When our children grow into teens, many of us find that inspiring them in Krishna consciousness becomes much harder. They are no longer enthusiastic to imitate us or join in with the devotional activities we initiate. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what we can do to keep them close and hopefully inspired. Here are some of my thoughts.
The first priority is always to take care of the relationship. As the saying goes—they may not remember what we say, but they’ll always remember how we made them feel. We need to develop and nurture a relationship of trust, affection and understanding with our teenagers for them to be willing to share their inner thoughts and feelings, and to be open to what we share with them. This means that as parents we may need to acquire skills that we don’t have—how to listen with empathy, how to avoid judging, shaming and blaming, how to deal with our own fears and inadequacies so that we don’t act or react in undesirable conditioned ways. We need to understand and accept them as individuals and let the relationship grow and evolve as they mature. An experienced mom in our community told me, “No matter what phase my girls were going through, or what they were getting up to, I always made a great effort to be supportive and keep a close relationship with them.” I thought this was good advice.
It is important that our children feel unconditionally loved, by us and by Krishna. But what if we give them the impression that we approve of them more and love them more when they are behaving like devotees—wearing “devotional clothes,” memorizing verses, doing kirtan, doing service—than when they are pursuing other activities? I think we need to be aware that if we are using our approval and disapproval in a heavy-handed way, that could make them feel that our love is conditional on their performance as devotees, and could eventually lead to resentment about feeling they had to “earn love” in this way.
A really good starting point as parents is to question why we want our children to be devotees. Is it so that we feel we have succeeded as parents in our own and the community’s eyes? Is it because we feel that Krishna consciousness is a precious gift that connects us to the source of the love everyone is searching for? That it is the ultimate solution to all life’s problems and sufferings? That it’s a nice lifestyle? It’s what we grew up with and is familiar to us? Or any other reason? I think understanding our own motivation will have a meaningful impact on how we share Krishna consciousness with our kids. It may also help us to avoid mistakes such as trying to live out our own unfulfilled spiritual aspirations through our children.
A hugely important part of the teenage journey is about finding identity, through observing others and trying out different identities, and also differentiating themselves from their parents and expressing their individuality. So teenagers are constantly observing the behavior of adults in their world, looking for role models and heroes, and trying to figure out where they belong in society. They are extremely observant of the qualities that adults demonstrate through their behavior—whether we are kind, tolerant, empathetic, encouraging, irritable, reactionary, judgmental, mean, hypocritical etc. So we need to be very introspective about what qualities we are developing and displaying. Because our teens are observing and concluding that “this is what devotees are like” or “I want/don’t want to be like that.”
They are also observing our attitudes towards our spiritual life. Are we enthusiastic about our devotional activities? Do our practices seem to bring us joy and fulfillment? Or do they make us impatient and irritable, because we have an endless list of have-to’s – rounds to chant, puja to do, cleaning, service, etc.? Does our application of the philosophy make us judgmental and critical of others? If our teens are associating many negative or unappealing attitudes with our practice of Krishna consciousness, they may be put off. I think that managing our own lives in such a way that we are actually happy in our homes and families and engagements is a great service to our children—they can learn from us that our devotee lifestyle and values help us create a joyful life and support us through life’s changes and challenges. A happy Krishna conscious home life will also help them to seek out contentment and loving relationships as their default emotional environment as adults.
We need to be quite intentional about the messages we are giving our children. For example, I recently took a group of teenagers to the temple for darshan, on their way to play sports. It was more convenient for them to just go to the temple in their shorts and T-shirts. I later thought about the kinds of messages we might give kids about something like wearing casual clothes to the temple:
a) It’s always OK to “come as you are” to see Krishna. He’s interested in your heart, not your clothes. This consideration should never make you hesitant to come.
b) It’s kind of OK. You can do it, but should feel awkward while there (and be aware that people may disapprove.)
c) It’s just not appropriate and we don’t generally do it. In the same way that you wouldn’t wear beach-wear to an interview, or a dhoti to sports practice, you shouldn’t wear inappropriate clothes to come see the Lord.
I realized that without thinking about it, the message I gave them was probably b) – and that I needed to think more deeply about what I actually think, why I think that way, and communicate with them clearly so that they don’t get any confusing, unintentional messages. Another example of examining the messages we may be giving is—I tend to grumble about cooking on ekadasi because it’s hard for me to cook enough food throughout the day to keep my family fed. So the message I’m unintentionally giving my kids is that following ekadasi is a burden. Obviously I need to re-examine my attitude, and make practical changes to avoid passing on my negative attitude to them.
Teenagers are naturally idealistic and curious about the world, and are often surprisingly interested in philosophy, if they feel it’s relevant to them. Growing up as devotees, our kids quickly become adept at parroting philosophy, and knowing what “the right” answers are. But in order for it to be meaningful for them, it needs to be relevant to their lives, not something that’s isolated within the temple or their “devotee life.” One way that we can help is by proactively having conversations about how our philosophy relates to what is going on in the world, and specific topics that interest them. For example, “How can our philosophy provide satisfying and compassionate explanations or solutions for issues such as racial discrimination, environmental degradation, Covid etc.?”
This can be really daunting for us as parents, especially if we’re not confident that we have strong philosophical knowledge or satisfying answers to give. I think it’s really important that we are willing to try to engage with difficult questions. It’s okay to admit when we don’t know or are unsure ourselves. If, on the other hand, we avoid hard questions or doubts, or just supply “copy-and-paste” style answers, teenagers may quickly decide that it’s not worth bringing up doubts and questions because they won’t get satisfactory answers. When my teenagers ask even quite simple questions about why we do a particular thing in devotional service, I often don’t have a good (or any) answer. Instead of just mumbling a formulaic answer, or saying “I don’t know,” and leaving it at that, I can take it as an opportunity to try to figure it out and understand better together.
Even if we are not very knowledgeable about philosophy, we can always honestly share with our kids our personal experiences of Krishna consciousness. A devotee who has been running a Sunday school for teenagers for many years told me, “This is what’s beautiful about teenagers. They cut straight to the chase. They’re looking for the realness, they don’t buy the façade.” Taking time to think about our own motivations and practices in Krishna consciousness and articulate them is really important so that our kids can sense that we are authentic in our choices and practices. If we can express something like, “These experiences touched my heart in a very special way . . . I notice these effects of my spiritual practices in my life . . . so even if there are things I don’t fully understand yet, I’m okay with that,” that might sometimes be more meaningful than correct philosophical answers.
We need to be sensitive about whether the way we present ideas is encouraging or discouraging to young people. For example, I’ve heard some young people express that their parents’ pessimism about the material world, or mundane education and jobs, was very demotivating for them. We need to understand the world that our young adults are going to be making their way in, and not simply dismiss or criticize it in a way that deflates their goals and aspirations for their lives. Another thing that can be disheartening for young people (and any people) is when Krishna consciousness is presented in a way that emphasizes the high standards and long list of demands for aspiring devotees. It can seem impossible to succeed at. (Recently my son commented that it’s easier to just be a friend of the devotees than to be an actual devotee, because then everyone encourages you and no one cares if you make mistakes.) We’ve found in our family that what has been much more encouraging for us is to find a few devotional activities that we like and do those wholeheartedly, and then grow from there. If we want to be supportive and encouraging of our children we should encourage them in what they are doing, rather than focusing on what they “should be” doing.
One of the most important jobs we have as parents may be helping our children to engage in services that suit their nature. One of my sons really has a talent for cooking, and when he is in the kitchen he is fully absorbed and invested in what he is doing, and it’s very joyful and natural for him. So it’s very easy to encourage him to do service involving cooking. If we want to help all our kids find service that engages their talents, we need to expand the scope of activities we think of. Beyond the obvious, traditional activities such as cooking, sewing, playing music, we could try to expose them to a wide range of activities that they could do for Krishna—event-management, fundraising, graphic design, festival décor, landscaping, IT and computer-related work, carving, budgeting and financial management, driving, sound engineering, musical composition, theater direction, advertising, journalism . . . the list is endless. Just as when they were little, we put a lot of effort into kids’ festivals and crafts and puppet shows, now we can focus our efforts on helping teenagers connect to meaningful service. The easiest way to do this is if we can somehow connect them with mentors who are already engaged in these activities.
One of the pitfalls that we really want to avoid when parenting our children is creating aversion associated with Krishna consciousness. I know some adults who struggle with strong aversion to japa or Bhagavatam class due to having been forced as children. And we know that Srila Prabhupada said that there should be no force. But I do wonder—where do we draw the line between encouragement and coercion? I’ve sometimes made an executive decision involving the kids: “We’re going to the temple to do a particular service.” (They weren’t highly resistant, but weren’t enthusiastic either.) And they’ve ended up having a great time, and commenting that it was fun and they’d like to do it again. Or there have been other times when they have gone a little reluctantly to appease me, but seemed bored and disconnected from the experience. I’ve wondered—in such a case, is it valid to think that, “Well, at least they saw the Deities and heard the kirtan,” or would it have been better if they’d not gone? And in the first case, given the positive outcome, was it okay for me to make that decision for them to do service?
I asked a devotee who has decades of experience in encouraging and inspiring youth in Krishna consciousness for some input. She mentioned that when parenting or leading our families, we are constantly making decisions about which habits, activities or values are worth insisting on, sometimes in spite of our children’s resistance (and they can be masters of resistance!) So, just as we may decide that brushing teeth regularly, or completing homework, or speaking respectfully to adults are points we will insist on, it’s also okay if we decide to insist on certain devotional activities. We may decide that certain things are necessary, while others are not worth insisting on. The important thing is to explain why we are making these decisions for our family, so that our kids may (now or eventually) come to appreciate them.
I think that it’s okay for young people to learn that we may do things for a variety of reasons—because it’s fun, or it’s good for me, it’s for a cause I believe in, or because I want to invest in my relationship with someone, etc.—and that includes devotional activities. I feel that if they are always left to the mercy of their minds and desires for immediate gratification, they might miss out on experiencing deeper spiritual connection. Just recently I was talking to my sons about how we have this secret access to happiness that defies logic. That sometimes, in a kirtan, the holy name magically touches everyone’s hearts, and everyone is just inexplicably beaming and blissful. And that I really hope they get to experience that sometimes. My son replied, “Yeah, but I don’t like it when a leader tells us that we have to be in the kirtan.” And I said, “Yes, but what if your mind tells you every time after 5 minutes that this is boring and you should go hang out outside? You may never get the chance to have the experience.” Perhaps a little bit of austerity, sticking with an activity that may be hard or a little boring is okay or even helpful in learning to control the mind and in building character, as long as this is not the majority of kids’ experience in Krishna consciousness.
And that brings us to one of the most important points: MAKE IT FUN!! I recently listened to an interview with Syamasundar Prabhu (ACBSP) in which he said, “If Krishna consciousness isn’t fun, you’re not doing it right.” Making it fun is easier said than done when dealing with teenagers who find most things we do ‘lame.’ The best thing here is to find someone else who can make it fun—a youth leader who is naturally talented at this, or some friends. And friends really are a key factor. Because when they’re with friends almost anything can be fun. We all, and teenagers especially, need to have a feeling of connectedness and belonging to feel good. Our kids need friends and mentors that they connect with, and if these are devotees, it can be a huge determining factor in making spiritual life ‘alive’ for them.
Programs like the Youth Bus Tours in North America, Europe, Central America and Australia and the Boys’ Summer Trip and Kishori Yatra create great opportunities for young people to connect and feel part of a larger devotee community. The meaningful peer association—where they are not only hanging out together, but also having fun while doing service, discussing spiritual topics and doing kirtan together—really creates a feeling of belonging and helps kids self-identify as devotees of Krishna. (There is a rare and special breed of devotee that loves hanging out with teenagers and taking big groups of them on month-long trips and adventures! We are deeply grateful to the devotees who take up this amazing service.) Many young adults say that going on these trips with other young devotees changed their lives. I really hope these will be possible again soon.
Obviously, the decisions we make about how to parent our children are completely personal, and everyone has their individual style and approach. I think that all we can do is try to make our decisions conscious and intentional, and do the best we can in a mood of service, while trying to not be too attached to the results. And learn from the experiences of other parents who have tried to figure it all out before us. If you are a parent or teacher of teenagers, or were once a devotee teenager yourself, and have any comments or suggestions you’d like to make on this topic, I’d love to hear from you. Please comment below or email me at email@example.com. Hare Krishna.
My sincere thanks to
Jaya Sri Radhe Kaseder and Gopika Kanta Sharma
for generously sharing their time and expertise.