Rev. Dr. John Westerhoff, author of “Will Our Children Have Faith?” (full disclosure: I have never read the book), hosted a Q&A in our Christian Parenting Sunday School class this weekend.
My husband asked him if he had one piece of advice for the parents of young children, what it would be.
He responded by saying he would say three things:
(2) Be yourselves, and
(3) Do things with your children, instead of for them or to them.
That’s pretty good advice, in my opinion.
He also answered lots of questions about how to teach children about spirituality. The questions approached the issue from a variety of angles: how to help a child sort out real vs. not real (e.g. Bible stories, childhood characters, etc.), how to help children pray and understand prayers that seem to have gone unanswered, etc.
His answers had one basic theme. That theme was, work on your own faith, and you will more naturally become an example for – and understand how to help – your children. From a slightly different angle, instead of trying to figure out what to teach your kids about a particular topic, figure out what you really believe and tell them that.
That seems like such a simple principle, but I will admit that it had eluded me until Dr. Westerhoff said it so plainly. Before we struggle with how to convey our beliefs to our children, we have to know what we believe.
Maybe the kids are struggling with the reality of some Old Testament stories as they learn that their favorite Disney characters are make-believe. Well, before answering their questions, we need to ask ourselves, “What do we really believe about the Bible?”
Before dealing with a child’s frustrations over prayers for a grandparent who is still sick, we need to ask ourselves “Well, what do we really believe about prayer?”
The shift in thinking struck a particular chord with me because my husband and I have been trying to figure out how to expose the kids to two different strands of the Christian tradition (My husband is Catholic; I considered myself a non-denominational Protestant until joining a Methodist Church several years ago and still prefer to be simply identified as “Christian”).
As we do this, I have been constantly asking myself, “What parts of each of our traditions would be important for the kids to experience?”
After hearing Dr. Westerhoff, I now believe I’ve been asking the wrong question. Instead of making the primary inquiry, “What would be good for the kids?”, my husband and I should be asking each other, “What parts of your faith background are important for you to experience as a part of your spiritual journey and commitments?” If we both (1) carefully consider that question, (2) answer it honestly, (3) commit to experiencing those essential elements as a family (when it is age-appropriate for the kids to be involved and church-sanctioned to have a non-member spouse participate), and then (4) really think about all of it in terms of what overall experience that creates from the perspective of the kids, then we have our family’s spiritual roadmap.
I was greatly relieved to have a new framework, until I realized how much thoughtful work was going to be involved in this new approach. So I leave you with this question:
Does anyone have any advice on how to answer such big questions relatively quickly while spending the bulk of our days chasing young children? Because it would be nice to figure out what we believe and how to teach that before our kids are completely grown!
(I say this somewhat facetiously, because honestly, one of my key beliefs is that there are a few BIG TRUTHS we need to affirm over-and-over with our children (this is important), but the rest of the kids’ questions are ok for me to answer with, “Different people believe different things about that”, then ask the kids what they think, and admit that aside from those BIG TRUTHS, there are a lot of things I just really don’t know…”)
P.S. I am still sorting all this out in my head and have mixed in my thoughts about specific issues (like beliefs about scripture and prayer) with my thoughts about an overall approach for choosing our family’s spiritual path. That may mean this post comes across as confusing…My apologies if any part of it doesn’t make sense.