When my eldest child was three, she shocked our neighbor by explaining in detail how a refrigerator works. Amber loved mechanical things, so her dad would show her how different appliances operated. Her favorite book was The Way Things Work, which illustrated various mechanical systems. So when our neighbor casually mentioned that her fridge was on the fritz, Amber jumped in with an explanation of fridge mechanics.
Brain development is a big part of children’s early years. A two-year-old has twice as many connections (synapses) between brain cells (neurons) as a typical adult. Researchers consider the years between two and seven a period when children learn faster than any other time of life. Their brains are literally racing to learn new things.
That’s why education professor Rishi Sriram says caregivers need to maximize learning opportunities during this critical period of neurological development. He suggests four approaches, each of which can promote spiritual learning as well as other areas of growth.
Embrace learning as a joyful activity. Introduce children to spiritual people, traditions, and stories so they recognize spirituality as an arena for personal learning. Help them develop a spiritual growth mindset by talking about how new skills can be acquired with practice. Model excitement about trying new things and tell children it’s okay to make mistakes. Emphasize persistence rather than offering blanket compliments (e.g. “Wow! You kept trying and you figured it out!” instead of “You’re so smart!”)
Focus on breadth rather than depth. Early childhood is a time to provide access and exposure to a wide variety of spiritual experiences. The more children explore, the more opportunities they have to discover ideas and practices that intrigue them. Try out various forms of meditation or prayer together. Read books about diverse religious traditions. Ask friends to share the cultural traditions that shape their holiday celebrations.
Build emotional intelligence and empathy. Learning is not just about intellectual ideas. Young children are also developing a repertoire of emotional skills that will shape how they interact with others. Help them name their emotions and then ask them to link how they feel to why they feel that way (e.g. “I feel angry because I want to keep dancing and you said we have to go to preschool”). Share how you feel in return, and ask questions that encourage children to consider others’ feelings (e.g. “I wonder how your teacher feels when you are late?”).
Take early spiritual learning seriously. Just as learning to speak a second language is easier when started before age 8, early spiritual experiences provide resources that children can use to negotiate existential concerns. A meditation practice might soothe a child distraught over the death of a family pet. A candle lighting ritual could keep bedtime monsters at bay. A family practice of gratitude may temper experiences of deprivation.
Parents need not fear that early introduction of spirituality will restrict their child’s freedom of choice later in life. In fact, the opposite is true. Providing a variety of spiritual experiences when a child is young opens up spiritual possibilities for the future. It gives children personal material to work with when they are ready to engage in deeper exploration and assessment.