Many parents write to me asking how best to raise their children so they are better prepared in life to handle the challenges of our world. Recently, a parent wrote:

My question is how can we, as parents, teach spirituality to our children without confusing them? I would like to give them this tool of self awareness without it being too overpowering…We feel this world is too confusing for us, children need a stronger foundation for their journey ahead…

It is every parent’s concern that their children grow into strong and independent youths. Perfectly understandable. Many parents also want their children to be religious and spiritual. That’s fine too. But, often parents think that teaching rituals or preaching religion will somehow give their children strength and conviction. That is rarely the case. I’m not against religion for it’s an integral part of any culture and relaying religious values is a way of passing on the tradition. But, there’s more to life.

The great Persian poet, Sadi, once shared a meaningful incident from his life. Quoting literatim; he wrote:

I used to be a pious child, fervent in prayer and devotion. One night I was keeping vigil with my father, the Holy Koran on my lap. The others in the room began to slumber and soon everyone was fast asleep, so I said to my father, “None of these sleepers opens his eyes or raises his head to say his prayers. You would think they were dead.”

My father replied, “My beloved son, I would rather you too were sleeping like them than slandering.”

The essence couldn’t be summed up any better. Far more important than having them cram religious texts or stories, is to help them practice the three most important human values. As follows:

1. Compassion

Just being compassionate towards our loved ones is only one tiny aspect of compassion. True compassion means having a sense of sympathy for all sentient beings, it means having a feeling of empathy toward everyone around us.

Think of compassion as a response. When we come across those who are less fortunate than us, or those who have harmed us, we have the option to choose how we want to respond. Compassion is one of those choices.

2. Karma

By karma, I don’t mean that we need to teach them good karma or bad karma as such. Most children have a better and clearer sense of karma than their parents because parents often twist the truth to suit their convenience whereas children haven’t yet learned such trickery. By karma, in the present context, I am narrowly referring to helping them see that their future depends on their present choices.

If we could help them see that they are responsible for the choices they make in their lives, most children will grow into stronger and more responsible citizens of the world. Many youths and adults, even those who had a decent childhood, take refuge in self-pity and self-denial. Karma means we own up to our choices.

3. Truthfulness

Truthfulness of conduct, words and actions is the greatest virtue one can practice. It is not easy but it’s highly enriching. The greatest reward of truthfulness is peace and inner strength. By truth, I don’t mean that you are not entitled to have a private life or that you must state absolutely everything that’s on your mind, or that you need to be brutal in your speech. No, it means to be free of falsity as much as possible.

Truth means not deceiving the other person into believing what is untrue. People will have assumptions about you and your life, you don’t have to go around clarifying their presumptions. But, when you state something about yourself that you know is not true, that is lying.

The hardest thing about the three virtues is not preaching but practicing them. Your children will look at you and observe you closely to see if you practice compassion, good karma and truthfulness. If you do, sooner or later, they’ll do too. If you don’t, no amount of preaching will cut it. If you meditate, or if you go to the temple and they see you happy and calm, they’ll automatically follow you. Children know, they observe, they assimilate, they absorb, they follow.

A father was returning from church with his five-year-old.
“The earlier priest was much better. This one always delivers a boring sermon,” he remarked.
“Daddy,” said the young one, “I thought it was pretty good for the penny we gave today.”

Our race suffers the most because we want our children to selectively pick up our behavior, values and teachings. If truth be told in no uncertain terms, when it comes to raising children, there is absolutely no room for hypocrisy. Practice pretense and you do so at your own peril.

A preacher summed up his years of work in ten short points and named it The Ten Commandments of Raising Children. He would enthusiastically distribute pamphlets to all the parents telling them how they ought to raise their children. A little while later he got married.

After he had been a father for a few years and had two children, he felt the need to change the title of his work to more accurately reflect his understanding. Thus, it now read Ten Suggestions on Raising Children.

A few more years passed and his children were teenagers now. Once again, realizing that the title of his work was not apt, he changed it to Ten Tentative Ideas on Raising Children.

I hope you know where I’m going with this. Nothing teaches like experience. Besides, there are no cookie-cutter methods. There are no absolute teachings. Also, spirituality can’t be taught. It can only be practiced, it can only ever be learned.
If I were to dive deep into some ocean of wisdom and fetch you the one most valuable pearl on the current subject, it would be: Practice what you want them to learn. Be what you want them to be. Do what you want them to do. Don’t tell, show. Don’t lecture, lead. They are your children, after all. They know you.