What can devotee parents do to help their children meet the challenges of the dual world they live in?
By Madhurika Devi Dasi
How can we help our children thrive in divergent spiritual and materialistic cultures?
What if your eleven-year-old son comes home one day and says he wants to cut off his shikha? Or your teenage daughter doesn’t want to wear neck beads because they ruin her look? How about if your kids want to spend time over at the homes of friends who are not devotees? Or you learn that your thirteen-year-old daughter is having long text chats with a boy from school? As a parent, how do you respond? Now that the majority of devotee kids attend public schools, or eventually progress from devotee-run schools to regular high schools or college, we might easily find ourselves facing these kinds of parenting dilemmas. Devotional culture and modern materialistic culture are incompatible in many ways, and living in both or between the two is challenging. It’s not easy for kids, and it’s not easy for parents either. I’ve heard from many second-generation devotees that their first ventures out into mainstream society, often in middle or high school or college, were difficult and stressful, even traumatic. How can we help young people who need to figure out how to thrive in divergent spiritual and materialistic cultures?
It’s easy to understand that teenagers’ task of figuring out who they are as individuals and how they fit into their peer group and society at large is a challenging one that can cause them stress, uncertainty, and anxiety. Belonging to a religion and culture that is very different from the mainstream can add to the social pressure of adolescence. So we can be empathetic and understanding of our kids’ desire to fit in. For example, if my son wants me to wear jeans and a T-shirt to his soccer match, or doesn’t want me to play weird-sounding kirtana when his friends are in the car, or doesn’t want to take food that looks unusual to school, these are easy requests to accommodate. When he gives his name as “Kevin” when placing an order (his name isn’t Kevin), we can have a laugh about it.
It also helps if we try to expose our children to some of the richness and variety of world culture as they are growing up, so that they are aware that so many different kinds of music, art, and cultural and religious practices exist. This can contextualize and normalize our beautiful culture by helping them to realize that the world is a very multi-cultural place and that what is considered “normal” varies widely. One former gurukuli wrote to me that it would really have helped her to have been exposed to people from other groups and religions and realize that we aren’t the only weird and different ones.
Our kids subconsciously absorb our attitudes and take their cues from us, so it’s helpful if they see that we are comfortable being devotees in a variety of different social environments and that we are at ease and open with people we encounter who are interested in our spiritual practices – by offering them prasada or inviting them along to kirtanas or festivals or family occasions, and being happy to answer their questions. We can help our kids by talking about what kinds of answers they could give to questions they may be asked. For example: How do you explain the meaning of your name? What do you say if people ask why you’re vegetarian? Why don’t you eat onion and garlic? What is your religion all about? What is the chanting all about? Having a semi-prepared answer can really help them to answer confidently if these questions come up, and feel less self-conscious while explaining.
While many young devotees may choose to keep their devotee identity private, sharing it only with close friends or those who inquire with genuine interest, we don’t want our kids to feel they need to be “split people.” (We may have struggled with this ourselves – if we joined the movement and cut ourselves off from our personal history or our culture of origin; or if we grew up as devotees and experienced trauma or stress when trying to adapt to the secular world.) Some young devotees have described how they kept their spiritual life and college life strictly separate (a kind of Clark Kent/Superman scenario), and when by chance these two worlds collided, felt extremely uncomfortable and exposed, and struggled to integrate their two identities. Encouraging young people to find ways for the two worlds to meet and overlap helps with this integration – for example, if they can use skills that they have learned at college to contribute to a service project for the local temple or community, or if they can share skills or perspectives that they have learned in their devotional lives with their friends and peers. Some young devotees have even written about their experiences during their unconventional Hare Krishna upbringings in college application letters or assignments.
Sharing Krishna consciousness with others is a big part of our culture. Forcing unwilling kids to participate in public chanting or book distribution is generally not a good idea, but letting them experience or participate in dynamic outreach programs can help young people realize that our philosophy and practices are something precious and amazing that many people are really searching for. For example, if they attend a kirtana event and see lots of new people excited to chant and enthusiastic to learn about spiritual life, it can give them a whole new perspective on our bhakti culture.
Our kids’ teachers took them on a field trip to Krishna House, a center at the University of Florida in Gainesville. They got to serve out Krishna Lunch, a prasadam program that has been running for over thirty years and is a well-loved institution on campus. It was fun for them to interact with the students and inspiring to see how popular the program is. It is especially inspiring for teenagers to see young people they can relate to interested in finding out more about Krishna consciousness. It can give them a fresh perspective on knowledge and practices they may underestimate due to over-familiarity.
Spiritual vs. Materialistic Values
Culture encompasses our shared knowledge, values and beliefs, behavior, language, communication, and symbols, and so affects almost every aspect of our lives. Spiritual culture is an outward expression of values such as love, compassion, service, respect, and devotion to God, while modern materialistic culture is often an expression of the desire for profit and fame, exploitation, competition, sense gratification, and so on. Modern materialistic culture is so technologically advanced and dominant that other cultural perspectives struggle to compete with it for our kids’ attention. Our kids are likely to spend a fair amount of time absorbing materialistic culture in the form of music, movies, social media, games, and so on, so how can we insulate them against its negative effects and help them appreciate the value of spiritual culture?
Part of this is education. We need to teach our kids how to critically consider the images of success and happiness presented to them by the mainstream media, and how these make them feel. Being “social newborns,” adolescents are quite susceptible to the media’s portrayal of reality, and they need to be encouraged to look beneath the surface of the lifestyles and cultural norms and personalities they are being presented as benchmarks for their own lives.
We can have lots of conversations to help them develop critical awareness in relation to media content. We might discuss topics such as:
Why do you think so many people want to be famous? Do you think most famous people are a lot happier than ordinary people?
Do people accurately represent their lives on social media?
In movies and TV shows, young people having casual sex and taking drugs and alcohol is made to seem normal. Why do you think our Krishna culture so strongly discourages these things?
When a song comes out with super-explicit lyrics and video, what do you think about it? Is it degrading or liberating for women? And people in general?
It’s great if these conversations can come up in a natural way. When teenagers sense that parents are having a “teaching moment,” they can quickly lose interest. Which brings up a practical point: we need to have good communication skills to be able to have conversations about tough topics and to maintain openness and trust in the relationship. Part of this means knowing when to stop talking, and give young people space to come to their own realizations. If we are too focused on simply getting our kids to think or behave as we want them to, we will come on too strong and probably go on for too long. We can offer information or different perspectives on an issue, clearly state our values, and honestly express our feelings. But if we want our kids to allow us to remain involved and influential in their lives, we need to avoid lecturing, criticizing, and (excessive) advising, and to know how to listen well and have constructive conversations.
These kinds of discussions will help foster critical thinking and discernment, but a better counterbalance to the allure of materialistic culture is giving our kids firsthand experience of the sweetness of our spiritual culture. This is all about their relationships – with their loved ones, with the community of devotees, with their teachers, and with God. Interpersonal connectedness is the key to happy, fulfilling lives, and offers protection against depression, addiction, harmful behaviors, and so on. We do our kids a great service if we can help them understand that loving relationships are a key to happiness, and help them develop the social skills to have good relationships, and especially good spiritual relationships.
Our Krishna culture has a beautiful and highly developed awareness of the subtle intricacies of different kinds of loving relationships. Devotees who are advanced in the practice of bhakti become very soft-hearted and expert in loving exchanges, and we have many such devotees in our society, especially among Srila Prabhupada’s disciples. We can try to give our kids the chance to have their association and the chance to serve them, preferably in an informal setting. In our family we’ve tried as much as possible to invite inspiring devotees to our home, and have included our kids in hosting them. This created opportunities for sweet and affectionate exchanges and planted little seeds of relationships that may hopefully continue to grow. Parents can also consider asking older devotees if they would be willing to spend some time passing on one of their skills, such as by teaching kids how to make a particular sweet, or how to make jewelry or clothes or garlands for the deities, or how to look after cows. By associating with these devotees, our kids get impressions of what humility and kindness and devotion look and feel like. Having their own relationships with mentors can have a deep impact on young people.
We need to use our intelligence and creativity to facilitate interesting and fun Krishna conscious programs geared to teenagers. We can’t reasonably expect them to be inspired and excited simply by attending the same temple programs that they have attended their whole life. Srila Prabhupada likened Krishna consciousness to honey in a jar, making the point that licking the outside of the jar is no use – we have to taste the honey inside. But we can put the honey in all kinds of appealing jars to attract teenagers to taste it. They love to be together and to have new, fun, and exciting experiences – like traveling, camping, skating, hiking. All we have to do is include prasada, kirtana, some talk about Krishna consciousness, and a bit of service, bundled up along with activities that they like. The more fun and interesting experiences they can have within the context of Krishna consciousness, the less they will feel the need to look for them elsewhere.
Still, many kids will want to experiment with the kind of enjoyment and happiness promoted in modern materialistic culture. What will ultimately offer them a foothold in a more sattvika and spiritually oriented lifestyle is having had tangible experience of the joy and satisfaction that bhakti culture and spiritual relationships offer. One devotee, now an adult, described how, from the time he was in middle school, he was determined to shed his devotee identity and experiment with everything that mainstream culture had to offer. He was popular at school and excelled at sports, so he had every opportunity for sense enjoyment. It was only several years down the line, when he concluded that all these experiences hadn’t really left him happy or satisfied, that he realized that what he actually wanted was that feeling of love and happiness he had experienced around his parents and the devotees while growing up, and he knew how and where to find it.
It reminded me of a book I read by a man who moved into Amish country and gradually came to understand his neighbors’ rejection of modern conveniences and enjoyments a bit better. A neighbor explained to him that Amish life “isn’t about what you can’t have; it’s about what you can.” Meaning that their lifestyle offers them what they want most – connection with family, community, and God; health; security; peace of mind; time to savor life, opportunities to develop qualities like patience, self-control, and empathy. And so modern culture, which distracts and detracts from the quality of life and values they hold dear, is just not worth it.
Amish teenagers are given the opportunity to freely experience the outside world during rumspringa, a period of a year or more of “running loose.” “They’re free to buy cars, dress English, fly to Disneyland, pound Jager at Mardi Gras . . . . Once they’ve experienced the modern world the overwhelming majority decide, Meh, not so great after all, and return to ‘living plain.’” (from Running with Sherman, by Christopher McDougall) The point is that we need to focus less on rejecting or condemning materialistic culture and more on giving our kids the positive experiences that spiritual culture has to offer.
The primary place for kids to really experience Krishna conscious culture and relationships is in the family. We need to develop a strong family culture, creating traditions and practices that reflect what is important to us. Our kids will absorb the values underlying our lifestyle choices. These could be anything – for example, “We love serving devotees.” “We respect and care for elders.” “We are inclusive.” “We make an effort to help those who are suffering.” Small things that we do repeatedly in our families can leave deep impressions on our kids. Syama-vallabha Dasa, son of the highly esteemed and exemplary late Krishnanandini Devi Dasi, described how as a kid, if he was in big trouble for something, he knew that if he could just make it to their home temple room and get in front of the deities, he’d be safe from his parents’ chastisement. This helped reinforce the idea, instilled in him by his mother, that Gaura-Nitai were where he could go for shelter.
When my boys were smaller, after reading to them at bedtime I would lie and snuggle with each of them and chant a round or two. I wanted them to associate hearing and chanting the maha-mantra with warmth and safety and love. They were very attached to that, and if I was busy doing something else, they would insist, “Come and chant with us!” When it was their birthday, they would say that I had to chant the number of rounds corresponding to their age. They always wanted me to “chant more” – stay longer. A friend described how in their family they had the habit of always offering whatever they received to their deities. This stuck with their son so that when he got his first job after college, he naturally offered his paycheck to the deities.
Some of these family customs will arise spontaneously. Others we may intentionally decide to start. There are so many possibilities. For example, a family could decide that they will go once a month to distribute Food For Life to underprivileged people, or have a family kirtana every week, or sponsor and serve out a feast on a child’s birthday, or make a special gift for the deities each year for a particular festival. By participating in these kinds of activities, kids get to experience that choosing a lifestyle is a creative, intentional act – you get to decide what kind of atmosphere you will live in, what activities you will put your energy into. Sometimes when our kids want to follow something that “everyone else” is doing, we might have to reply, “That may be so, but in our family . . . ” When we have a strong family culture, it makes it easier for kids to recognize when something is not in line with their family’s values.
While our kids are growing up, we have a precious opportunity to give them an immersive experience of spiritual culture at home. But by the time they are teenagers, many of us may feel worn out after so many years of parenting, or may be overwhelmed with careers, family and household management, and many other responsibilities, along with our sadhana. Trying to give our teenagers some Krishna consciousness may seem difficult or impractical (sometimes impossible!), especially as their interest and energy is focused so much outside the home and family. But we can always take it back to the basics – cook for and offer food to Krishna, and feed our kids prasada; play kirtana in the house; chant or do puja ourselves in a happy mood. Although young people may not want to participate or may not seem to notice, the sounds and sights of spiritual activities taking place in their environment make an impression on them. We can also try to remember that our interactions with them and our service to them are priti-lakshana, loving exchanges between devotees, and conduct our everyday dealings with our children in a personal, loving, and respectful way that will leave an impression in their hearts.
All of us want our children to have the chance to realize their full potential as individuals, and to be genuinely happy. Especially in the years when they live with us, we have a great opportunity to share the gift of Krishna consciousness with them. We can try to make our families and communities places where our young people can experience the essence and sweetness of Krishna consciousness, can have deep loving relationships, and can discover a sense of belonging. Our youth need to feel that they are a valued part of a spiritual community that loves and encourages them, and wants them to succeed. The experience of growing up in a loving spiritual culture can inspire them to choose to be devotees, and help them be happy as devotees and genuinely self-confident as they venture out into the world to share their gifts with others.