Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
The Spirituality of Parenting
Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis and author of many children's books.
June 17, 2010
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Raising children is a great spiritual challenge that many of us live with day to day, yet we so rarely call it that. This hour, Rabbi Sandy Sasso offers practical wisdom on “The Spirituality of Parenting” in our time.
RABBI SANDY SASSO: I think society does a very good job of teaching us how to be consumers and a very good job in teaching us how to be competitors. The question I think parents are struggling to answer is how do we not just teach our children’s minds, but how do we teach their souls? We want our children to be gracious and grateful. We want them to have courage in difficult times. We want them to have a sense of joy and purpose. That’s what it means to nurture their spiritual lives.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Many of us come to parenting these days without being anchored in a religious tradition. Or, we have a mix of traditions in our marriages or in our families. And when we have children, or grandchildren, we sense that there is a spiritual aspect to their natures. We want to support that. We want to nurture it. And many of us don’t know where to begin. This hour, Rabbi Sandy Sasso offers nourishing, practical advice — wherever you are coming from — and even if you have more questions than answers.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Spirituality of Parenting.”
Parenting is a great spiritual challenge many of us live with day to day. Yet we so rarely call it that.
CHILD 1: Where does God live?
CHILD 2: Why did Grandpa die?
CHILD 3: Will you die?
CHILD 4: Why isn’t life fair?
CHILD 5: Is God real?
CHILD 6: How can God be everywhere?
MS. SASSO: We want our children to be more than consumers and competitors. We want our children to be gracious and grateful. We want them to have courage in difficult times. We want them to have a sense of joy and purpose. That’s what it means to nurture their spiritual lives.
MS. TIPPETT: My guest today, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, is a rabbi and a mother and grandmother. She’s the author of books that help adults and children think religiously and ethically together. She is deeply rooted in Judaism, but her books have been endorsed by leaders of many traditions. She’s also edited an anthology of perspectives on parenting from across the world’s religions. Sandy Sasso and her husband, Dennis, were the first rabbinical couple in history to jointly lead a congregation, Beth-El Zedeck, in Indianapolis. And yet, when I spoke with her in 2006, she admitted that they were beginners too, when it came to raising their own children and teaching children in a congregation. She came to think of young children as little theologians. She discovered that they had big, deep questions.
MS. SASSO: And I also discovered that nobody was answering those questions, that most of the teaching and most of the books that existed had to do more with answers, more with ritual, more with ceremony, and not very much with those really large questions of “Why am I here?” and “What’s my purpose?” and “Why is life unfair sometime?” And I noticed with my own children certain experiences that made me want to try and touch that part of a child’s life.
MS. TIPPETT: I know that you also have, over the years, have delved into the scholarship on this, and, I mean, aside from that observation I think many of us have made, that there are theological questions coming out of children. And even, you know, the question “Why is life unfair?” is an early question about morality and ethics, isn’t it? And about human nature.
MS. SASSO: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: What do you know now about the spiritual potential, that spiritual impulse in children at different ages?
MS. SASSO: Well, we do know that, from research, that all children by the time they are age five have a conception of God, whether or not we’ve talked about God to them as parents. And we also know that children ask these really large questions. And there seems to be an innate spirituality, a great sense of wonder, spontaneity, imagination and creativity, and a connection to something larger than themselves. What children seem to lack is a language to give expression to that sense of something deeper. And I think, as parents, our responsibility is to provide them with a language, an opportunity to have a conversation about these matters that they care very deeply about. Because I think what happens is, if we don’t provide the language and if we don’t encourage the conversation, then children stop asking. If you don’t exercise your muscles, they atrophy. If you don’t exercise your soul, I think your soul atrophies as well.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I’ve always been very intrigued — Maria Montessori, she’s not so well-known for her ideas about the spirituality of children, but she believed that children had a capacity for spiritual knowledge and growth that was kind of like a template that was similar to our capacity for learning language. I mean, how do we learn language but that people speak around us. And that’s kind of also what you’re describing, that there is that template there, that foundation. But children need vocabulary to express that, for that to grow?
MS. SASSO: Yeah, definitely, they need a language, and the question is what is the language? And I’ve always claimed the language is story, because that’s how children make sense of their world is through narrative and story. And I think the language is also through ritual and experience. The earliest spiritual experiences that children have often come through routine and ritual that are repeated over and over again. And often when I speak to children and I ask them when do they feel the presence of God, or if they could point to a particular experience, they often speak of rituals or moments where they felt very close to their parents and it helped them give expression to what they were feeling.
MS. TIPPETT: And are these necessarily religious rituals? Or would — many children now are not growing up in homes where there’s a lot of formal religion in the same way that there may have been in previous generations. Are children still making religious observations on the basis of things that are happening in their lives?
MS. SASSO: I think that children, with or without religious instruction, have this deeper sense of something grander in the universe and have these deeper questions, whether or not they’re involved in a religious community. On the other hand, I do feel that being involved in a religious community and participating in some traditional rituals and ceremonies really helps provide a language for a child to give expression. Perhaps it might be helpful to maybe distinguish between spirituality and religions …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. SASSO: … since those are terms that we often use and don’t always know what we’re talking about. To me, spirituality is a sense of transcendence or a recognition that there is something greater than ourselves and a perception that all life is interconnected. An example of that would be, from the Bible, of Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. But while he is up on the mountain, he has a spiritual experience, and we know that because, when he descends, his face glows. Something extraordinary happened up there. The container for that experience is the Ten Commandments, and so the Ten Commandments is a religion. It’s a way of giving expression to that extraordinary sense of divine presence or transcendence that Moses felt. So in many ways, religion in its very best form sort of anchors those spiritual experiences and gives them a language in which to speak.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I think that’s a really helpful example, because a young couple said to me, at some point recently, they are not religious in any kind of formal way. They felt, though, like they needed to be passing some basic religious tenets on, and they felt like the Ten Commandments were something that their children should know. And they didn’t remember all the commandments, and they were embarrassed by this. And so, you know, in the same moment that they wanted to engage that part of their child’s life, I think they felt inadequate. But I think what you just put actually the commandments in the container of a story, which suggested that there’s something much larger going on in those commandments than rules.
MS. SASSO: Oh, absolutely, I know. I think much of religious education tends to be the transmission of a set of rules or dogmas or information. But the very best religious education is much broader than that and gives children a sense of a greater presence. I mean, why follow the rules, you know? Why do the rituals? Why pray? I mean, what’s behind all that?
MS. TIPPETT: And children do ask those questions, too, don’t they?
MS. SASSO: All the time.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MS. SASSO: They ask questions that we often are not ready to answer, I think. And I do find parents who tell me, ‘Well, can I bring my child to you when my child has this question? I don’t know what to say, and you’re the expert.’ And I always respond by saying, ‘The children don’t want to know what the expert has to say. They want to know what you’re thinking.’ It’s not so important that you have an answer. What’s important is that you engage in the conversation. And it’s perfectly acceptable to say, ‘This is a really hard question,’ and ‘Let’s think about this together.’ Just talking is what’s essential.
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MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, exploring “The Spirituality of Parenting” with rabbi and children’s author Sandy Sasso.
As we prepared to create this program, we invited listeners to reflect on questions that the experience of parenting raises in their lives. The responses we received were rich and broad and searching. Read those stories and add your own at speakingoffaith.org. Here’s a mother of two from Knoxville, Tennessee.
CHRISTY DAVIS: Um, I was raised in the Baptist Church. I explored a variety of religions, everything from Judaism to Paganism and came back to Christianity and joined the Episcopal Church, because that’s what feels right for me. What I struggle with is how to give my seven-year-old son and my three-year-old daughter that freedom to find their own path to God and to true spirituality, you know, as opposed to parent-forced religion. Both my children enjoy the social aspect of church and, you know, they’ve asked the usual questions about God, but I want them to find the peace I found, and I have no idea how to encourage that.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m curious about what other advice you give parents who come to you, you know, and the basic question being, ‘How do I nurture this aspect of my child’s being that I may not understand myself? How do I give them experiences of the sacred?’ What do you say?
MS. SASSO: Well, I say a variety of things. I think it’s important if we’re going to nurture the spiritual lives of our children that we have to nurture our own spiritual lives. So we have to take time in our lives to reflect, perhaps be part of a community that talks about issues of spirituality, to read. We do the same thing when we’re first parents. We’re kind of clueless about what we’re supposed to do. I mean …
MS. TIPPETT: Right, we do. We read books about how to feed them and …
MS. SASSO: We read tons of books, how to feed them, you know, how to bring them up, how to get them to sleep, how to potty-train them. We ought to also engage in educating ourselves about our own spiritual lives, because it’s very difficult to share with children what you’re thinking if you haven’t been thinking about these issues. So I think first we need to nurture our own spiritual lives. And most of what we do in terms of nurturing our children’s spirituality really happens when no one else is looking, meaning it’s not all planned for. It’s kind of what happens every day. I mean, what do you do when you see a homeless person on the street? How do you respond when, you know, an animal gets run over on the road, a squirrel, for example? How do we act with other people? All of these are messages to our children about what really matters in life, what’s precious, what’s more important than earning a living and going through our daily routine.
You know, I think society does a very good job in teaching us how to be consumers and a very good job in teaching us how to be competitors.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. SASSO: The question I think parents are struggling to answer is how do we not just teach our children’s minds, but how do we teach their souls? And that’s a much deeper question. And I know we want our children to be more than consumers and competitors.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. SASSO: We want something much more. We want our children to be gracious and grateful. We want them to have courage in difficult times. We want them to have a sense of joy and purpose. And that’s what it means to nurture their spiritual lives.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, something that came through to me in reading some of what you’ve written is that, in fact, childhood is also a laboratory. I mean, we — you’re right, we do think about what they have to learn academically in their, you know, the development of their motor skills, and when they’re learning to read, and we’re very conscious of those things. But that childhood is also a laboratory for instincts and spiritual impulses that underlie the great virtues. I mean, let’s say mercy and compassion, I think, are virtues in every religious tradition I know of. You talk about children having an instinct to empathy and that that is something so important to cultivate, and that makes all these other great teachings possible, in a sense, later in life.
MS. SASSO: Well, children have wonderful capacities for being sensitive to others, for imagination, spontaneity, creativity. They notice things that we don’t notice. I remember when my daughter was very little — she’s now well into her 20s — that she seemed to notice when I was unhappy. And she had this wonderful way of just coming over to me and sort of patting my hand and giving me a hug. I never said anything about how I was feeling, but she seemed to have this intuition that she needed to come and show me some affection.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I mean, even when you say an animal gets run over, and we kind of harden to that, but that is also a sense that children have of being connected to living things, which later on could translate into a much larger sense of ecological responsibility. I don’t know.
MS. SASSO: Well, I think that’s true. And I think we have to help them realize that these are important insights so …
MS. TIPPETT: That they have.
MS. SASSO: That they have. That, you know, we have seen many squirrels run over on the road, and we pass by, and we don’t think anything of it. But if we stop to say something, that, you know, this is sad or there’s some tragedy in this loss of life. If when a child pulls our hand and notices a butterfly that, you know, we’re just too in a hurry to take the time to pay attention to, we need to stop with them. We need to acknowledge that this recognition is very precious. I really have learned a lot by listening to children, I learned about — a lot about my faith and about a spiritual life by paying attention to what kids have to tell me.
MS. TIPPETT: Say some more about that. What comes to mind when you say that? I mean, it’s an intriguing statement for you to make as a rabbi, I think.
MS. SASSO: Yes. But I’ll tell you another story, actually, with my own daughter. I was going through a really difficult time and — in my life, and I said to my daughter, “You know, I’m not sure that I should still be a rabbi, because I don’t know if I can believe in God anymore.” And my daughter looked at me without blinking and said, “Mom, you don’t believe in that kind of God.” And she was right, but I needed her to tell me at that moment.
MS. TIPPETT: Meaning you don’t believe in that kind of God who you couldn’t believe in?
MS. SASSO: Exactly. I don’t believe in a God who, you know, makes bad things happen to good people. I don’t believe in that kind of God. But, you know, in moments like that, you forget, and sometimes you need a child to remind you. And I think children often remind us what’s true and what’s most important in our lives.
MS. TIPPETT: Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Here’s a prayer she included in her Sabbath prayer book The Voice of Children, which was crafted by students at Or Hadash Congregation in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania.
CHILD 7: When I listen to God, I listen with my heart. I hear trees swaying with their leaves. God is all around. I hear people praying from Australia to Peru. I hear a voice coming out of nowhere. I hear the love of people.
MS. TIPPETT: You write a lot about prayer; you just mentioned prayer. I actually think this is something that feels challenging for many people, whether they are very actively religious themselves and with their children or not. There’s kind of a sense that you should be, I don’t know, praying at meals or praying before bed.
MS. SASSO: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: Talk to me about prayer with children and how you think about the forms that might take and what it means.
MS. SASSO: Well, I actually think it’s very important, but I also know it’s very difficult. I don’t think it’s easy to pray, and I say that as the rabbi. I have forms that I can conform to and say, but what does it really mean to speak a prayer of your heart? But I do feel that it’s very important to pray with children, mostly, because our children are so bombarded with noise and activity and there’s very little time for silence and reflection. We do know that of all the questions that teachers ask children, teachers answer 80 percent of them, because we abhor vacuums, we don’t like silence. And I think in moments of quiet and silence, children give us a glimpse of their souls. So what would it mean, for example, at night when our children are going to bed to sit with them and reflect? And wouldn’t that also be a prayer? And I think sometimes people say, ‘Well, really, we don’t know what to pray.’ And I often say, ‘Well, ask children if they would tell you a prayer from their heart.’ And then children are usually very clever and they say, ‘I don’t have one.’ So my response is, ‘Well, would you mind listening while I say a prayer from mine?’ And I think that provides an example of what does it mean to say deep words. I don’t think it has to conform to any traditional structure, although sometimes a traditional structure makes it easier.
MS. TIPPETT: Helpful, yes.
MS. SASSO: It’s helpful, because you say, ‘OK, I don’t know what to say, but I’ve got something.’ But I think you just say what’s in your heart. Name your hopes, name what your grateful for, name your fears. That’s a prayer.
MS. TIPPETT: I think this observation you make about the importance of silence is so critical and really quite countercultural. There’s a lot of, now, bemoaning of how we have overscheduled our children’s lives, but you’re making the point that one thing that’s lost in that is silence and that is critical for the development of their souls. Not an idea that I hear out there very much.
MS. SASSO: Yeah, I agree with you. And I think it’s quite critical. In fact, in creating a new children’s prayer book, I made a special effort to provide some meditations so there would be moments of silence where children could just close their eyes and imagine, because we just don’t provide enough of it. And I think we find, as parents, that when we sit with our children at night and we’re quiet, they tell us all kinds of things they won’t tell us during the day.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. But you do have to create that space. It doesn’t necessarily occur naturally.
MS. SASSO: I don’t think it occurs — we’re so busy. I mean, we rush through our meals; we rush from one activity to another. We’re always talking. We listen to music. We’ve got noise around us all the time. We really need that pause and the silence in our lives. And our children need it to begin to imagine and to think what’s precious to them. You know, one of the books that I’ve written ends with questions, and …
MS. TIPPETT: Is that God’s Paintbrush?
MS. SASSO: God’s Paintbrush. And I remember a father telling me that he doesn’t usually read to his children at night, that his wife did, the mother did. But one night, he read, and he decided to read this book. And he decided to leave out the questions, because he felt that would take too long and it would be too long a bedtime ritual.
MS. TIPPETT: Because we’re always on a schedule.
MS. SASSO: We’re on a schedule. And the child stopped him in the middle and said, ‘No, Dad, ask the questions. Ask the questions. I want to talk.’ What she wanted to do is have a conversation in this quiet time when nothing else was intruding on their lives.
MS. TIPPETT: Rabbi Sandy Sasso.
Her book God’s Paintbrush sets up wondering questions with images and scenes, like this one:
READER: My class went on a hike the other day. We climbed to the top of a mountain, and I shouted, “Hello.” I heard a voice call back, “Hello.” It sounded just like my voice, only far away. My teacher said the sound I heard was an echo. It was fun to hear our own voices. We kept calling out and the sound from space kept calling back. I wonder what God’s voice sounds like? Is it deep and gruff? Is it soft and gentle? Is it loud or quiet? I think God keeps calling out, and maybe we are the sound that calls back. Maybe people are God’s echo.
MS. TIPPETT: At speakingoffaith.org, you can find a list of Sandy Sasso’s books and other titles she finds helpful in understanding and nurturing the spiritual lives of children. While there, listen to my interview with psychiatrist Robert Coles, who has spent his career exploring the inner lives of children and how they show us the fullness of our humanity. You can download free MP3s of this conversation and all our other shows. Just visit our website — or subscribe to our podcast and e-mail updates — at speakingoffaith.org.
Also, we’ve created a discussion guide for this program so you can continue this conversation in your family or community. Download the guide on our site and use it in your home, school, or place of worship.
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MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, how do we cultivate spiritual awareness in our family’s everyday routines? And the dilemma of introducing religion to a child when you’ve rejected the tradition of your own upbringing.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “The Spirituality of Parenting.”
My guest is rabbi and author Sandy Sasso. She’s talking about practical ways for parents to respond to the deep questions and spiritual impulses children express from an early age. Children don’t necessarily need answers, she says. Unlike adults, they’re not afraid of mystery. At the same time, she points out, the spiritual life does not begin in the abstract; it begins in concrete, everyday experiences we are already encouraging in our children — for example, reading.
MS. SASSO: Absolutely. You know, we don’t usually think of reading as a spiritual exercise.
MS. TIPPETT: No.
MS. SASSO: But I think it is, because in order to hear a story, you have to quiet yourself and you have to empathize with the characters in the story. And isn’t empathy part of the spiritual life? Isn’t quietude part of the spiritual life? And you also discover in the story that you don’t have control. You might like the characters to do one thing or another, you might wish they would make one decision or another, but you can’t control the situation. And part of the spiritual life is learning that we are not always in control. And also, if we are truly listening, then all the details matter. You know, it matters what the color of her hair is or what he’s wearing or what the time of day is. And paying attention to the details of life is part of a spiritual life.
MS. TIPPETT: You are thoroughly grounded in Judaism, in Jewish faith, and you also write books which are endorsed by other kinds of religious people. You’ve been involved — I know I’ve recently seen a book and some studies of — which have brought together essays by people from many, many different traditions writing about the spirituality of children and parenting — Muslim and Baha’i and Tibetan Buddhists and Judaism and many forms of Christianity. Are there impulses that these approaches share? And I’d also be curious to hear about differences and distinctives that have intrigued you and struck you.
MS. SASSO: Well, I think there is a commonality. When we talk about spirituality, we talk about what we share. I think when we talk about religion, we talk about how we are different in expressing that spirituality. I mean, we have all the same deep questions. Everybody has the question of why life is unfair or why do we die or how do we matter, what’s our purpose, you know, is there something more in the world than we are? Every religious tradition raises that question and asks how do we live a purposeful life? So I think we all begin with the same questions and the same quest. And the way in which we answer those questions is sometimes different because our languages are different.
MS. TIPPETT: Back at language, aren’t we?
MS. SASSO: Yeah, we are. I mean, I really see religions as different languages to express our spirituality. And I think it’s important to recognize that some languages we speak with comfort and some we don’t. We find a home. I mean, it’s wonderful that there are so many different expressions of spirituality. It’s just that we need to find the home that fits for us.
MS. TIPPETT: And that will sometimes be the home we’re born into, but not necessarily.
MS. SASSO: Right. And I always tell people, please explore the place you come from, the place you’re born into. See if that is a comfortable fit. Because it many times — most times it is, if we’re willing to explore it deeply enough, and not to be discouraged, because when we were young we had bad experiences.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. That would be your mother tongue, really, in a way, to think about that.
MS. SASSO: It is. It is your mother tongue.
MS. TIPPETT: But what you just said is important, because I have heard many people say, ‘I was so turned off by, you know, X or Y in my childhood, and I don’t want to inflict that on my child.’ And yet they still find themselves in a position of being a parent, having a child, and realizing they want something to give them. How do you respond to that?
MS. SASSO: Don’t let the people who gave you a bad impression of your religious tradition be the only ones to define it. You, too, are a part of that tradition, and you’re not just a descendent, you are also an ancestor, and you helped to create the future of that tradition. So give it a second chance. Many times we have bad experiences with particular religious tradition, but that is not the best of the tradition. We need to look to the best of the tradition, because there are wonderful things within religious traditions, and they give us this language that allows us to speak. One experience from my own family, I think, might be illustrative. When our children were little, we, on the Sabbath, Friday evening, would always light Shabbat candles, Sabbath candles, and, you know, I would wave my hands over the light and cover my eyes and say the blessing. And then we would take our hands, and then we would wrap them around our children, and we would say a traditional blessing for them for the week to come. I never really thought much about it. It was a ritual that we did. But many years later, when our children were away from the home, they would often call on Friday night just to get the blessing, and they still remember the warmth of that moment.
So rituals have that capacity partly because they contain something greater than themselves, and also because they’re routine. Children love repetition, and a ritual is repetition over and over again, and they give them a sense of security and comfort and familiarity, and that’s so very important. So we shouldn’t give up on our traditions just because we might have had bad experiences when we were younger. We just don’t want to give those bad experiences to our children.
MS. TIPPETT: And it’s true, also, that if we’re looking for rituals, those are the obvious places to find those kinds of forms. Let’s say people who are alienated or estranged from religious tradition know what they’re rejecting. I mean, there’s a way in which, if we just refuse to give them the whole because we have turned our backs on part of it, we’re not giving them anything to wrestle with. Is that making sense?
MS. SASSO: No, I think that’s actually a great image, because I think sometimes we feel that religion is all about answers, but I really think it’s all about questions, and it’s all about wrestling, that it’s perfectly OK to doubt and to challenge and to be open to more and more questions. I think sometimes parents get nervous when children ask all these questions, saying, ‘Well, you know, I don’t believe in God,’ and — as they get older, and ‘This doesn’t make sense to me anymore.’ But that’s really part of the spiritual journey. If you don’t ask those questions, you really haven’t made the religion your own, you’re just accepting what someone’s told you. We need to ask those questions, and life forces us to ask those questions if we’re really honest with ourselves. So I think wrestling with these — with the tradition and wrestling with the stories, that’s the most important part of the spiritual journey. It’s not a smooth journey.
MS. TIPPETT: And that it’s OK to pass that wrestling on to our children as well.
MS. SASSO: I think it’s so important. In fact, I once had a student tell me when I was trying to present a different point of view than had been presented in the past, the student said, “You want to tell me what to think.” And I answered, “No, I just want to tell you to think.” Religion is not about, you know, putting our minds on hold or our thinking on hold. It’s engaging our minds as well as our hearts.
MS. TIPPETT: Rabbi Sandy Sasso.
NEIL MALLEY: My spiritual tradition is Taoism. When my kids were younger, I was most — more focused on imparting my spiritual tradition, Taoism, to them. We’d have some ceremonies and read from the Tao Te Ching or meditate or do some simple qigong, but it became obvious to me very quickly that they just weren’t into it. So gradually I stopped forcing them and just tried to be a good example without really formally teaching them anything. I came to realize that they needed to find their own way, which may be different than mine, that they have their own souls and shouldn’t have to follow in my footsteps.
MS. TIPPETT: Hear more reflections of parents at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Spirituality of Parenting” with Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Her books help children and adults of many backgrounds discuss religion and ethics together.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m kind of wanting you to tell some of the stories that you tell. One is the story of God’s name, and what I think is very moving about that is you come out in a Jewish place, I mean with, you know, with the idea of one God, but you get there in a way that is very embracing of human reality, of the spectrum of human reality. And I believe that those two things are possible, both being rooted and being open to the world. It cuts a bit against the grain of some of the assumptions our culture’s been living with for a while. So talk to me a little bit about how you came to write that and what happens and what that means to you, if you would.
MS. SASSO: Well, the book is called In God’s Name, and it’s probably one of the only stories I have written that came to me all in one piece. I actually remember the night it happened. I couldn’t get to sleep and this story kept repeating itself over and over in my head, and I decided I better get up and write at least a version of it down or I would never sleep. It came out of a number of experiences. You know, certain children would say, you know, ‘This is the name for God, and this is the only right name and all the other names are not right. This is the best name.’ And I said, you know, ‘This can’t be right.’ And so I wrote a story about calling God by different names. It was also written about the time of the Persian Gulf War when people were going to war, quote, unquote, “in God’s name,” and I said, you know, ‘I’ve got to write a story about this.’
So in the story, people call God by different names, each person naming God out of his or her experience. So the farmer would call God, “Creator of Life,” the artist who would sculpt out of stone would call God, “My Rock,” and the daddy who held his baby’s hand called God, “Father,” and the child who was lonely called God, “Friend,” and a variety of other names. And each time the names came up, people in the story would say, “Well, my name is better than your name. And my name is best, and your name is wrong.” And they would have this constant argument until, at the end, all the people came together and they looked in a lake that was like a mirror, God’s mirror.
MS. TIPPETT: Here’s how Sandy Sasso ends that story in her book, In God’s Name. She writes: “Then, each person who had a name for God looked at the others who had a different name. They looked into God’s mirror and saw their own faces and the faces of all the others. And they called out their names for God: Source of Life, Creator of Light, Shepherd, Maker of Peace, My Rock, Healer, Redeemer, Ancient One, Comforter, Mother, Father, Friend, all at the same time. At that moment, the people knew that all the names for God were good and no name was better than another. Then all at once, their voices came together and they called God One. Everyone listened, most of all God.”
MS. SASSO: I used the idea of the lake as a mirror, because there is a statement in — by the rabbis that says, “God is like a mirror, and everyone who looks into it sees a different face.” And I feel that children look into God’s mirror. We just need to give them a chance to tell us what they see.
MS. TIPPETT: When we started out, you talked about the importance of stories as a way to — just to nurture this part of children’s life and imagination, their spiritual imagination. Where would you recommend that people find stories? I mean, your books are out there; there are other books out there. Where would they look, people who have not been looking for this kind of story? And then, how much do you need to work with the child to understand the story? How do you help them take the story in? Or do you need to help them at all?
RABBI SASSO: Well, first let me mention how you go about finding these books. There are tremendous books on children’s literature on issues of spirituality, and they aren’t just books that have God in the title. There are books that deal with things that really matter, the deeper concerns of life. And I would go to a children’s bookstore, and I would ask for those books that deal with the deeper questions. Sometimes they will be religious books; sometimes they will be secular books. The only thing I would say about finding good children’s literature is the following: If it’s not interesting to you, it won’t be interesting to your child.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s not supposed to be like taking medicine.
RABBI SASSO: Right. It’s not like — it’s not — and also, I would say a book shouldn’t preach. It should be a book that’s open to the child that seems to be in touch with where the child is and the child’s experiences. Just because a book has a good moral at the end doesn’t mean it’s good spiritual literature.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
RABBI SASSO: It should be imaginative. And how do we help a child understand a story? Well, when I began doing storytelling early on in my career, I used to tell a story, and then I would proceed to say what the story meant. I thought that was my job as a rabbi, you know, to tell you what you were supposed to learn from the story. But I realized that, as a storyteller, I was only telling people what the story meant to me, and I wasn’t allowing them to develop their own relationship to the narrative. So I don’t do that anymore. I tell a story, and I ask open-ended questions, questions like ‘What part of the story did you like the best? What do you think is the most important part of the story?’ And then the question that I like the best is ‘Where are you in this story, or what part of the story is about you?’ When we ask those kinds of questions, we get to hear what meaning our children take from the story, and we also get to learn where they are in their lives.
[Sound bite of music]
MS. TIPPETT: All right, let’s say — and I think that this is a situation that is not really uncommon these days. Let’s say there’s a young couple, religion has maybe not been too much a part of either of their lives and has not been part of their courtship before their marriage. They have children, they don’t have kind of their native traditions to draw on, and then as they try to think about how to nurture this part of their child’s life, they are not in agreement. I mean, they don’t have a vocabulary for figuring this out or figuring out how to address this in their child. What would be your best rabbinical advice on that?
MS. SASSO: I would suggest just explore your roots, just give it a chance. See if there might not be something there. Become part of the community where people talk about these issues. Just like there are other parenting groups that you talk about, you know, ‘How do I get my child to go to sleep?’ How do I — you know, all these other really, you know, compelling issues when you’re a parent. Talk to other people who share your common spiritual values, who live a life that you value. I think, you know, we have all kinds of mentors for our children. You know, we have music educators. We have, you know, coaches in sports. We might look for spiritual mentors.
Who are those people that live the kind of life that is gracious and compassionate and kind and loving and courageous? Those are the kinds of people we ought to be talking to, to see how we might share that kind of life with our children. And then, of course, you know, there are — I wouldn’t say — there’s no book that is an expert book. There are no answers to these really big questions. I think that’s what everybody’s afraid of. You know, ‘Oh, I don’t have the answer’ and, you know, ‘There are people who’ve thought about this for so many years.’ That’s not what’s important. There are no absolute answers. There are questions, and there is the conversation, and there is the journey.
I think if you can take the hand of your child on that journey, you not only enrich his or her life, you really enrich your own. Children open windows for us, or can crawl through windows that we can’t crawl through, and they open a part of our lives that maybe has been dormant for a long time.
MS. TIPPETT: Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is senior rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis. Her books include God’s Paintbrush and In God’s Name.
[Sound bite of song “Why, Oh Why”]
WOODY GUTHRIE (SINGING): Why can’t a dish break a hammer? / Why, oh why, oh why / ‘Cause a hammer’s a hard head. / Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. / Why, oh why, oh why, oh why? / Why, oh why, oh why?
REBECCA NEIGER: Becoming a parent awakened dormant spirituality in me. My first child has special needs, and that, too, has propelled my search. I returned to my Christian roots initially, followed that to the contemplative level, and then actually found more resonance with Buddhist teachings. I still deeply value my Christian heritage, and we’re actually raising our children in a Christian church. I have appreciated every step in my spiritual journey and mostly just want each of my children to pursue their own journey regardless of where it takes them.
WOODY GUTHRIE (SINGING): Why does a horn make music? / Why, oh why, oh why? / Because the horn-blower blows it. / Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. / Why don’t you answer my questions? / Why, oh why, oh why? / ‘Cause I don’t know the answers. / Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
MS. TIPPETT: The listeners’ voices you heard woven into this show today are responses to our invitation for you to reflect on the spiritual questions that parenting raises. We took the time to record many more stories, including one from Autumn Skeen, a mother living in Japan who tells her story about her sense of the importance — and comfort — of religious rituals and the loss of her child. Look for the “Your Voices, Your Stories” feature on this week’s show page at speakingoffaith.org.
I also recommend you check out some of our recent entries on Pertinent Posts from the On Being Blog, our staff blog. Watch a time-lapse video of Buddhist monks building a sand mandala — it’s a two-minute meditation on beauty, mental focus, and the nature of impermanence. Read a guest contribution from Chelsea Roff — one of our podcaster listeners and a self-described “spiritual nomad” who reflects on her quest for sacred spaces. And there’s an exercise, asking you to decide which piece of music you would have chosen to complement Wendell Berry reading his poem in last week’s show. Be a part of our process. Speakingoffaith.org.
Speaking of Faith is produced by Colleen Scheck, Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Shubha Bala. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor.
Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.