I can tell you from experience that even being a rabbi’s wife doesn’t make it easy to talk to our three-year-old about God. I am at least comfortable with the concept of some sort of God and religion in general, while many parents, for understandable reasons, are not. (So not, as in I’d-rather-talk-about-sex-not.) And often, even those parents who were raised with no religion – or who, when it comes to religious upbringing, rejected almost everything – want to offer their kids something. This isn’t easy. Can you give a kid a sense of “belonging” without belonging to a church, temple, or mosque? Can you give a kid a good answer if you don’t know what you believe, or if you don’t believe anything at all?
This is the spiritual terrain that novelist Dani Shapiro explores in her new memoir, Devotion. Having moved away from the traditional observance of her Jewish Orthodox childhood – and, post-September 11, from Judaism-suffused New York – she found herself adrift with her husband, Michael, in church-dotted Connecticut, facing the demons of her past and the ever-tougher questions of her now-ten-year-old son, Jacob. We talked to Shapiro about her spiritual path and how other parents might find their own – and even bring their kids along, too. – Lynn Harris
What effect does religious upbringing have on our parenting?
It does have an effect, whether we want it to or not. One of the most important moments I had when writing Devotion was when someone asked [Buddhist teacher] Sylvia Boorstein, “Why are you complicating your Buddhism with your Judaism?” and she answered, “Because I am complicated with it.” The idea of all of us being complicated with whatever we came from – even if we were raised with “nothing” – felt so true and relevant to me.
But as Jacob started asking questions about religion – like, “What’s a sin?” – I realized we were living in an environment where he wouldn’t really know he was Jewish unless we made sure he did. In New York – seeing people walking to Temple, things like that – it was in the air we breathed. Here, I felt like I had to make sure that was part of his identity. We wanted to to give him a sense of connectedness, belonging – an anchor, though not the only anchor in his life. The way I was raised was all or nothing. For me, that led to nothing. But all wasn’t working either. That left me wanting to find a comfortable place in between for me, and to make that possible for Jacob, too.
You’ve explored yoga, Buddhism, meditation. What spiritual tool has best guided you in parenting?
Metta meditation [a form of Buddhist meditation] has made a tremendous difference. I did not start out as an anxious parent, but when Jacob was diagnosed with a near-fatal illness at six months, I became an anxious parent. Even once he recovered, I didn’t want to hover and have my fears – that feeling that the world is a dangerous place – seep into his consciousness. But there’s something about metta – the way Sylvia Boorstein guided it, concentrating on thoughts like “May you be safe,” “May you be happy,” “May you be strong” – and the line it treads between praying and wishing that is very powerful and calming for me. Praying is something I don’t know how to do. But when Jacob and my husband, Michael, leave in the morning and the car goes down the driveway and I can just think, ‘May you be safe,’ that feels like enough.
Do you have to have faith in order to talk to a kid about faith?
So few people actually know what they believe. Theologian Paul Tillich said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, it’s an element of faith.” I don’t know more about God than I did three years ago, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about it. So when Jacob asked about my very-religious family I could respond that they believe in God differently from me. That felt like a valid answer to me in a way I wouldn’t have been able to articulate before, when I felt like they had God and I didn’t. In our late 30s, early 40s, when our kids start asking and when we’re in what the psychologist Carl Jung called “the afternoon of life” – these things come up. What’s important is responding from a place of thoughtfulness.
Do you have advice for people who are uncomfortable with “organized religion” but who want something for their kids?
It’s perfectly reasonable to have exploration of and exposure to different traditions and faiths and ideas and wisdoms. I used to feel that was lazy and new age nonsense but after writing Devotion I don’t feel that way anymore. We have a book of Buddhist wisdom with daily quotes that we read and discuss as a family, and that gives us a sense of ritual, a chance to pause and consider what matters.
What has Jacob taught you about faith?
In a way, kids are closer to God than we are. They’re sensitive and tuned into whatever’s going on in a given moment. Jacob came to a reading I did and while I was thinking about how many people were coming and what time my flight was I noticed what a simple pleasure it was for him to go around and help out with the video, to be with the family members who were there. That’s what kids do naturally. By watching his response I was able to see the beauty of the moment. He has helped me learn to recognize the spiritual moments and lessons that are right in front of me.