Nothing frightens a suburban parent more than the prospect of his child getting into the car of a drunk driver. Parents will grant all kinds of dispensation for what we consider inappropriate behavior if our child just calls us for pick-up instead of getting into the wrong car.
My children are not quite at that age yet, but I imagine that I would follow that same wisdom. Wouldn’t we trade anything to ensure our child’s safety?
What if I were to tell you that you could exponentially diminish the possibility of your children getting into that car in the first place? More, what if I were to tell you that you could drastically diminish the chance of your child getting drunk or high on a weekly basis?
Like I did, I expect my children will experiment with the “ways” of our world. But, is there a base-level wisdom we can give to our children, which will help them make sensible decisions about what they put into their bodies?
There is a fairly new science, which proves that nurturing our children’s spiritual life will decrease their propensity to abuse alcohol and drugs.
Lisa Miller in her powerful book, The Spiritual Child, writes, “Spiritual development through the early years prepares the adolescent to grapple more successfully with the predictably difficult and potentially disorienting existential questions that make adolescence so deeply challenging for teens (and their parents). It also provides a protective health benefit, reducing the risk of depression, substance abuse, aggression, and high-risk behaviors, including risk taking and a sexuality devoid of emotional intimacy.”
Yes, it turns out that nurturing the spiritual lives of our children can not only deepen them as human beings, but it also can act as an extra layer of protective wisdom to guide them through their most challenging days as teens.
Interestingly, children are innately inclined to ask about the existential nature of our world. They want to know about purpose and meaning. They constantly wonder out loud and ask questions about almost everything. They want to know who created them and us and our planet. They want to know about the existence of angels and heaven; and about how people live and die. Many of them want to know who God is and where they might find that God.
They want answers to these questions, not just because they want to know, but also because the discussions about such matters build their sense of confidence and self. The depth of dialogue makes them feel like they are important and that they have a sense of purpose in the world. Pondering such ideas helps start to trust themselves, the world and their relationships in the discerning manner in which we as parents dream about for our children.
The linchpin to this spiritual equation however, is the role parents play. For many, we are not sure if or how we should talk with our children about the existential. We are nervous we will say the wrong thing. We are not sure what or if we believe ourselves. We stray away from the subject because it brings up negative feelings, which stem from our own religious upbringing.
In our own struggle for understanding, we redirect our children to other subjects and sometimes leave them wondering and wandering. None of this is the end of the world. Our children can still be healthy and wonderful people. However, Miller points out that if our kids don’t use it, they lose it. Indeed, like everything else in us, without exercise, the spiritual muscle atrophies.
The beauty of this dilemma is that if you want to figure out your own spiritual odyssey or not, you can nevertheless escort your child on his own journey.
Miller writes, “…. (the) need for spiritual parenting is great, but that doesn’t make it complicated. You may have been doing spiritual parenting all along without necessarily thinking of it that way… Perhaps you’ve taken the time to walk in the park and just marvel together at what you see-the sky, the flowers, or an ant hauling a crumb across the dirt. Maybe you’ve asked your child to help you gather food or clothes to take to the homeless shelter or encouraged him to befriend a new kid at school, share the last piece of cake, or watch for opportunities to step up and lend a hand. You’ve likely shared your family’s history and kept alive the memory of those who’ve passed on. Perhaps when your child fails or makes a mistake, you share what you know about growing through these experiences…Or, you say, “I love you,” and mean that your love is for always and unconditional.”
Engaging your children in these daily activities has the potential to open brand new doors of safety, depth, trust and wisdom….for them and for you. And, doing so may just give you an extra measure of comfort as you put your head on the pillow while navigating through teenage weekends.
Matthew D. Gewirtz is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. He is the author of The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow? (Random House). A strong advocate of social justice, Matt Gewirtz is a founding executive committee member of the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace, an interfaith organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims that is committed to ending gang violence in Newark. Matt Gewirtz strives to find joy and meaning in his daily life and is committed to helping do the same for others. His greatest joy comes from his wife, Lauren and their three beautiful children.