Many parents of teenagers or adult children ask: how do I pass on my core faith values to my kids? Storybooks and pithy quotes may have been effective when they were children, but adolescents will likely look outside the family for cues about their identity and a worldview that fits them; the parents’ belief system may not be an easy sell. Sometimes parents feel that, whether they dropped the ball or not, the ‘training’ their kids got when they were young was woefully inadequate and they want to make up for lost time. Let’s face it: if your beliefs are important to you, then you certainly want to give them the best chance with your offspring. How is the spiritual ‘baton’ passed?
In the Western world, this question goes all the way back to Abraham, father of three faiths, and his deep desire to bequeath God’s promises to his children and grandchildren. Both Jewish and Christian families may be familiar with the ‘Shema’ that begins “Hear O Israel” and succinctly captures the essence of the call to love God. What is less quoted are the very following verses from the Torah:
“Recite [these words] to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6: 6 – 9)
Passing on the faith is nothing new. But we live in a very different age and culture than Abraham’s. What might ‘passing on the faith’ entail in the 21st century? Being a father of three and a pastor of many, I have found some practices helpful and others not so much. Let’s begin with the not so much:
- Don’t push institutions. If there’s any feature of modern-day society that has lost respect, it’s organized religion. For many younger generations, church is seen less as a solution and more of the problem. If a young person has a positive experience and connection with a local place of worship, encourage it. But if not, do not guilt trip them into going; nothing will be less effective in the long run. After all, institutions don’t love people; people do.
- Don’t preach. This has always been a dubious pedagogical tool especially if trust is shaky. Nobody likes to be told what to do or what to believe. Be careful to avoid the subtle ways we try to slip in our lessons: “Maybe you should . . . “ or “Our family has always . . .” or “When you’re older you’ll see that . . .” My kids can smell a sermon coming their way a mile away. And they will bolt!
- Stop asking them what they believe. It’s nagging, it projects judgment, and it gets old. Did you know what you believed at age 17? It also projects the idea that if they adhere to a certain prescribed family doctrine or creed that all will be well and you’ll be off their back. Is it true? If so, you need to check your motives.
- Don’t condemn. If they decide to follow a religious stripe that is not your own, it does not mean they have become un-spiritual or un-ethical. On the contrary, it may mean they have become even more dedicated to finding truth. Affirm the aspects of their new faith that you can agree with, find common ground, and encourage them to embrace their newfound faith. Are you worried about a label or about substantive reflection about how to live? Be willing and ready to have your own convictions tested.
- Don’t write them off. They say you can never truly judge how much a child grows up to be like their parents until they reach the age of 40. The spiritual life is a journey and it is rarely linear. Be patient.
And what is helpful?
- Give them space. By no fault of their own, young people today were born into a season of tectonic shifts in religion. Core beliefs about the very nature of God and any organization that portend to represent God are being upended as we speak; the church universal is in the middle of an identity crisis. It’s a lot to fathom. Your child – youth or adult – is craving a space to try out novel propositions about his or her world without being judged by any one of them. Real life beliefs, ones that last, are formed when one is given the freedom to question, evaluate, consider, and grapple. Where can they do this safely? A space for this is a real gift.
- Tell them what YOU believe. How about instead of questioning them about what they believe you turn the tables. When was the last time someone asked you what you believe? Can you articulate it? Even better, let them put you on the hot seat: if you get tongue-tied trying to answer their questions/critiques of your faith, well, then you’re making progress!
- Affirm their doubts. If nothing else, make absolutely sure they know that you are OK with their doubts. Everyone, self included, of any depth of faith has doubted what they believe at some point in their life. It’s normal and healthy. It may not be an ideal place to end up but it’s a great place to start. And the best way to affirm their doubts is to describe your own even if it’s been a while since you had them (maybe it hasn’t!).
- Create an atmosphere of spiritual discovery. Some of the hardest conversations to have are the ones we need most – religion is no exception. What we base our lives upon is worth substantive dialogue. What better place to foster this than in the home. This is not easy esp. if such discussion has ended badly in the past. Look for times, occasions, settings that might be conducive. Don’t force them. Let them emerge naturally. Everyone thinks about faith at one time or another. Make it easy to discuss in your presence.
- Grow your own faith! If you are concerned that your child may be wandering away from the faith of their fathers and mothers, by far the most effective remedy is allowing God to change your life! Give them a front row seat to divine intervention. Trust God more. Let God re-arrange your life. Embrace your core beliefs and let them transform your ethic and lifestyle. Dig deep and uncover the best of your faith tradition and soak it up. Let your children see faith at its best! Believe me, it will make a difference in their belief system.
We all love our children and want the best for them and that includes a life rooted in something beyond themselves. But remember: growing those roots takes time, may continue well into adulthood, and are best grown with lots of nurture, care, and grace. And if we believe in a God who loves them there is no better way to pass on the faith than demonstrating that love.