hebrew. We didn't belong to a synagogue. I understood God as a terrifying codger who killed people, including my friend's cancer-stricken little sister and soldiers in Vietnam, because they'd purposely or accidentally disobeyed Him. Some he just slew randomly. On whims.
Judaism, as embodied by my family, represented to me neither fellowship nor mystery nor joy.
Other things did.
I was a highly spiritual child, certain that ghosts roamed and that plants and stones had souls. Historic sites transported me into shuddery, where's-my-lasso reveries. I sensed the sorrows and terrors of passing strangers, and believed that birds spoke to me. Otherworldly forces were afoot, I thought, but not one monumental God.
It's taken me most of a lifetime to reclaim the honest awe I felt at four. I respect the power, beauty and history of Judaism, but it is not me.
Be careful what you tell kids about their spirituality. Ask open-minded questions. Let them answer as, and if, they wish. Assume nothing. Birds might actually speak to them.