Life's big questions: KidSpirit gives tweens, teens a place to discuss the spiritual and philosphical

Published: Friday, Oct. 26 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Sidarth Jayadev, 10th grade, attends an editorial board meeting for KidSpirit in Brooklyn, New York, on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012.

Elizabeth Stuart, Deseret News

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — When more than a dozen tweens and teens gathered in Elizabeth Dabney Hochman's home earlier this year to brainstorm themes for their innovative KidSpirit website, the topic curiously changed from money to God.

The suggestion to delve into the divine came from just a couple of the kids, so Hochman sat back to see if the idea would get any traction. That's her typical approach to moderating the freewheeling discussions she hosts in her row house here. About the only question she has to throw out to keep the crowd on track is, "What does that mean?"

The group responded with a flurry of thoughtful questions to which they were eager to find the answer: Are young people today more religious? Less religious? What’s the relationship between God and spirituality? Do humans feel a need to believe in greater powers? What is it that drives humans to have faith? Does there need to be a conflict between science and religion?

"When kids start saying things like that ... when they start asking bigger and bigger questions, I can tell there is some electricity about it," Hochman said. "That's when I know they have something kids want to write about."

And that's how an upcoming edition of KidSpirit — on exploring God — was born. Hochman anticipates articles, art and poetry exploring the transcendent submitted from writers and artists ranging in age from 11-17 years, living inside and outside the United States and expressing views from a myriad of faith and cultural traditions.

Now in its fifth year of publication, KidSpirit has been recognized by National Parenting Publications, Grand Magazine, Mom's Choice Awards, the Association for Educational Publishers, Religion Communicators Council and the Parent's Choice Foundation, among others, as a positive place kids can go to engage on issues that adults would not think to ask them about.

"It has the potential to be the next social site to draw the attention of teens who are looking to interact in an environment without any fear of disapproval, betraying confidences or casting judgment — and that's a rare thing today," said a Parent's Choice review.

Although it is not an objective of KidSpirit, the website also has the potential to fuel a larger trend of interfaith initiatives, which are growing in popularity among young adults, particularly on college campuses. The movement appears to counter recent surveys that have found the generation under 30 years old to be the most irreligious, by traditional standards, of any previous generation.

"In order to build bridges of cooperation across religious difference, young people need an interfaith vocabulary and experiences that help them stay grounded in their own traditions, build bridges to those from other traditions, and do common work for the common good," said Peter De Kock, spokesman for the Interfaith Youth Core, based in Chicago and one of the larger interfaith initiatives in the country.

Anxious encounter

Since Hochman conceived the idea of a publication for youth that is written, edited and illustrated by their peers, she has learned to never underestimate the drive, determination and intelligence of the younger charges she directs in the process of producing KidSpirit.

"Not be glib, but because I have seen so much of their work, I am not surprised by what they can do," said the 49-year-old professional singer and mother of two daughters.

As she recounts the story of how she launched KidSpirit, Hochman seems equally amazed that she thought she could jump into the publishing business and make a go of it. A dearth of print or online publications where youth could express themselves on meaningful topics, like spirituality, science or ethics, motivated her to take a class in magazine publishing and patiently jump through the hoops of establishing a nonprofit.

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