Raising spiritual children

A few posts have gone up recently regarding raising your children in a spiritual tradition, and all the samsara that goes with it. Check out Nathan’s post, John’s post, Mumon’s post, and Karen’s post for some interesting perspectives. (I would say that my post here is inspired by, rather than a response to these posts).

Interesting perspectives. That’s what they are. Perspectives. Of the 4 mentioned above, all are parents save Nathan, who speaks from experience of working with children and running a successful children’s program in his Zen sangha to which he is very much involved. When I read these posts I see a deep sense of caring. Really caring about the children, their lives, their minds, their future selfs.

And something else is there as well. Parents and caregivers projecting what they wish the desired outcome to be. Parents that want their children to be Buddhist or Christian or Atheist or open-minded or skeptical or whatever; they all want something for their children, all to take on a specific role or mindset. And that is part of parenting. You have to want something for your children, and most of us want what is best for them. We all have our different flavors of “best” peppered by the experiences and luggage we bring with us to the table of life.

Personally, I think telling a child what to believe, or “hey Johnny, you’re a Christian, so you believe in ‘x'” is wrong, and does them a disservice. It takes away the process of discovery and replaces it with dogma, at a time in their lives where fostering an attitude of discovery and imagination is most crucial. Spirituality is a very wonderous, malleable thing. To force it into a shape before a child has had the time to poke and prod at it robs them of an experience that is very special, something that will take a terrible amount of work to get back later in life, if at all.

Currently developing the "Rocks and Sticks" Sutra...

But what of raising a child Buddhist, or in a Buddhist community? Is there a difference? I tend to think so, at least to some degree. Buddhism has less to do with belief, and more to do with results. For instance, take the five precepts. This is a teaching I could explain to my children that will lead to examination, and more questions. There is no “because ‘x’ holy book says so answer; there are only questions of “why” and “how” to be met with their own experiences and guidance from father and mother. In Buddhism we seek noble qualities, not adherence to doctrine.

Why do we take the precept to refrain from taking life?

To affirm and honor life, because it is precious. Why else do think we should not take life?

Why do we take the precept to refrain from taking what isn’t given?

To develop generosity, and to accept ourselves wholly. Why else do you think we shouldn’t take what belongs to us?

Why do we take the precept to refrain from wrong speech?

To develop compassion, live our truth, and honor others. Why else should we tell the truth, and not speak unkindly of others?

One day my son and daughter will ask me about Buddha and meditation and being a Buddhist. The questions they ask will come from a genuine place of wonder and curiosity, and my answers should foster that state of mind.

What’s a Buddhist?

Someone that follows the teachings of the Buddha.

What did he teach?

He taught many things. First he taught us that life isn’t always what it seems or what we want it to be. At times this can cause us to be sad, or even angry. So he taught us to use compassion, wisdom, and have the right frame of mind so that we don’t have to live that way.

Oh. So why do you sit on that pillow in the living room?

That’s one way to help me develop the right frame of mind.


That is a nice pretend scenario of a conversation that might take place. But given my son’s nature I can only imagine the questions that will soon follow. It will be awhile until the questions begin to emerge, but in time they will. And when that time comes I have no qualms with asking him if he wants to practice with me. And if he says no, he says no and he will enjoy racing matchbox cars around the Kitchen 500.

Spiritual communities can be great environments for children. But when the activities include having them sing songs in praise of people and ideals they have no way of understanding, I draw a line.

Presently we have no formal sangha or spiritual community to raise our children in. Our religious practice revolves around our attempt to manifest spirituality in our daily lives and activity. So there is no temple to “drag” them to. And there isn’t much in the way of belief to indoctrinate them in. There are our daily successes and failures that will guide and shape them. For those with access to a sangha or dharma center, their perspective will be different; I cannot speak to the experience of others.

Or maybe they’ll never really take an interest in Dad’s Buddhism. Maybe they’d rather play with the Tarot cards on our shelves, mesmerized by the dozens of different artist’s depictions of the journey of The Fool. Maybe they’d rather read The Lord of the Rings and get lost in The Shire. Maybe they’d rather spend the day in the woods taking in deep breaths of dead leaves and cedar, running from whatever forest creature they might imagine is in pursuit.

It really is up to them. I’ll be steering them in a direction that keeps them on the road. But that is my perspective, and that is where I feel my children would benefit most. For now I’m focusing on raising compassionate, spiritual children. We can worry about the framework later.




Filed under Buddhism, Parenting

9 responses to “Raising spiritual children

  1. “Spiritual communities can be great environments for children. But when the activities include having them sing songs in praise of people and ideals they have no way of understanding, I draw a line.” This is interesting, given how open the first half of your post is. One thing I’d offer is that when most of us chant the Heart Sutra, the vows, etc. – we pretty much don’t understand. There’s an element of faith and trust, no matter if you are 5 or 50.

    Obviously, my experience is colored by years in a sangha that supports children practicing, or at least learning about it. My post wasn’t about getting everyone to take their kids to a dharma center, though, it was about the resistance I see to having children’s programs at all.

    To be honest, when parents focus too much on concerns about indoctrination, it makes me wonder if they really trust the wisdom of the teachings. Because there are plenty of ways to present this stuff in a way that lets kids explore, accept or reject it.

    • I think an adult typically has a better understanding of what is being said, and the meaning behind it when it comes to things like hymms and songs. I personally have 3 very different experiences with this. I was in choir as a youth in my church. When questions were asked regarding the content of such songs, they were answered with genuine respect. However, much of this content revolved around faith and belief in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and interpretations of a Holy text I had no way of understanding. I had no way of understanding what I was singing praise to, yet was forced to do it anyway.

      Another experience was in a church my ex-stepmother forced us to go to, that basically told us that we and everyone we loved would go to Hell unless we followed what the youth ministers said. Again, I was an impressionable young child, but this time was forced to do things out of fear.

      My more recent experience was with the SGI. Local meetings were no place for a young child. However, the larger regional meetings did feature programs and such for kids on a limited basis. The last meeting we went to featured a dozen or so children all under 10 singing a song with lyrics that championed President Ikeda as “The Great Leader”, “My Mentor”, “I’m one with my mentor Ikeda” “He’s a great champion” and other such Ikeda puff phrases. I fail to see how this benefited the children other than to indoctrinate them, as it I have had a hard time finding anything where children are being introduced to Ikeda’s actual acomplishments, rather than his quotes and numerous honorary degrees.

      I definitely don’t have a resistance to children’s programs, but I’ve yet to see many with content that I’d be comfortable with my children being taught. But that is only my exprerience. Maybe if we had a local sangha or center, my view might be different.

      I trust the wisdom of the teachings, but I chose this path because I felt it was right for me. I didn’t choose it because I thought it was the right path. As I said, I have no issue with asking my children to practice with me, or to teach them about what it is that I’m doing and learning about. But I’m not going to force them to sing songs in praise of things and people they have no real connection with and lack the ability to understand even on the most basic level.

  2. Yeah, those examples you bring up leave a bad taste in my mouth as well. The SGI one is disappointing at best, and sounds like indoctrination unfortunately.

    I have no problem with your decision or others who are working with their kids at home. Especially given that you don’t have a sangha to bring them to at this time, and there’s really no way to know if a sangha with a decent kids program will appear for you and your family. And you certainly sound open to exploring Buddhism with your kids when the time seems right, and that’s the most important thing, even if they choose something different as adults.

    I just notice that the kinds of Christian experiences you mention seem to color a lot of convert Buddhist practitioners’ views, to the point where some seem to treat all spiritual education as akin to what they, themselves, experienced. And that’s just plain false view.

  3. adam, hi.

    my experience. my dad took me on walks in the woods, he sent me to a hebrew day school, he took me to the american museum of natural history (definitely a temple of some sort!) later he took me to jewish services at the local temple. jewish sunday school and all that. for that matter he made me help work on the family car late at night so he could get to work the next day.

    was any of that in the way of raising me as a spiritual child? the walks in woods, the ability to troubleshoot and rebuild a peice of reality (car)… yes i suppose that’s part of my spiritual upbringing. i don’t think i ever saw any ‘spirituality’ in the jewish activities. in my teens i actually saw them as pretty dry.

    there was also lots of science fiction around the house. eventually i started picking it up and reading it. i suppose that layed the grounds for my spirituality too.

    was there anything like indoctrination? I think it’s due to the personality of the parents/teachers. none of it was: you must value nature, you must believe god created the earth and moses wrote it all down… pretty much i had a sense of: this is what we do, take it or leave it. i don’t know whether i learned the life of questioning from my jewish background or my science background (which included troubleshooting cars) or both! i think i always had a sense that i should question the jewish stuff, and i don’t think i ever had a qustion of my love for Earth.

    my sense of social responsibility? from discussions with my mom, from reading science fiction? again, no pushing though. certainly no ‘system’.

    By highschool, i had equal access to nature, science, judaism, christianity, budhism, yoga..

    i don’t know if this experience speaks to the more interpersonal nature of spiritual traditions.

    and i suppose this all has to do with how much the kid admires his parents and teachers.

    • Some excellent points here Barry. It certainly does have quite a bit to do with the admiration and trust one has in their parents/teachers. My parents weren’t very involved with my spiritual upbringing, but left that to the church and Sunday School. I think my Father really only went out of obligation. Not much of an example. But like you, he provided me with the “Science” part by teaching me cars and furnaces and welders and snowblowers.

      “By highschool, i had equal access”… – yes i think this is so very, very important.

  4. Sean C

    I’ve always thought the best way to raise children was by example. Maintain your practice, your child will be interested because it’s what you are doing. But I don’t have children.

    • Examples are the best way to show them how to practice, but we are all human and failure is one of my more obvious human traits. Thus providing a bit more structure and a community to support that magic they may or may not seek is something I would like to provide them.

  5. “I just notice that the kinds of Christian experiences you mention seem to color a lot of convert Buddhist practitioners’ views, to the point where some seem to treat all spiritual education as akin to what they, themselves, experienced. And that’s just plain false view.”

    Hi, I just have to agree with Nathan on this. So often I see Buddhist converts take one part of Christianity that they struggled with or suffered from and assume that all those hundreds of millions of Christians out there are all the same! LOL! It’s the very opposite of Buddhist thinking to do this, but it happens all the time.

    Adam, I’ve seen you here on this blog write about your own positive experience of the church as you grew up. That sense of community etc being foremost. And that’s great, we have to make friends (as TNH would say) with the traditions and great things of our backgrounds. And, lets face it, you seem to have come out unharmed!

    Now I’m not suggesting that you frog-march your kids to church! But that sense of community is so vital (in my opinion) that if there is not a sangha around that is (or could be) child-friendly, then churches are well worth checking out. I know (and know of) many Buddhists who go to Quaker or UU churches for example.

    I really ought to shut up though as this is your life and your family not mine! But the idea that all churches tell kids to believe or burn is just plain false!

    Anyway, all the very best with this and I know your kids have the number one most important thing already. You, and your practice. Beyond that, no matter what you do… they’ll find their own way!

    Be well,


    • The 2 UU churches around here are nothing like other ones that I have experienced. I actually went to one a few times in college back home in Michigan that was quite liberal in their teachings. However here (which is kind of ironic since I now live in Washington State) the UU churches are a bit more evangelical in nature. Not in the mega-church, jumping up and down in the aisles way, but more than I would like to see in a UU church.

      You are correct in that I did enjoy the sense of community I found in my early church, but for the life of me, I could never really get over the content. Looking back it seemed more like the instruction was about getting us to believe in something. Not teaching us the who/what/when/why/magic of the process, but just getting us to go along with something. And quite frankly I have little to no interest in teaching my son at a young age about Christianity. I really believe it is a religion that should be introduced at a later age than what most do. If at some point when he is older and wants to go to church with his friends or discover more about Jesus, I’ll support him in that.

      “But the idea that all churches tell kids to believe or burn is just plain false!”

      Oh I hope I didn’t make it seem like I thought that way in my comment because I surely don’t. I’m very glad that my expereience at that Baptist church was short-lived.

      Right now, my son isn’t even quite 2. So for now, there is no understanding of what spirituality or God or Mind or anything like that is. Hopefully we will be moving in the next year or two, and hopefully that move will put us closer to a sangha or dharma center or something similar where he might be able to explore a bit of that magic.