The power of practicing presence: Young children and faith formation
Martha Bettis Gee
February 25, 2019
There are literally thousands of books, blogs, Facebook pages and other internet resources on child development, each one clamoring for a parent’s attention. These resources seek to provide advice on the whole universe of how to parent—from breastfeeding, sleep training, and making organic baby food to the best toys and books to cultivate a baby’s intelligence. Yet when it comes to a child’s spiritual growth, parents often feel ill-equipped. Most parents or other primary caregivers yearn for their children to experience home as spiritually formative, but they may be uncertain about exactly what that means. The idea that they might be their children’s first spiritual teachers can be daunting for adults who may have doubts about their own understanding of faith. They may equate the role of spiritual teacher with the kinds of intentional, systematic learning they experienced in Sunday school.
Most parents or other primary caregivers yearn for their children to experience home as spiritually formative, but they may be uncertain about exactly what that means.
As important as the context of formal Christian education is, Marjorie J. Thompson urges us to embrace a foundational vision for faith formation that is both profound and simple. In her book Family: The Forming Center (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1996), Thompson characterizes the family as “a sacred shelter for the sake of the world God loves.” She further suggests that we can reflect God’s love in our families by focusing on basic spiritual practices grounded in relationship—practices that are built into the very fabric and structure of family life.
How do primary caregivers begin to expand the ways in which they nurture young children’s faith formation through relationships? Thompson suggests that one way is through presence. An adult can nurture a baby’s growing sense of connectedness simply making time to be fully present.
Attending fully has always been challenging for adults, who are often exhausted by the responsibility of caring for a tiny human coupled with the need to meet the normal demands of daily living. However, these days, being present to one’s child is further complicated by the reality that digital media is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. Media constantly at one’s fingertips presents serious competition to the 24/7 demands of parenting. Adults whose attention is focused on a tiny glowing screen need to understand the power of attending just as fully to their young children.
How does one practice presence? Amid attending to the small tasks of childcare, a parent can look for moments when deep connections are possible. A mother can notice the intensity of a nursing baby’s loving gaze as he locks eyes with her in the wee hours of the morning. A father can slow down and pay attention when during diapering the infant reaches for his finger. Later, we might make ourselves fully present to a toddler as she stops on a walk to examine a leaf, experiencing wonder at its intricacy and beauty. Choosing to taking cues from our children’s capacity for complete focus and listening closely to their comments can help us share in their wonder at the created world.
Will a caregiver be fully present every time these possibilities present themselves? Of course not! Young parents need the good news that being fully present to their children is not feasible, let alone possible, all the time. But spiritual formation is a partnership in which the Holy Spirit is at work in and through parents, as well as in and through their children. The more times a parent does attend, the more often the Spirit may work to enhance presence in the lives of parent and child. The more a parent can experience presence as a holy moment, the less he or she may be tempted to stray to a cell phone screen.
But spiritual formation is a partnership in which the Holy Spirit is at work in and through parents, as well as in and through their children.
For adults who feel less than conversant with the Bible, or whose prayer life may be limited or even non-existent, parenting a young child offers the opportunity to enrich the life of the entire family by engaging in simple, intentional spiritual practices—ways to practice encountering God in the Bible, or to connect with God through prayer. These more intentional practices also offer opportunities for enhancing the Spirit’s powerful shaping by practicing presence.
Here are just a few suggestions that may spark other ideas:
- For those who are less than familiar with the Bible, reading from a good Bible storybook, such as Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible (Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) allows them to encounter God in the story alongside their young child. Adults can listen to the child’s questions and comments with the understanding that an honest “I don’t know—let’s find out” or “What do you think?” is always okay. This practice can move adults to the foundational stories in the Bible and enhance their knowledge of the scriptures.
- Adults and children alike can practice their prayer life, learning naturally through simple table graces. If the practice of saying grace is begun when the child is still an infant, it will grow to be a part of a family’s life together as the child grows. They may choose to use a blessing they remember from childhood or locate one from a book such as J. Bradley Wigger’s Together We Pray: A Prayer Book for Families (Chalice, 2005).
- Another simple prayer practice that primary caregivers can initiate when a child is still very young is called examen. After lighting a candle on the table, each adult mentions moments from the day that were life-giving and those that were life-draining. As children learn to talk, these moments can be referred to as “glads” and “sads.”
The formation that takes place in and through the life of the family truly is the foundation for a child’s spiritual growth.
The formation that takes place in and through the life of the family truly is the foundation for a child’s spiritual growth. Parents can take heart in the good news that while no one can be fully present all the time to a young child, there is One whose presence is abiding in and through the mundane events of our lives, both good and bad. All who care about families, and about children, can give thanks for that presence, seeking to be ever more attuned to the Spirit’s work.
Martha Bettis Gee, an educator, editor and writer with a lifelong passion for ministering with and for children, retired in 2012 from the Presbyterian Church USA, where she served for 26 years developing curriculum materials and working on children’s ministries and advocacy.
For more on faith formation and children, see the Workshop #304”Young Children and Faith Formation” by Martha Bettis Gee, the newest offering in the Home Mission Societies’ Workshops for Church Life and Leadership.
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