From the day your baby is born, you are a teacher of spirit. If you create an atomosphere of trust, openness, non-judgement, and acceptance, those qualities will be absorbed as the qualities of spirit.
In a perfect world, parenting would come down to one sentence: Show only love, be only love. But in the world we all cope with, children grow up to face much non-loving behaviour, primarily outside the home but sometimes within it as well. Rather than worry about whether you embody enough love to qualify as a spiritual teacher, look upon spirituality as a skill in living, since that is what it is. I believe in imparting these skills as early as possible by whatever means a child can understand.
Infant, 0 – 1 Yr.
Fortunately for our generation, the misconception that children need to be trained and disciplined from the cradle has been discarded. An infant is pure spiritual gold. Cherishing her innocence is the way to find the path back to our own. So in a very important way it is the parent who sits at the feet of the baby. Spiritual bonding with your infant comes through touching, holding, providing security from harm, playing, and giving attention. Without these “primitive” responses from the environment, the human organism cannot flourish; it will languish and wither as surely as a flower deprived of sunlight.
Toddler, 1 – 2 Yrs.
This is the stage in which the child is first gaining ego. Here I mean ego in the simplest sense of “self”, a conviction of “I am”. This is a precarious time, for the toddler is testing detachment from the parent for the first time. The lure of freedom and curiosity pulls in one direction, but there is fear and insecurity pulling in the other. Not all experiences of being on one’s own are pleasant. It is therefore up to the parent to communicate a spiritual lesson without which no child can truly grow into independent selfhood: that the world is safe.
Feeling safe as an adult means that some time before the age of two, you were not conditioned by fear; you were encouraged instead to expand without limit, to value freedom despite the occasional wound that can come when a child bumps into the things of this world. Falling down is not the same as failing; being hurt is not the same as deciding that the world is dangerous. Hurting is nothing more than Nature’s way of telling a child where the boundaries lie – pain exists to show a toddler where “me” begins and ends, to help a child avoid potential dangers like burning oneself or falling downstairs.
When parents distort this natural learning process, the result is a sense of psychological pain, which is not what Nature intended. Psychological pain sets up boundaries that you cannot cross without feeling deep anxiety about your state of being. If a child connects being hurt with being bad, week, unable to cope, or constantly surrounded by threat, there is no room left for inner spiritual growth. For without a sense of safety, spirit remainsout of reach; one is forever trying simply to feel secure in this world, yet that security cannot be achieved without overcoming the imprints of early childhood.
Preschool, 2 – 5 Yrs.
This stage is all about building a child’s sense of self-esteem. Self-esteem provides readiness to go outside the family to encounter the big, wild world. It is identified with tasks and challenges. Until the age of two or three, a toddler has no responsibility for tasks – simply to play and be joyous is enough. There is no spiritual need for anything but to nurture the delight of the child’s self as it unfolds to a fresh, new world.
With toilet training and learning to feed himself, a toddler begins to realize that “I am” can expand to “I can”. Once the ego realizes this, there is no stopping a two-year-old. He thinks he has the whole world – and certainly everyone in his family – by the tail. “I” is like a power generator just plugged in, and what makes the two’s terrible is that the newly born ego surges with power in an undisciplined way. Shouting, screaming, running around, wielding the all-powerful word no! And generally trying to rule reality by sheer will – this is exactly what should be going on at this stage.
Spiritually, the value of the preschool stage is that power is spiritual – only the distortion of power leads to problems. So rather than try to curb your child’s rush to power, you need to channel it into tasks and challenges that teach balance. Without being put into balance, the power hunger of a preschooler will run into grief, because her experience is largely the illusion of power. A ranting two-year-old is still a very tiny, vulnerable, unformed person. In our love for the child, we allow the illusion to exist, because we want her to grow up a strong, capable person who feels up to any challenge that comes along. This sense of self-esteem won’t develop if the feeling of being powerful is shut down or repressed at this stage.
Kindergarten – Early Primary School, 5 – 8 Yrs.
The key words that apply to the first years of school begin to sound more social. Of course there are many other words, for once a child has been experiencing the world for five years, the brain is so complex and active that countless concepts are being absorbed and tested. I also don’t need to imply that sharing, giving, and telling the truth can be ignored before this age, but the critical aspect of this stage is that abstract concepts can now begin to be assimilated. The concrete mind of the infant, which has not understood reasons for your behaviour, only how it feels, now blossoms into a capacity for accepting realities beyond “I am”, “I want”, and “I come first”.
Giving is how, at any age, we show that we empathize with needs outside ourselves. If giving is seen as loss – I have to give something up so that you can have it – the spiritual lesson of this stage has not been taught. Giving, in spiritual terms, means “I give to you without loss because you are part of me”. A young child cannot fully grasp this idea, but he can feel it. Children don’t just want to share – they love to share. They feel the warmth that comes from reaching beyond ego boundaries to include another person in their world; no act is more intimate, and therefore no act feels so blissful.
The same holds for telling the truth. We lie in order to remain safe, to avert danger of punishment. Fear of punishment implies inner tension, and even if a lie actually does protect us from perceived danger, it rarely if ever relieves this inner tension. Only the truth can do that. When a young child is taught that feeling the truth will result in a good feeling, she has taken the first step towards realising that truth has a spiritual quality. It isn’t necessary to use punishment. If you foster the attitude of “tell the truth or you’ll be in trouble”, you have taught something spiritually false. A child who is tempted to lie is under the influence of fear; if truth gets associated with this fear, then the mind quite logically tries to get better at seeming to tell the truth.
In either case, the child is forced to act better than he feels he actually is. Learning to act out what others demand is a sure recipe for spiritual destruction. Your child must feel that “this is what I myself want to do”.
Older Children, 8 – 12 Yrs.
For many parents this stage is the most enjoyable because this is when children develop personality and independence. They think on their own, come up with hobbies, likes and dislikes, enthusiasms – the rush of discovery is on its trajectory to things that may last for life, such as a love of science or art. The key spiritual concepts here are all in line with this exciting phase.
Although it sounds dry, “discrimination” is a beautiful quality of the soul. It goes far beyond telling right from wrong. In these years the nervous system itself is capable of sustaining subtle impressions of great depth and importance to the future. A ten-year-old child is capable of wisdom, and for the first time that most delicate of gifts – personal insight – comes about. The child can see and judge through her own eyes; she no longer has to receive the world second hand from adults.
This is therefore the first stage in which anything like a spiritual law can be grasped conceptually. Before this, the idea of a law just seems like a rule you have to obey or at least pay attention to. Instead of using the word law, a parent might be conveying helpful insights into “how things work” or “why things turn out the way they do” or “how to do it so it feels good”. These are more concrete, experience centered ways of teaching. By age ten or so, however, abstract reasoning takes an independent turn, and the true teacher is now experience, not an authority figure. Why this happens is a spiritual mystery, for experience has been there since birth, but for some reason the world suddenly speaks to a child; she can grasp the upwelling within herself of why something is true or not, why truth and love matter.
Early Teens, 12 – 15 Yrs.
Childhood ends with early adolescence, traditionally a trying and difficult time. For children, innocence suddenly runs into puberty and the arrival of needs that parents can go longer fill. For parents, the realization dawns that they must let go of their children and trust that they are capable of dealing with a world of responsibility and pressure that the parents themselves may have barely learned to adjust to without insecurity.
What is critical is that by now the lessons of childhood have borne either sweet or bitter fruit. The child who can go forth imprinted with genuine spiritual knowledge will reflect her parent’s pride and trust; the child who stumbles into confusion, reckless experimentation, and peer pressure is likewise reflecting the hidden confusion of his upbringing. Adolescence is notoriously a time of self-consciousness, but it can also be a time of self-awareness.
Experimentation is a natural part of the transition from childhood, but it doesn’t have to be reckless and destructive. Now the issue is whether the child has an inner self that can be used as a guide. This inner self is the silent voice that has the power to choose between right and wrong based upon a deep knowingness about life. This knowingness is not confined to any age. A newborn baby has it as fully as a mature adult. The difference is that the mature adult has cultivated behaviour that follows the inner guide – if you have taught your child to heed her own silence, there is no peril in letting her go out into the world no longer a child. In fact, it is a joyful experience (if occasionally a nerve-racking one) to watch her grow in self-awareness by experimenting with the vast array of choices life has to offer.
Reference: Deepak Chopra In ‘The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success for Parents – Guiding Your Children to Success and Fulfilment’.