The Spiritual Education of Children

The initial letter in this thread has been
adapted from a private letter to a friend.

You asked me to write you about the spiritual and religious development of children, and mentioned that you are helping a friend whose position is such that she must avoid controversial stands, but is deeply serious about the questions we are considering here.

There is an old story, called "The Wise Smuggler," that has been told in many different ways:

For years a man passes through a mountain border post leading a donkey. The border guard manning the post suspects that the man is a smuggler. He searches the man. He searches his donkey, the saddle bags, and so forth. Always within a month he sees the man walking back across the border past his post.

Years pass. The border guard searches the man more and more aggressively. The man bears the increasing indignities with grace; he is not only a wise smuggler, but a kindly one as well. The guard is certain that he is smuggling something, but search as he will, he can never discover what it is.

The day comes for his retirement. He turns in his gun, and the uniform of which he is so proud, and on the way down the mountain he runs into the same smuggler leading a donkey.

He says, "I've retired now. I swear on my honor I will never reveal your secret. I KNOW you are a smuggler. Tell me what are you smuggling, or I will never die in peace!" And the wise smuggler replies, "donkeys, of course."

The problem your friend has (and our culture at large has, in the present moment of spiritual and political contraction) is that with regards to content, everything she says must be conventional. But if it's conventional, then it's not helpful, or interesting, or new. It's not being driven by the deeper truth about life, but limited by the narrow range of what's currently acceptable.

Sometimes in these situations it's the dromenon (the action or ritual -- from the same Greek root as drama) that can be carried forward by separating it from the legomenon ( the myth, story, or explanation -- from the same root as logos or word), sometimes it's by separating the legomenon from the dromenon.

To give but one example, an ancient Turkish shamanic performance can be Islamized, but the dance and the deeper patterning of the performance basically survive, even while the words and content are altered. The process can also work the other way; a great myth can become a fairy tale, and in that way survive in an otherwise hostile religious environment.

When teaching children about spirituality, a deviation in doctrinal content -- even the appearance of a deviation in such content -- will provoke an outcry from the doctrinaire which limits what can be said. However, even the closed-minded will not see changes in the method of teaching to be as great a threat. What McLuhan said in another context holds true in this case: "the medium is message."

Children learn most about spiritual and religious matters when the architecture of their instruction is an open one. Provided that our focus is on the quality of the religious life we live rather than strict adherence to a particular doctrine, it's in everyone's interest, from liberals to fundamentalists, to understand this point. An open architecture of religious and spiritual instruction will best enable even traditionalists to deal with the wide variety of religious and cultural viewpoints they will encounter in the course of their lives, for we are not only living longer than our ancestors, we are also encountering a much richer and more complex variety of cultural and religious influences.

Training children in doctrine and content separate from more direct religious awareness leads to conflict rather than peace and unity. In the past, it led to one war or persecution after another, as homogenous religious communities encountered one another, a result not so much of their different religious experiences as their differing doctrines.

The danger of religious war has lessened in most parts of the world, but in the modern world, most children are going to encounter people, who will be significant in their lives, yet will have very different religious views than their parents -- and they will do so in a deeper and more sustained way than in the past. This process is accelerating as the world grows smaller, and religions and nationalities rub up against each other all the more closely.

For many individuals, especially children being raised in an ever more interconnected world, religion taught as dogma offers about as much protection against the real perils of the contemporary life as a suit of armor. Yet even irreligious parents wish to protect their children with an armoring of doctrine that, as adults ,they often don't even attempt to wear themselves. In other words many children are taught a religion in order to protect them and give them an identity, not because their parents believe it literally.

Much of what is called religion is actually a "religious identity," which is taught in the same manner, and functions in the same way, as ethnic and national identities. At its roots, however, religion is in essence the spiritual practice of life lensed through a particular tradition. If we accept this as a definition of religion, then most of what we call religious wars are actually wars of religious identity. I'm a Catholic and you're Protestant, neither of us has been to a religious service in 20 years, but that doesn't effect our sense of religious identity, which may be very strong. When our communities of identification based on religion come into conflict for one reason or another, we also come into conflict. (I'm a Moslem, and Serbs invade my town. I'm a Copt in Egypt, or a Jew in Eastern Europe in the thirties.)

There may or may not be value in religion as identification ( the sense of connection and belonging engendered on the one hand, versus the constant conflict with those with a different identity on the other), but it is a different issue from what we are talking about here, which is the encouragement of a religious and spiritual sense of life in children.

If a child's religious education takes the form of a genuine and deep dialog with an individual who loves her or him -- a parent or grandparent, a family friend or teacher -- the content is less important than the method. The child will experience a connection with a deeper sense of life, particularly if the individuals feel a deep connection with the spiritual themselves. Each religion has its own concepts and way of expressing this experience, but if the experience is not there, you have taught only doctrine or ideas. If someone cares nothing for the child and has themselves no deep spiritual connection with life, then even if the religious doctrine they are teaching is "right," what is it that the child learns?

It is very often the personality of therapist which is important in healing, rather than the theories of the therapist. If a patient needs a good theory, he could go and read a textbook. Instead, he or she needs a relationship that connects him with others and to a renewed sense of life. It helps to have a good theory, but there are good therapists of all schools and persuasions, and some of the greatest theorists were not themselves the best therapists. It's also true, for example, that even for adults engaging in a Socratic dialog, it's the process of the dialog, learning to reason for oneself, that's of more significance than the answer to a particular question.

We cannot much affect the content of what children are taught. Parents have the right to teach their children what they want, at least in most cultures. Moslems are going to teach a Moslem content; Orthodox Jews an Orthodox content; Fundamentalist Christians, a Fundamentalist content; the liberal religious, a liberal content. How many of these children have a deep religious connection with life, the world, each other, or a connection to the spiritual? If indoctrinating children in religion could do so in itself, the world after all these millennia should be a much more spiritual place than it is.

We need to do something to influence the method by which children are taught. This is as important, if not more important, than the dogma they are being taught, for the method itself needs to reflect the way of the sacred and the re-connection with the religious sense and content of life.

If individuals will supplement the teaching of dogma and concepts with a genuine dialog with their children, great improvement and a deeper connection with the sacred can be made. Their children, when they become adults, may be able to relate to each other through a religious sense of the sacred, even though their differing dogmas and ideas will tend to separate them from each other. Of course it is true that many of the deeply religious have strong feelings about religion. They teach their children an emotional style of religion, but we're talking here about an openness to the religious essence of life, not about having strong emotions or being animated by religious notions and ideas. Those with intense emotions about their religion often seem the most intolerant or self-isolated, and those most deeply indoctrinated in a particular religion often behave, under the guise of piety, as the fiercest and most aggressive of nationalists.

It's the method or form, the dance of what can be communicated, that your friend (as well as the rest of us) has to count on. We are living in a period of contraction and anxiety, in which those that not actively seeking to bring on the new are hostile to it -- from the many varieties of fundamentalists to the intellectual establishment. There is a great collective hostility to new religious ideas much less new religions. Yet it is respectable, even among non-believers, to be a member of an established religion, no matter how strange and fantastic its ideas and practices are on examination -- because the old religions are seen as bringing order and stability. And for the those anxious about change, order is more important than truth. Most of the renewed interest in religion is a seeking for order, rather than for truth, openness to life, or a spiritually attuned mind.

Most of the suggestions I heard the other day at the roundtable were useful in terms of the form. The suggestion of starting off from a beautiful and orderly table setting to discuss spiritual things, for example, is excellent, but if one says "thank the sun for shining," and so forth, you're in trouble. You need to get the form right and fudge the rest, keep it vague, the different religious are going to put in their own content.

My old friend Ben Weininger said in his book of aphorisms: "With children, the secret is to be sensitive to any need or opportunity for communication." And the key with working with children's spirituality and religious feelings is to be open, to be sensitive to a need for and opportunity for spiritual and religious communication.

Children are not always "available." You have to be sensitive to their availability, unless you want get their attention like a drill sergeant, and give them a drill sergeant's sense of religion. A drill sergeant's sense of religious truth is unlikely to be enough in the complex world in which we live, and unlikely to be able to carry them all their long lives, when questions arise that an inner drill sergeant cannot answer.

Personally I don't believe much in dogma, any dogma except perhaps in the Buddhist sense , as a stepping stone to be discarded later, but a scaffolding of traditional religion seems useful to many -- it provides a basis on which to build a life that is religiously connected. Most mystics at least imply that in the end, a concept of God interferes with the immense experience of God or the sacred. I think the key is to encourage the mind to be alert, "religious" in itself. But even if a person believes in a dogma and has in their own mind "the" or "a" correct religion, they can supplement the religion of lectures, ritual, and ideas with religious dialog about the world.

To do this you need to find the threads in children's lives and conversation that will lead out into religious and moral questions. The threads might come in many ways; for example from their observations that some of their friends follow a different set of holidays than others. Holidays are very concrete and important to children.

In daily life you should be aware of the buds of religious sensibility. Children are suggestible and easily shut down by criticism or ridicule (even for an instant), and with young children, one must remember that words and associations behind a question are not necessarily those of an adult. You have to understand what the child is thinking.

When he was five, my son asked what happens to people when they die, but my answers to him were not conventional. Even about death I involved him in a dialog rather than give him "the answer." Anxiety about death, another issue which arises in children at a certain age, would have prompted a different response. One must be aware of the emotional context the question is coming from. Let's take a less obviously religious example:

I walk my son across New York's Central Park each morning (I could put him on a school bus.) We seldom take a city bus -- rain, shine or snowstorm. And the reason is that he is the most available for communication on these morning walks; after school he is usually tired. This was particularly true when he was younger.

When he was five, we were walking by a giant tree which I've told him was my favorite tree. I do and I don't have a favorite tree, but telling him that this tree was my favorite tree focused his awareness on trees and the differences between them. It gets him to look at the tree with discriminating as well as the non-discriminating (unitary) part of the mind-brain system.

One morning walking toward the tree he suddenly asked, "Do trees have brains?"

And I said, "You know from your books what brains look like and what the scientists say. And you know what your classmates mean when they say someone has brains. What do you think, do trees have brains?"

"I think they have brains. If they don't have brains, how do they know to put their roots down in ground and their leaves up in the air. They have to have brains."

You have to be very careful here not ridicule or laugh. I suspected that he'd been arguing with one his friends about whether trees had brains, and when I talked to him later, I found that was true. But I didn't follow that thread because that's a factual, social thread I can check on later.

I said "How do we know something is alive?" I've asked something I know he knows an answer from watching Sesame Street.

"If something moves or eat or drinks or...."

"Trees drink water, right?"


"Is that rock alive?"


"How do we know if the tree is alive?"

"It's green."

"In winter?"

"No." "But if you wait until spring... Scientists say only animals have brains. And you know the difference between a plant and animal. (It takes time to really talk to children you have to find out clearly where they are thinking from, not assume a basis they may not have -- you need to establish the ground work even if it takes a while.)

"Look at the tree. How do we know the tree's there?"

"I don't know."

"We can see it, right? We touch it. We can hear its leaves move. How many senses do we have?"

"Five." (Sesame Street again.)

"At least five. And they are connected to our brains."

And we walked over the giant tree, which we have measured and hugged and touched and talked about and sat under.

And I said, "You and I know the tree is here from our senses, but does the tree know we're here?"

"Yes. No...I don't know."

"Does it have eyes or nose or hands that sense things."

"No!" he laughs.

"So if the tree knows we're here, it has to know that we're here in a different way than we know it's here through our senses, right."


"Because it doesn't have ears or eyes. If a trees had brains, they would have to be very different from our brains, as different as our senses are, from whatever senses a tree might have, if it has senses. So different that we could say trees don't have brains. Like we can say a fish doesn't have legs, even though it has fins that are like legs in some ways -- they help it move through water, like legs help us move on land."

Then I ask, "If we didn't have our senses would we know the tree is there?"

"I don't know."

I haven't contradicted science, but we're not really talking science in the way we're talking. We're touching the tree's bark and looking up at this wonderful London plane tree with its beautiful camouflage bark. It's huge; each of its three major limbs a tree in itself.

He 's been interested, I've had his full attention and helped him connect out with a discriminating mind to the larger world (he doesn't need help with the other part of his mind), but this is a lot of work for him. He 's tiring. You have to learn to give children' s awareness a lift, but not a hard one, or they just become frustrated.

I want to move his awareness from trees and people, and whether they have brains, for he now has an answer to give the kid he's arguing with, to an ethical issue that concerns me, because although he loves plants, he likes smashing them too, pulling them up, and knocking them down. I have done the usual parental things to stop him and educate him, from orders: "Don't pull that flower up!" to lectures: "If you pull the flowers they just fade and the next person to come along won't get to see them." But now I want to use his heightened awareness we've built up with our dialog to explore this issue.

I say, "Would it be good or bad to cut down this tree for no reason?"

"No reason?"

"Well, trees are cut down to make wood for houses, paper lots of things. But would it be good or bad to cut down this tree for no reason?"


"Why? Why is it bad?"

"Because it's beautiful!"

"It's lived a long time. It's beautiful. Would that be worse, different than breaking a rock?"

"Yes, rocks are not alive."

"Yes, so another reason not cut down the tree, is that's alive, as well as beautiful?"


"So it 's not OK to destroy plants and animals for no reason, for fun."

"No. But I like to."

"I know."

Now we have to be moving. You can only press children so hard.

"So the tree is beautiful and alive, so we shouldn't cut it down for no reason," I say.

Then suddenly he's concerned "they" will cut this tree down for wood and it's alive.

"No," I tell him, it's in the park and it's protected."

He sighs in relief. "But if the tree doesn't have brains like animals, how does it know to put its roots down and leaves up?" he asks again. I haven't wanted to follow out the science of the question though it may appear that way.

"It doesn't have senses like we do, or a brain like animals do, but it has to be some other ways. Remember the part about fins not being legs but.... Scientists call it tropism. He repeats the word "tropism." "What's tropism?" he asks.

But he's not really interested anymore and would not listen to the answer (which is good because I need to read up on tropism myself.) I give him a short answer, and say that we can talk about that another time.

He is not ordinarily available for this kind of conversation. I've taken an opening to draw him out and evoke a religious sensibility, and raise a moral question very gently. An hour later, a day later, he's not available, and this conversation couldn't occur. And even in the year or so since, it's probably one of the longest sustained conversations he's had on a subject like this. One needs to seize the moment with children. They are each different and one needs to respond and adjust to that.

The year before he tried to prove that there was a Santa Claus to one of his classmates. It was a painfully confusing moment when he confronted me with his proof, his reasoning was a charming and solid as his conclusion was wrong. When I told him. he was terribly disappointed. It taught me not to rush into an explanation. In a multicultural society, there is no shared conspiracy among kids or adults that will keep the belief in a literal Santa Claus alive. It has to be faced, but gently.

If he had been a little older, or held his focus a little longer. I could have moved the conversation to how long it took for the tree to evolve and then grow, how rare it was for one of tens thousands of seeds produced that this one grew into a tree. I'm trying to use science to evoke a sense of the sacred the way many 19th century New England Protestants did, but that's my predilection -- one could say also that God made the tree, so it should be respected and not killed for no reason. The form of dialog is the same even when the religious content is different.

Although it may appear so, I've not been trying to get concepts across, his books and teachers will do that; rather I've tried to encourage an awareness of the grandeur, complexity and beauty of the world. In the same way, when I talk about a crack in the park's aging asphalt paths we walk, being formed by water running along it. And that if you look at it carefully, it looks like a tiny version of the Grand Canyon (which he has seen.) It's not something about erosion and forces of erosion that I'm trying communicate, though I always try to talk good science. I'm evoking a feeling for complex layers and resonances of the world, to increase his awareness of the way the small and large reflect and echo each other- one person, all humanity and the rest of it..

A friend puts poems in her children's pockets; sometimes they want one for each pocket. Her boys are five and six. She's not trying to teach them poetry. They can't even read the poems she's putting in their pockets. But they are carrying a poem, beautiful words that their mother has spoken or read to them around in their pockets when they go off to school all day without her.

The key with children, is to make religious and spiritual education a true dialog, not a monologue.

Stephen Williamson

Date: Mon, 25 Mar 1996 06:37:22 -0400
From: (Adele Eisner)
Dear Stephen,

Loved the piece about trees, brains, aliveness!

As Mary Catherine Bateson pointed out in "Composing a Life" (or in another of her books) how much we ourselves learn as we truly participate in life with our children - both attempting to make "order' of it for them in a profound, but simple way (ekeing out the essences), and observing ourselves/learning as we formulate those profound simplicities. Our awarenesses have all been piqued by your sharing of a simple, but profound learning/awareness of life.

I wonder too - when you might feel it appropriate to introduce Max to the aliveness of rocks and inanimate objects too. To the very "cosmic soup," to what we call electrons, which slow into form, each by their divine purpose...and even through our co-creative thoughts.

I wonder if you might see it appropriate to introduce Max to the wonder that everything - perceptibly (through our limited 5 senses) moving or not... is in some way "alive" - has "determination", and can be affected by another "live" object....

.... Seems to me, the earlier each child knows that absolutely everything is "alive", moving, part of us as we are part of "them" - even rocks and spoons, and.... the earlier, and more basic the wonder, the sense of our miraculousness, and the co-creative spirit can serve as foundation of self and their worlds.

Stephen, once again, thanks for sharing...stimulating.... Keep on walking on.... I will think of you and Max while hugging (still snow covered on March 22!) trees, and of course, talking with them (and getting wonderous answers/replies!)

Be well....