|I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an expert at parenting. Although I’m working on it daily, I’m not there yet. My kids are young, and I’m still pretty new at this. (My brilliant friend Noa quips, “I was a great parent before I had kids.”)
Although I obtained one Masters in Religion and another Masters in Education with a concentration in the spiritual-religious development of adolescents, this doesn’t mean I’m an authority on the topic. Even when my children are older, I doubt I’ll be an expert. What I can tell you is this: nobody is an expert.
There are no longitudinal studies that give any solid advice for parents on this topic. Although a few studies have been conducted on the ‘typical’ development of God beliefs from childhood to adulthood, there’s nothing in academic literature that advises us on how parenting or religious affiliation affect a child’s religious beliefs.
No one has a clue if having a Christmas tree or not having one, believing in the tooth-fairy or not, or having a Mormon neighbor have any correlation to a child’s ability to develop a healthy spiritual-religious life when they are older.
Studies do suggest that having a strained relationship with a father can lead to a desire to delve into religion and that continual tragedy can mature one’s spiritual-religious growth – neither of which I would quite advocate as parenting strategies.
This leads me to suggest to parents: you are the expert. It’s your child. You are your child’s guide. Do the best you can. Lead them with confidence not knowing what you are doing.
Here are my general guidelines:
- Be honest with your child. Tell them you don’t have all the answers, and that any answer must come from inside of them.
- Allow your child to have different beliefs than you at different times in their life. They’ll go through stages. Don’t tell them what to believe. Instead, allow them to explore. Allow them to ask questions.
- Be a model for them. Show them it’s OK to struggle with God beliefs. Tell them “not knowing” is fine.
- Encourage them to ask other people what they think. Inspire them to ask other adults, “What do you think about God?”
For that matter, I encourage you to ask other adults what they think about God. (If you are bold enough, do it openly instead of hiding behind your child. Instead of saying, “Little Jimmy was wondering…” say “Jimmy and I were wondering…” Or better yet, say “I was wondering.” That’s real modeling.
I know as parents, we want only the best for our children. We want our kids to grow up and live in a world where they can clearly distinguish right from wrong, good from bad, God from non-God. We want certainty and solutions, but sometimes this is not possible. With regard to all the impossible questions, there are only different levels of comfort in the discomfort of unknowing.
The worst thing I or any other religious person can do is to undermine you as the foremost authority on your child’s religious development.
Spiritual-religious advice: Be the expert for the children in your life, model for them what a healthy spiritual-religious life is.