Passing on the Faith
Dear William and Kate: Some Advice on Caring for Your Child's Spiritual Life
Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
Becoming a new parent, even for royalty, can be a bewildering experience. My favorite part of the video depicting William and Kate departing from St. Mary's Hospital with their newborn son is the look of anxiety—followed by a quick exhale of relief—as the Prince snaps baby George's infant seat into the car. This simple act is only one of many new responsibilities the royal couple have assumed since welcoming their son on July 22. In a few months, they will present George Alexander Louis to God surrounded by family and friends gathered before a baptismal font in Buckingham Palace. But if they are anything like most young couples standing in that holy space, they will be wondering just how a good parent nurtures the faith of an infant beyond loving him unconditionally and taking care of his daily needs. Hence, I offer this open letter of advice on caring for the spiritual life of a young child.
Dear William and Kate,
Congratulations on the birth of your son! I couldn't help but notice how your faces beamed with love as you showed him off to the world for the first time. Every newborn is a sign of a new beginning, and you seem eager to embrace the new possibilities for life and love that George represents. Let his presence in your home call to mind another infant king born so very long ago during another time of economic turmoil and social change. As you hold him in your arms, ponder (as Mary did) the meaning of his advent in this world. Imagine how he will make a difference as he grows up and embraces his calling. One day he will be king, but well before then he will need to learn to embody the fruit of the Spirit and the Great Commandments just as any other Christian child. You can help him become what God has made him to be by infusing his daily routine with a few simple spiritual practices that will teach him what it means to be a child of God.
Are you getting much sleep? Babies like to keep their parents up at night. As you walk the palace hallways trying to lull George back to slumber land, try slipping in some spiritual songs among the lullabies. This is not the time for rousing hymns of praise, but quiet tunes of comfort and reliance on God and meditative choruses that can sooth both baby and parent in the wee hours of the morning. Don't worry that George doesn't understand the words. He will pick up from the tone of your voice that the songs are significant for your family and, with enough repetition, he'll eventually parrot familiar phrases back to you as a toddler. He may even quiet down and listen intently when he hears the same songs sung in church. If you can't recall many hymns, sing Christmas carols or learn a few Taizé scripture choruses. George doesn't care if you can carry a tune, and when he is grown, the spiritual songs he heard as a baby will seem as if they have always been a part of his way of making sense of the world.
Have you begun reading stories to your little prince? Educators will tell you that early exposure to books facilitates language acquisition, and many parents enjoy cuddling in a rocking chair with their baby and a favorite tale from their own childhood. Ask the grandparents to gift little Georgie with a beautifully illustrated Bible storybook, and spend a few minutes each day reading aloud the tales of Moses, Miriam, Jesus, and the many other fascinating characters that make up the stories of our faith. Share Tomie dePaola's rollicking tales of Christian saints and legends and Graham Oakley's adventures of Arthur and Samson—church mouse and cat—learning to live in faith and harmony. As with your singing, baby George won't comprehend the words you say but he will begin to take in the names of the characters, the patterns of their actions in story after story, and the enthusiasm with which you engage their struggles to live a reflective life and make the world a better place. By the time he is three, he'll be correcting you when you try to skip sentences in your haste to finish a bedtime story and acting out his favorite spiritual tales with action figures on the nursery floor.
Do you find yourself whispering prayers of thanksgiving as you gaze at your new son? Or perhaps sending up pleas for divine strength and guidance as his infant vulnerability overwhelms you? Let George hear you praying. As you feed him, thank God aloud for your baby's health and well-being and ask God to help George grow in wisdom and in stature (Lk. 2:52). As you bathe him, tell George that he is "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Ps. 139:14), and there is no place he can go that God will not be with him. As you tuck him into his crib, repeat the words of the Nunc Dimittus (Lord, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled...) as a bedtime prayer. As you sleepwalk through his two a.m. crying jags, acknowledge the distress you both feel by repeating the laments that comforted the psalmists in times of trouble. Through your spontaneous and scripted words, you will introduce George to the diverse languages and modes of prayer that have guided all those who have gone before him and can be his help and refuge during trying times as well.
My advice may seem simple, but its effects can be profound. If you view George as a divine sign of new life, sing him spiritual songs, tell him the stories of his faith tradition, and pray with him through good times and bad, he will grow up never knowing a time when he was not a child of God. Happy Christening!
Karen-Marie Yust is the author of Real Kids, Real Faith and teaches Christian formation at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Most Sundays, she tells Bible stories, sings spiritual songs, and prays with young children at her church in Richmond, VA.