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27 Jan, Friday
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Montreal Families

Spirituality may lead to greater happiness in kids

Carmen Fabio came home after work one afternoon and discovered that her 12-year-old son Zachary had shaved off all his hair. The boy wasn’t trying to shock his parents or show to the world his devotion to punk rock music. Zachary had made a decision to embrace Buddhism. An avid reader, he had found books about the subject and liked the emphasis on non-violent living. Besides shaving his head, he also announced that he was becoming a vegetarian, so as not to harm any living beings.

Looking into her son’s face that day, Fabio quickly realized that she had to make a choice: alienate her son by refusing to support his religious journey or act Zen-like and encourage his newfound spiritualism. She chose the latter, eventually becoming a vegetarian herself. (But she decided not to shave her head!) “I figured there were worst things he could throw at me,” she says.

By encouraging her son to explore spirituality — an inner belief system that may or may not find expression through attendance at church — Fabio may also have been helping her son be a happier person. In a recent study carried out at the University of British Columbia at Okanogan, researchers tested the influence of spirituality on happiness in children ages 9 to 12. Typically in adults, spirituality might influence four or five per cent of happiness, but in children the influence varied between 6.5 and 16.5 percent. In other words, having a spiritual life appears to make children feel joyful and better about themselves.

Victoria Talwar, professor of psychology and spirituality at McGill University, says exploring different belief systems, including concepts like “God” or a “higher power” is normal for children, especially as they confront situations like the death of a loved one.

“Children are seeking answers to the larger questions,” she notes. “It is common in all children to be interested in the nature of the world even if the families are not religious.”

Talwar emphasizes that parents should be respectful of their children’s questions and, through discussions and reading, encourage their curiosity and explorations. For example, talking about a classmate who is vegetarian can start conversations about why some people believe it is wrong to kill a living being or why some religions have taboos about eating certain meats.

The death of a family member is often a key moment for families to share their ideas about life’s purpose and their relationship to those who have died. Families who do not practice a particular religion can still talk about the meanings and beliefs that underlie different religious holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah, Ramadan or Christmas.

Whether parents practice a particular faith, are agnostic or have rejected the religions of their childhood, the key to responding to children’s spiritual questions and quests is flexibility and open-mindedness, says Caroline Parry, the spiritual educator at the Unitarian Church of Montreal.

“Rigidity should be rejected,” she says. “If a religious education is forced onto children they can be spiritually unhappy.”  Instead, Parry suggests parents pay attention to what their child thinks, using tools like discussion, books and art to allow a child to develop a natural curiosity about the world.

For Fabio and her son Zachary, curiosity has indeed been the key to developing a spiritual life. “Expose your children to different things,” says Fabio, whether it’s a visit to Chinatown or eating a curry. New experiences can lead to profound and important questions about the world and our place in it.

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