As the holidays approach, I worry about the influence our material culture has on kids. At a young age, children are being taught to believe that if you just have the perfect toy or electronic gadget, their lives will be perfect. Being adults we know the truth. It makes us feel better for a little while, then we want something else.
A meditation teacher once told me that joy was the natural state of humans. He said in the beginning it's like our hearts are bright, shiny-clean mirrors. Then, once negative things in life happen, the mirror becomes covered by feelings of worry, fear, anger, jealousy, etc. There are some conditions in our environment that we can control that have the potential to continuously wipe the mirror clean for our children and ourselves.
Maybe you've watched as magical, happy small children you know turn into not-so-charming materialistic kids who have lost their spark of individuality and joyfulness. Wanting more and more stuff stifles all the good qualities the child originally possessed. Make no mistake, the cultural norms promote and take over a large part of your child's life. If you go to a really good church or temple, that can counteract some the cult of ownership, but I think mostly it’s building a breathing space for your kids just to be.
Materialism isn't the only cultural problem. Chronic rushing and busyness, loud music and TV, insane competitiveness, overfilled schedules, force kids to grow up too early, robbing them of their innate spirituality. My grandson, who is 5, has only been to two movies and has limited PBS Sprout exposure. On Saturday, Aiden went to see Toy Story 3. So yesterday I took him to Safeway where we walked the aisles. Little pictures of Woody, the cowboy, jumped out at him from every turn. Cereal boxes, cookies, videos, called out to him, making him want all of it. We bought a box of Rice Crispies with Woody's picture only because we were making marshmallow treats. Apparently there was supposed to be something Toy Story related in the box, but we never found it, leaving Aiden disappointed. As much as you try to keep children from being influenced by our cultural materialism, it's designed to strike home.
Here are some ideas to help you create a space that allows your child to grow spiritually and develop a rich interior life.
1. Let them know there is something bigger than themselves, it can be called God, or it can be certain ideals your hold like Truth, Social Justice, Kindness, or Honesty. Something has to be bigger than them. You can use any word you like; Spirit, Creator, just don't let your child be the center of the universe.
2. Let them see you helping others in your community. Assisting family and neighbors when they are sick or in trouble, and showing kindness is great modeling. Especially let them see you giving without expecting anything back.
3. Give your children the time to dream. It's a gift to allow them periods of silence. Some quiet and solitude-don’t keep them constantly involved in competition, sports, TV, video games, etc. It robs them of their ability to think freely, to breathe, and to relax. Contrary to the popular belief that being alone occasionally is problematic, it's important for them to learn how to think and dream. When I taught high school, the principal told the whole faculty, "Watch out for loners and report them to us." I laughed out loud, thinking it was a joke. There has to be a middle way: alone all the time bad, never alone, equally detrimental.
4. Show and teach gratitude- for everything from food on the table to a warm bed, beautiful flowers growing in the yard, to being grateful for a kindness from a stranger. You can say grace before dinner, use any words you like, but start saying it or ask the kids to say it.
5. Encourage their imagination in as many ways as possible. A chance to use their imagination-give them lots of art supplies, wood blocks to build, don’t tell them what to do, don’t praise the art or project, say instead, “Tell me about your picture.” They will.
6.Take them to Yosemite instead of Disneyland. Okay, you can take them to Disney a few times, but mostly take them out into nature and to appreciate beauty. Have your kids seen the way stars look when you are in the mountains or the desert? A full moon rise? Appreciation for the miracles around them encourages wonder and awe in yourself and your kids. Get them outside, growing vegetables, go camping, look at plants, and point out the intricate beauty of frogs, bugs, and the flight of a hawk.
7. Exhibit peace and respect for others. Watch what you say and do in front of your kids-screaming at other drivers, calling people names are noticed. When you show respect, politeness to others, when you let people go ahead of you on the freeway and in the supermarket, your kids see it. Everything you say and do is noticed. If you don't want to hear it coming out of your 5 year old's mouth, don't say it.
8. Storytelling, books, and family ritual-Children learn from storytelling, both family and otherwise, borrow great books from the library, develop family rituals. This helps kids feel connected to you, their world, and the child's ancestors. There isn't any culture in the world, except maybe ours, where the ancestors are not called upon to help them or remember them to bring them into community with their lives. Family rituals can be as simple as praying together over meals or just setting healing intentions for others
9. Be careful with TV, movies, video games, etc. Children have their own inborn temperaments to be sure, but if they are exposed to scary or adult movies or games it harms them. Especially watch out for oversexualized or violent images have a terrible impact.
10. Be convinced of your child's innate sense of the sacred and their own spiritual centers. Children have moments of shocking awareness that are periods of grace. Don't underestimate their intuitive, soulful knowledge.
A few minutes ago, I went outside to clear my head and finish my coffee. Two small deer walked into the yard not 20 feet away from me. I could feel my heart jump a bit, lifting me up, cleaning the mirror again. I went to theology school, but I don't know everything about what we are doing here on this planet at this moment. I just know children's and our own spiritual lives need nourishing and a sacred space to grow freely. It's the best gift you can give them.