Complicating Our Children’s Faith

February 8, 2019

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

My faith status has been, “It’s Complicated,” for a long time.

You all know the story by now: grew up fundie, deconstructed my faith, can’t really figure out if I’m still Christian, desperately trying to heal from my spiritual wounds. When it comes to faith, I am a big mess of complications, helplessly entangled in all the strands of toxicity, identity crises, cognitive dissonance, and trauma.

I wrote a book called, Parenting Forward, to make sure we do far better for our children, that we pass on a more holistic version of faith and a healthier way of being human. I wrote the book to ensure our children have less to unlearn, to grow up less damaged—that their spirituality could be a beautiful thing in their life instead of the chaos and confusion it has been for me.

The solution to complexity, then, must be simplicity, right? Strip away all the “extra” stuff of religion and boil things down to the basics for the children, and they should be all set to go.

Believe it or not, that is what the fundamentalist religion of my childhood did for me. It’s simple, they had said, everything can be stripped down to a gospel tract, a five minute sermon, a bridge of salvation, an acronym, a single, simple prayer.

Some of my progressive friends might say, well we can simplify our faith and make it all about God’s love. Jesus consolidated all the commandments into love God and love neighbor after all, that should be everything.

I’m pretty sure I’ve said the same thing, but unfortunately, there are limitations to “simplifying” faith in this way for kids, because it turns out, love covers up a whole multitude of sins. Who determines what love is, which version of God is Love, how do we love our neighbors, which neighbors are we to love, who prefers what kind of love, which love counts, and how do we know when we’re being loving and when our love has actually turned toxic?

To leap to an extreme example, most child predators groom children in the most loving of ways.

Our faith is dynamic and ever changing, especially in the rapid pace of development in our children’s first years of life. Forcing the fluidity of our faith into absolute doctrines will ultimately harm their spiritual development because it will be inconsistent with their lived experience.

Ironically, in order to give our children a robust faith (mostly) free of drama in adulthood, what we really need to do is complicate the heck out of the faith we offer them in these younger years.

How do we complicate their faith, especially when children so often crave concrete-literal answers? Does God exist? Is this story for real? Where do I go after I die? Don’t give absolute answers, but add qualifiers, like, “Right now, I believe ,” or “Some people think ,” or “I used to believe _ and now I think this _.” ‘I don’t know’ and ‘what do you think?’ are also great ways to complicate their faith.

Do not worry this will confuse the kids.

First, kids are capable of a lot more nuance and uncertainty than we give them credit for. Sometimes I think we believe they can’t handle uncertainty because we were raised with certainty of faith. Children are resilient and if we raise them to tolerate uncertainty, they will rise to the task of managing ambiguity which will serve them in the long run.

Second, kids crave security and bonding from their caregivers, not certainty of doctrine. You taking the time to listen to their questions and answer them as truthfully as possible is an act of love so tender that it will be enough to ground them with security.

As their world expands in adolescence and beyond, and their capacity for critical thinking deepens, complicate their faith by giving them tools of investigation, to probe their internal landscape and to explore the world they traverse. Help them live joyfully in the world but also see the complicated truth, because life is gritty and nuanced, and the increasing ability to describe the reality in which they live, gives them the agency to participate in shaping that reality.

Teach them different ways of living in this world. Different ways of believing. Disrupt their status quo. Show them how to make fun of themselves and get irreverent about all faiths. It’ll be uncomfortable and liven up family debates and people will get emotional and upset and it will be GLORIOUS, because you’re laying the foundation for your children to be whole and take up space with all of themselves—which is complicated. 

And they’ll walk into the world knowing they can love fiercely and disagree completely with people they consider family.

They’ll investigate new ideas and insert their valid opinions because diminishing themselves have never been an option.

They will come face to face with conflicting and complicated faith, both inside of themselves and with their communities, and they’ll grab hands fiercely with those they love and take on the hard things like the badass ladies and gentlethems you’ve raised them to be.

My book, Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy & Kindness is available for pre-order. Be sure to check out the pre-order bonus under the Parenting Forward tab of this blog, the offer ends when the book releases February 26th!