Instilling Ethics Early
from “The Compassion Kitchen,” a new book by Ven. Thubten Chodron
Offering meals together is a wonderful family tradition. During my travels, I stayed with a family with small children. Dinner was their family meal. The children helped set the table, and after the food was placed on the table, everyone held hands. The children had memorized the offering prayer and they led the recitation.
I’ve found more than once that the children learn the offering verses more quickly than their parents! The kids are eager to recite them and show what they have learned. The children then ask about the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and their questions about the Three Jewels and why we offer our meals to them is a good way to introduce children to the Buddha’s teachings.
Another way to use food to introduce children to the Three Jewels is to have the children help you offer food on the altar in your home.
When I stayed with a friend of mine, I witnessed a lovely family custom. The mother and her young daughter bowed to the Buddha each morning in front of the altar in their home. Then Mom gave the child some cookies or fruit to offer to the Buddha, which the daughter very carefully did. After she “gave the Buddha a present,” the Buddha “gave her a present” in return—a small treat or something the child liked. Then they would chant om mani padre hum—the mantra of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion — together.
Needless to say, the daughter loved giving the Buddha presents and grew up to be a serious Buddhist practitioner herself.
Some parents who are Buddhist hesitate to introduce their children to the Dharma, often because when they were children religion was forced on them. Not wanting to pressure their own children, they don’t speak about Buddhism or teach it to their children, saying that they want to let their children decide what religion to follow—if any—when they are older.
Although I agree that religion should never be forced on anyone, not introducing children to the Dharma when they are young is a disadvantage for the children. Children need ethical guidelines. Discussing these, especially in relation to how they interact with their siblings, classmates, and adults, is a great opportunity to talk about the ten nonvirtues and the ten virtues as well as karma and its effects.
These teachings are practical—they are not dogmatic and can be taught to children so that they see the immediate benefits of treating others with respect and acting generously.
Children are also curious about life and it’s important to answer their questions with sincerity and expose them to new ideas. They want to know what happens to their dog, cat, or hamster when it dies. They look to their parents and other adults to under- stand how to respond to the death of a loved one and what to do to help the deceased.