I recently read a social media post from an mother that said she was concerned about her son, who was expressing his love of God. She surprised me by continuing, “I wish I could just enjoy it and not feel this weird sadness about it.”
This caused me to pause and reflect. The anxiety many parents feel about their children’s increasing awareness of all that is sad and wrong and violent hurts. Sometimes as their children’s spiritual imaginations grow, parents’ anxieties and sadness about the disappointments that their children will inevitably discover increases.
Over the years, some parents have shared with me that they love how their children’s developing faith begins to give the children a moral compass and makes helps to them feel safe and loved. These same parents, however, then express concern about just how to talk with their kids later, when they pose more complicated questions about their own personal faith.
Through some study and experience, I can only dare to offer a few observations.
First, we shouldn’t try to protect a child’s innocence. That might seem counterintuitive to most, but experience shows that going to great lengths to shield children from the cruel realities of the world only creates a more anxious situation. Consider, after all, that in our world, children do active shooter drills in elementary schools. Certainly, they will want to know why. But they also will want our reassurance that we will do everything we can to protect them from harm. This is equally true for any of the difficulties they may face in life.
Second, if we try to avoid difficult conversations about things like sexism or racism (two of the most pervasive injustices our world suffers), we do so from a position of privilege. Let’s be frank about this, most of the Episcopal church in our region are white and middle-class. Studies done about talking to children about a topic like racism, for example, reveal that we unknowingly actually nurture racism in young children when we presume that what is normal for us as adults (for example, that the police are always there to help us) is always true for communities of color. It simply isn’t. That fact is unavoidable. Just look at the news.
Third, parents must take an age-appropriate approach to having hard conversations with their children. We can push the boundaries a bit on what we consider “age-appropriate” and give kids, even young ones, much more benefit of the doubt. We may be surprised about the questions kids actually ask – “out of the mouths of babes . . .” Parents might want to be a bit more mindful that it is not enough just to have “the talk” – a once and done attempt at communicating a complicated topic. The best approach may just be to let children ask questions when they ae ready, but be prepared in advance to give the answers they need and can understand.
Fourth, we need to remember that the story of our faith is one where God continually demonstrates the power to create good things from bad situations: the people of Israel was born out of slavery; a renewed creation emerged after a devastating flood; and, most obviously, Jesus rose to never-ending life after cruel suffering and death. The Christian story is one worth sharing with out children. It is a story in which people have believed for centuries because it is holy and filled with truth. It reminds us that the world can be a terrible place and that people can do terrible things. But those terrible things don’t have the last word. (That’s really the central message of the last book of the Bible, Book of Revelation!)
Some in my own family decided to raise their children without “forcing” any kind of faith system or religion on them. By avoiding the Christian story altogether, they believed it would be better for their children to figure out what they believed on their own. They were convinced that it was more important for kids to find their own answers by choosing their own path. The problem is that the kids really didn’t have anything to work with. When faced with tragedy, the children, even as adults, didn’t have the tried and true religious lessons that have sustained us to fall back on. In fact, they didn’t even have anything to reject. In that case, at least they would have something to move away from as they sought to discover answers and find comfort for themselves. As a grandparent in my last parish observed, “It’s hard when they are little, and everything is black and white for them. Faith is so murky. That’s why we bring our grandchildren with us to church when they have them and try to answer their questions as honestly as we can.”
Finally, at some point all parents, whether or not they raise children in a religious tradition, have to “let go.” We begin letting go from the time they are babies increasingly allowing children more and more freedom in their own lives. For example, a six-year-old may select and open his own after-school snacks; a thirteen-year-old may choose which shoes she wants to buy for the first day of school; and, the seventeen-year-old may drive herself to soccer practice.
We might consider taking a similar approach toward kids’ Christian formation. We wouldn’t expect a youngster to know how to open a bag of Goldfish crackers without showing him how. So how can we expect him to know how to pray without showing him?
Because it is just as much our responsibility to protect our children from emotional and spiritual harm as it is from physical harm, the need to let go can be extremely challenging. The truth is, most adults are struggling with their own faith questions. (For a mature Christian, that struggle never ends.) We too often remember our own hurts and struggles and want to protect those we love so much from similar difficulties. These memories of spiritual pain and struggle magnify our anxiety about our children. In the end, we need to remember that every person’s faith journey is not necessarily the same as our own, but that each one needs to take that journey. With a better understanding of how people grow and develop in their faith, it may be a bit easier to avoid overly simplistic forumlas ao that, as our children get older and more sophisticated, they may be able to avoif beomcing totally disillusioned.
So, in the end, it is not despite, but because of life’s trials and disappointments, that we must foster our children’s spiritual imaginations by rediscovering our own.
Source: Rector’s Blog