Take a moment to look back on your youth. Do you remember being 12 or 14? That awkward age on the cusp of adulthood, when you were neither a child nor yet an adult, but alternately identifying with both? Imagine your deepest held values and beliefs at that age; your fledgling sense of self and vulnerability. Did you have opportunities to share what mattered to you? To listen to voices different from your own and marvel at their unique worth and beauty? Flash forward a few years to your late teens and early twenties. How do you recall that sense of self now? Stronger? More settled? Perhaps a bit less open-minded than before?
We know that traits we develop as children become the basis of the adults we will become. If a child develops empathy, for example, early in life, we know they are more likely to be empathic later on. Conversely, what happens with negative traits? What about intolerance or its cousins, aggression and fear?
As supporters of interfaith work, we know that building greater understanding and dialogue among diverse groups is a crucial aspect in creating a more peaceful world. We know listening to each other and educating ourselves about our neighbors is central in our interdependent world. Although there are myriad ways for adults to enhance their inner development and pluralistic understanding, there are surprisingly few outlets for youth to develop these same skills, and fewer options still for young teens. How can we hope for a world with greater compassion and understanding without nurturing these qualities in youth?
KidSpirit, an organization I founded in 2007, is an online magazine and social networking community that empowers youth from all backgrounds and traditions to tackle life’s big questions in a spirit of openness. The magazine is a nonprofit, ad-free quarterly, written and edited by youth. It embodies a vibrant dialogue between an all-youth Editorial Board based in New York, and kids ages 11-16 around the world who send us their poetry, original essays and artwork for our quarterly themes. All youth, regardless of background or location can participate fully in this forum free.
Our complimentary group guides for teachers and mentors working with youth augment any curricula from religious education to creative writing and are available for download.
My hope in founding KidSpirit was to create a non-commercial platform for youth to share their beliefs, values and creativity and to support their development into becoming world citizens with strong inner grounding. Over the last five years, KidSpirit’s issues have had themes ranging from conflict-resolution and peacemakers and mourning rituals around the world, to moments of transcendence, analysis of materialism in culture and reflections on creativity and meaning (you can see an archive of all of our issues online by clicking here). Our young contributors span many parts of the world and they shine as brilliant examples of the honesty, joy and poignant questioning that so often characterizes the shift from childhood to adulthood.
Our all youth Editorial Board has read essays, poetry, journalistic articles and reviewed original artwork from kids from India and Great Britain to Ukraine and the United States, all based on open exchange on probing topics they choose. The cultural and religious dialogue has taken our editors and readers in unexpected directions that would have been almost unthinkable a generation ago.
In one recent meeting, we were fortunate to have a visit from a new young contributor from Afghanistan. This girl, just 15 years old, was in New York to give a speech about the extraordinary circumstances of her life, and was able to share in the editorial process. Nilab sat on the floor with a dozen or so teen editors, each scribbling on their own copy of an article in the process of being edited for publication. After a period of intense concentration, conversation erupted about the piece in question. The dialogue was vibrant but open and constructive, and as usual, the meeting concluded with cookies. Nilab’s fascination with the proceedings was palpable and she contributed much to our afternoon. It was incredible to witness her joy at the experience and the deep respect that her American peers felt for her.
Another ongoing relationship has come from a writer named Prerna who found KidSpirit from a web search while in her home city of Kolkata, India. Over the years, she has shared her views on Gandhi, written about the festival of Diwali and crafted a piece about meaning in life. Each of her submissions has been through a vibrant and interactive process with the editorial board, resulting in growth on all sides.
In many ways, KidSpirit is a reflection of our increasingly pluralistic world. It welcomes kids who identify themselves as belonging to a church, temple, or synagogue, as well as those who don’t. But most importantly, it offers an oasis for youth to pause while in the maelstrom of adolescence and to connect with each other respectfully on questions of meaning. To observe and facilitate that process is to be filled with wonder.
Elizabeth Dabney Hochman is the Founding Editor of KidSpirit Online and KidSpiritMagazine, a nonprofit web community and magazine that empowers teens to explore life’s big questions in a spirit of openness. A graduate of Princeton University, with a Masters in Music from the Mannes College of Music in New York City, she has over fifteen years’ experience as an opera singer. She and her husband live with their two daughters in Brooklyn, New York.