Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Faith, Kids and Our Job as Parents

I received an email a couple of days ago which caused me to really think deeply about a particular topic.  One of our blog readers wrote  and she is faced with a very heartbreaking situation to explain to other children in her home and asked how we have gone about developing the faith of our children, particularly toddlers.   Her question is as important to me as ones about how do you explain adoption to your children, or how do you explain the birds and the bees.

Like the birds and the bees though, for a number of reasons, sadly, our children's faith lives are often left unaddressed. 

For many of us, (and I include Dominick and I in this as well) our own inattention to the spiritual side of our lives leads us to a place of great discomfort when it comes time to explain spiritual matters to our children.  We find ourselves lacking language and uncertain about what we believe ourselves to be true, making it extremely difficult to articulate our beliefs to our children.  Perhaps we were raised in the church and gradually fell away as we grew older.  Maybe we followed along in line with our parents' beliefs, never questioning or doubting until one day we realized we honestly didn't believe as they did, and then we never moved forward to find a path that made sense to us.  Sometimes, we are raised in unchurched families and find all things religious to be equal parts fascinating and terrorizing.  Maybe we are alienated from church and spiritual dialogue because of our limited experiences, peeking through a tiny virtual window into one corner of the church which reveals to us only the perspectives of televangelists or door knocking Mormon young men dressed neatly and sincerely asking us what we know about Jesus Christ.

Whatever the case may be, discussing God with kids can bring a responsible, capable adult to a place of knee knocking fear.

We were not always a church going family.  I have been honest and open about this in previous posts here on the blog.  I had not been raised as part of a church going family, but Dominick and I did find ourway to a congregation when we were dating and through our first few years of marriage.  It eventually became quite evident to me that this denomination's particular understanding of God was never going to be a good fit for me, and I made a conscious decision to stop attending church when I realized I was feeling further from God when attending church than I ever did prior to finding a church home.  This saddened me deeply, and created a void in my life that took years and years to fill.  Leaving church, in my mind, was the only way to preserve my relationship with God, for actively participating in something that was inauthentic for me was creating a slow death of spirit.

I remember spending many evenings searching the internet, hitting Beliefnet.com, trying to find where I might fit in, wondering what to do with my dangling faith.  It was an invitation from a friend that brought us to our current church, and surprisingly to a way of viewing God that worked for me.  At the time Matthew was 5 and Josh was about 2 1/2, and I had long since felt we were doing them a disservice in this area.

Our first Sundays attending were not our sons' first encounter with God, however.  We carried on conversations often about God in our home, about being guided by an unseen force, about consulting God in prayer on all our decisions, big and small.  They had Bible story books that were read fairly often, and we prayed together sometimes as a family.  All of that aside though, there were indeed questions I felt ill equipped to answer, but we made the attempt.  As they mature, the questions grow deeper, and the answers necessarily become more complex.

What did we do to encourage the growth of the faith lives of our children? Here are a few things that I can think of off the top of my head:

1)  First and foremost, we recognized that our children were fully
complete spiritual beings from the very day of their conception.  They came into this world whole, merely inexperienced.  We recognize their personhood and respect their intellect regardless of their age.  Yes, I mean that quite seriously, even at 12 months old, or 2 years old, or now at 11 or 12 years old.  Their faith already exists, it is our job as their parents to nurture it...or I suppose we can squash it should we choose.  We have never, ever looked at any of our children with disdain for what they don't know, nor have we thought any of the 5 is stupid or somehow incomplete.  We show them what I hope is deep respect, and do so from Day One.  Out of that respect is born reciprocity, and a respect for our opinions about faith and all sorts of other matters.

2)  We give our children space to work things out themselves, and we speak openly about that fact and encourage it.  For example, right now Kenny - who without a doubt is our most spiritually connected child and very theologically oriented - is trying to wrap his mind around who Jesus is to him, and what "Son of God" really means...is it literal or figurative?  Is it different than us being children of God?  Yes, we have these sorts of conversations...and it is not Dominick nor I preaching at him to believe a certain way.  We share our own thoughts and insights, and then always follow it with "That is what I think, but that doesn't make it right...it makes it right for me.  You are free to think differently.  What do you think?"  To help our kids be fully engaged in their own spiritual development, we feel we have to give them permission to think differently than we do.  I would much rather have a child who is contemplating all things spiritual on a regular basis who is coming to different conclusions than my own, than to have a child who blindly accepts what we teach without giving it any thought and one day realizes they have no clue what they really believe beyond what they were told to believe.  That is a crisis of faith.

3)  God has to be a topic that is comfortable for you.  If you are not open and freely able to discusss faith matters, how will your child ever grow to be?  Notice I do not say here that you have to have it all figured out, or that you have to have all the answers.  Not at all, and in fact I think that showing our children that we continue to learn and grow in our faith is important.  Setting ourselves up to be the "Bible Answer Man" for our kids is, in my opinion, a mistake.  Sharing the conclusions we have come to on our own and why we believe the way we do is important, but pretending to be a Harvard educated theologian rings false to any kid, and eventually we lose credibility.  Most of us, if we are honest, don't have it all figured out.  Most of us, if we admit it, do have doubts from time to time.  By allowing ourselves to be "real" with our kids, we invite them on the journey with us, we aren't metaphorically standing at the end of the road with our hands on our hips saying "I have all the answers....just trust me and don't think for yourself."

Working at becoming comfortable with faith language makes all the difference in the world.  I remember a time, not all that many years ago, when simply having the word "Jesus" upon my lips felt like I was an imposter of some sort.  In many ways it really isn't all that much different than coming to a place of comfort with language about the facts of life. 

4)  We have pointed our children toward their pastor.  We want
them to see their pastor as a resource to turn to about faith matters, that a pastor is someone who can help in their faith exploration and is a valuable asset in their lives.  Sometimes they go to them, sometimes they have moved on by the next time we see them.  Our previous pastor sat down with Matthew on a couple of occasions to answer questions he had, we refused to answer them and told him he should go to his pastor to discuss it.  Right now all the kids are in that place with a lot of questions rumbling about, and we are pointing them toward our pastor for discussion. 

Helping our kids be aware of the role of a pastor in their lives provides them with another trusted place to turn to as they develop their faith. 

5)  Explain it.  Then explain it again.  And again.  Don't underestimate anything, and don't forget that as they mature their need for deeper explanations will grow as well.  Revisit topics, discuss those Bible stories again and again and help them see the layers of meaning behind them.  A child of five who thinks about Noah and the ark will view it very differently than a child of ten will.

6)  Bring biblical teachings into today's world for them.  Help them see the truths taught in the Bible as applicable in situations they face every single day.  Create connections for them, make it relevant.  Point out how a certain situation is similar to one in the Bible and how those involved 2,000 years ago handled it.

7)  Model it, but don't make a show of it.  It's not about appearing pious and perfectly righteous to your kids, it's about showing a desire to live a Jesus life and trying hard at it every day.  Admit when you fail, point out your mistakes, talk about how you might have handled it better.  Yea, your kids will see you as fallible and human.  Trust me on this, it does not diminish their respect for you.  Instead, it elevates you as honesty always does.  I have acted in ways at times that I have regretted, and I have had long conversations with our kids about my personal failings, pointing out exactly how and where I went wrong and what might have been a better way to handle it all.  Let them learn from your mistakes, let them see you trying, failing, being forgiven, and trying again.

8)  Protect your kids as best you can, value innocence and do what you can to preserve it as long as you can.  In doing so, recognize that information alone will not wipe away their innocence.  For example, our children have known the very specific facts of life since they were extremely young.  We used correct terms, we answered questions fully...not just with what we were comfortable with...and still most who would meet our kids in person would say there is an innocence there that is unusual for their ages.  There is a difference between sheltering and keeping a child ignorant.  The facts of life will not damage a child, repeated exposure to racy scenes on TV, provocative clothing, and inappropriate role modeling will remove that innocence faster than you can say "Beverly Hills 90210". 

Be mindful of what they are viewing and hearing.  Be mindful of what is being projected yet unspoken in what they see on TV or hear on the radio.  Kids programming is not what it used to be.  Often shows with what some would deem "too adult in content" are actually richer in message than kids content ever will be.

What does innocence have to do with faith?  A lot.  It gives you more time to cement things, it gives you less jaded ears to hear your faith messages.

9)  Become part of a faith community.  Let me say it
again...become part of a faith community.  I find it funny that many have made fun of Hilary Clinton's "It Takes a Village" when it comes to raising kids, and yet those very same people find it enormously important for their children to be part of a "Faith Village".  It IS important for our children to have other adult role models who are actively engaged in developing their own faith lives.  It places faith on a different level to have an older teen from youth group express a belief in God.  As important as it is for us as adults to feel we belong to a like minded group of people, it is equally important for our children to look around and see others whose lives are centered around living a Jesus life...or a Buddha life...or a Muhammed life, whatever path calls you.  We all need to feel supported, we all need to know we are not alone in our doubts and struggles.

10)  Share with your children how you encounter God.  That very moment.  Don't be afraid of revealing too much of yourself.  Don't be afraid of appearing foolish.  When something happens and it is a Spirit Moment for you, share it with your children!  Explain how you saw God in that moment, and why.  Make it deeply personal and meaningful.  This is more than #3 above, this is more than being comfortable with the language and the Bible and being familiar with the stories of our faith. 

This is intimate....this is revealing your very soul to your child.  This is 100% necessary in their faith development.  Children often don't understand how God communicates with us.  We have to provide them with examples, we have to show them ways in which we feel God has interacted with us or reached out to us.  We have to help them find the ways God speaks to them, and we do that by sharing how God chooses to speak to us.  We also explain that God speaks to each of us in different ways, for we all are moved by different experiences. 

I hope that my new friend who emailed finds this helpful in some way.  I really appreciated the question, as it caused me to stop and ponder what we have done in the past...and perhaps what we are not incorporating as much as we should at this stage.  I have no idea how others work to develop the faith lives of their children, and I am certain that many would argue certain points in this post.  There is a large number of folks for whom our more open approach would never work, for it would be inauthentic to them.  Wonderful!  That's quite all right!  Everyone does what works for them, for we all encounter God differently, we each have a different relationship and understanding of God, even within our own families.

I don't want to set myself up as some sort of expert, for most assuredly I am not.  This is just what Dominick and I have come to the conclusion works for our family.  What counts about all the above is not the details, it is in simply doing "it"...whatever "it" might be that works for you.  The single most important thing in developing your child's faith life is to recognize the need to assist them as you can, and to validate that which already resides within them. How you do it is up to you, these are just the ways which we have found work for us.  Maybe there is a nugget to take away for yourself, maybe you think it is all rubbish.  That's OK too :-)   Even thinking about it is a step in the right direction!


Karon and John said...

Words cannot express how thankful I am for your beautiful post. I appreciate your raw openess and it chalenges me to feel comfortable in my spiritual oasis. Our story is we are the adoptive parents of two beautiful children. We are very spiritual, but we do not find comfort in organize relgion where we live. I wish I could have the "faith community" you speak of, but have yet to find where we fit in. It is nice to know that there are people in the church walls that seem so intimidating and jugmental, that are as open hearted as your family. Thank you for giving me hope that one day we will find our place where we can belong.

Kelly and Sne said...

It sounds like you have a very healthy way of dealing with the question of faith and your children. Our family feels much the same as Karon and John in our community. I share your open-mindedness about the personal path that each of us must walk to find our fit. And the wholehearted support that we as parents must provide along the journey. This Christmas I started explaining the meaning of the holiday to my 3-year-old son. I have to admit that after several rounds of "why, Mommy?" I became a bit stumped for answers. Perhaps we can find that fit eventually and those answers.

Bob; Carrie DeLille said...

Written beautifully!