Practicing Spirituality as a Family
Stephanie Ludwig, PhD, MA, MDiv., Director of Spiritual Wellness at Canyon Ranch®, sees the family as where good health—across all dimensions: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual—begins. “I can’t stress that enough,” says Ludwig. “If your family isn’t healthy, how are you going to bring spirituality to your friends and to your community and to the world? So a healthy spiritual family is the foundation and the base for a healthy connection with spirituality.”
The demands of today can take their toll. “In this day and age, it’s kind of intense for families. We’re faced with more busyness and technology than ever before,” she says. Kids are overloaded with homework and extracurricular activities; many parents work extra-long hours, too. Then there are the many and ubiquitous screens: smartphones, tablets, computers, TV and video games. “Because of all of this, we’re facing more distraction from simple human connection than we have before—even within a family,” explains Ludwig.
Though introducing spirituality or religion into the cacophony that is 21st-century parenting isn’t easy, it can help ease this reality. “Experiencing certain practices together can enhance your connectedness with each other and within your own self,” she says, stressing that doing so needn’t be time-consuming or complicated. “Some of the things that may be helpful in terms of practicing spirituality as a family, just at a basic level, are simply fostering positive values in kids as young as possible. For instance, honoring your parents; in every spiritual and religious tradition it says the same thing: honor your parents.” Other character-building attributes to encourage and reward in children include mutual respect among family members, patience, gratitude, generosity, wisdom, self-discipline and finding joy in chores.
Simply setting limits on screen time can be a good first step. “That’s another way that you can practice spirituality—just to protect your family against sensory overload,” says Ludwig. “You have to have some boundaries around that.” Another idea: Start a gratitude practice as a family at dinner. Just before eating, go around the table and ask everyone to say something they’re grateful for, or something they found inspiring that day. “You can also take a walk outdoors as a family, just practicing being in nature, being quiet and taking a break from having to speak all the time,” adds Ludwig. “Or maybe you arrange an outing to some kind of spiritual or sacred spot or an educational place.” You may pray together as a family, too, of course. One of Ludwig’s favorite practices is “spiritual cinema,” in which families watch a movie together, choosing films that have a meaning or a moral, like “Groundhog Day,” “Shawshank Redemption” or “Pay It Forward,” and then discuss the movie afterward.
Teenagers are, of course, likely to be less receptive to more family togetherness and new spiritual practices than younger kids. “It’s not easy with teenagers, and I don’t want to make it sound easy,” says Ludwig, who stresses that open, non-judgmental dialogue is especially important if you want to engage adolescents. “One thing that I’ve found that works really well with teens is if they feel they’re giving in some way—maybe it’s volunteering at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter,” Ludwig adds. “That’s something you can do as a family—help people who are in need. Teenagers seem to get into that a little bit more because no one’s telling them what to do. It’s more about being a good human being and caring for people.” Older kids may also like mentoring younger children, as in a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. And if a child of any age shows an interest in spirituality, do what you can to encourage their curiosity or enthusiasm. “You want to nurture what’s naturally there and then just add a spiritual focus, such as teaching kids that we shouldn’t just focus on ourselves—it’s also about other people, and asking, how do we give back?” notes Ludwig.
In building a spiritual connection within your family Ludwig says two things are most important: talking more as a family and letting every child be who they really are. “First, it’s having an open dialogue as a family, not being afraid to discuss things and not being really rigid—like, ‘this is right and this is wrong,’—but exploring things,” Ludwig explains. “So many people rebel against their parents when they’re raised in a spiritual or religious way that’s forced on them; they often leave it altogether. But if you can promote open dialogue and discussion, that’s really helpful.” Secondly, “try to set the example of tolerance for each other’s differences and show how important it is to celebrate everybody’s uniqueness,” says Ludwig. “Everybody just wants to be appreciated for who they are, so it’s very important that you celebrate everyone’s role within the family and encourage that in whatever way you can.”
In the end, the more fun you’re able to make these practices, the more likely everyone (including you) will enjoy and benefit from them. “Don’t make it a serious, heavy thing, otherwise no one is going to want to do it,” says Ludwig, adding that being fully present is the biggest spiritual gift you can give to your family. “What’s most important to remember is that everything you do to deeply care for yourself and for your relationship will have an immediate effect on your children, whether or not you see it,” she says. “If your family is a tree, this is the fertile soil that everything grows from. And If you’re really present with your kids, even if it’s just five minutes of being present on a daily basis, that’s more impactful than anything.”