Here at the grand crescendo of the Christian calendar, Easter, I thought I’d talk about how we communicate our spiritual beliefs, and perhaps our religious traditions, in ways that respect our children’s autonomy.
In the past, when I’ve mentioned that we read Bible stories or that we go to church, I’ve been asked by various people whether I was worried about indoctrination. If you’re one of those people, this post truly isn’t aimed at you and there have been quite of few of you. If I bristled when you asked, it was because you touched a nerve.
I’ve been on a real journey with this. There are many things we did in times past that we wouldn’t feel comfortable doing now. Both our faith and our parenting have evolved and in a sense, now the time is right for me to share what we’re trying to do because I feel at peace.
Encourage them to ask questions
Curiosity is powerfully wired into us. It can drive us to seek out the beautiful, the divine. It motivates us to listen to people who are different from us. It is energetic, creative and always in motion.
And children are naturally curious. They have questions about everything. We honour their questions by listening to them and actually grappling with them. Consider whether a prepackaged answer is designed for the adult’s convenience and whether it simply makes you feel safer.
Welcome their questions. Allow them to arrive at answers you don’t agree with. Nothing is too sacred to question.
Ask your own questions
When you read or hear something together that doesn’t sit right with you, take time to say so and explain why. Ask them what they think. This is how we model critical thinking. It can be done in an age appropriate way.
If you think your child isn’t yet able to look at a story or a concept this way, perhaps it’s worth saving it until they’re older. I wound up having to pass on a “child-friendly” translation of the Bible I’d bought my eldest because it dangerously oversimplified some very complex theological ideas and, looking through it, I realised that so much of the Bible is not age appropriate. Here I feel the respectful choice is to wait until she asks for it.
Don’t pretend you have it all worked out
It’s OK to say that you don’t know. You don’t have to hold all the answers to provide security. In demonstrating gaps in your own understanding, you admit that you and your child are on an even playing field rather than setting yourself up as the authority. If they’re in a space where they need more certainty, offer to help them find answers that they find satisfying.
Let them see your spiritual practice
The gentlest and most effective way to communicate what we believe is to simply live it. This might mean actively finding ways to help others. It may look like speaking intentionally about our choices. Taking time for silence and contemplation and allowing this to transform us speaks louder than any “shoulds” we choose to share.
Be inclusive in your choices
Read books with diverse protagonists. Veer away from a white Jesus. Having grown up as a person of colour with almost exclusively white Christian imagery, my perception of what was holy always came in lighter shades. Everyone benefits from seeing diversity early on so we can see where we all fit in God’s story. A favourite in our house is Matthew Paul Turner’s When God Made You.
I also think it’s time to consider moving beyond gender in our pronouns for God. My children understand that God is not a man. They’re comfortable with saying “He” or “Him” but they’re not phased by me saying “She” or “Her” or simply using no pronouns at all (“God calls us to God’s self”). I realise that this may be challenging for some but, if it is, perhaps it’s worth asking why? Many of us would say that of course God is beyond gender but if so, why then only use male pronouns? Is there something about the way this imagery has impacted our core beliefs about masculinity and femininity?
Recognise other beliefs
Whether other religions come up in our history lessons or we rub up against different world views in our friendships, we aim to always talk about what others believe, wanting to avoid demonising the other person for seeing it differently. For us, this is a natural outworking of where we are with our own way of seeing. We want to remain open-hearted in our stance, ready to learn from others and seeking to understand where they’re coming from.
We don’t always get any of this stuff right and I hope that if our kids look back and find we were off the mark that they’ll feel able to tell us so. If they do, that’s a perspective we’ll need to learn to be open to as well.