On The Spiritual Lives of Children

A single parent, teacher, and grown-up “preacher’s kid” thinks aloud on the ups and downs of raising children with their spiritual well-being at the heart of his parenting.

My thirteen-year old daughter will be confirmed as a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) tomorrow. As any parent of a teenager knows, thirteen is a difficult age, with its emotional and physical changes. Young adolescence is a time when peer approval is the most important thing in a person’s life. Being accepted by one’s peers is more important than what your parents want, than academic performance, or even more important than long-term spiritual welfare. It makes me wonder why the major religions of the world recognize the age of thirteen as that of reaching adulthood. Learning about life has just begun!

As adults who have already experienced these rites of passage, we seek to instill in our children certain moral and ethical values: to treat others the way we wish to be treated, to offer service to others, and to put the welfare of others before that of our own. Again, early adolescence is a time when these moral choices are at odds with our own development. We seek to gratify our own desires when we are young. We can only understand our own views. Empathy, self-sacrifice, and other-centeredness are still too embryonic in our psyches until we reach young adulthood, when those social skills become critical in establishing long-term relationships, allowing them to thrive.

The path of spiritual development for our children is subject to a variety of interpersonal and societal influences. For some teenagers, young adolescence is a time of rebellion and divergence from parental mandates. By standing up to one’s parents and deviating from their wishes, we confirm our own emerging identity. If religion or faith is something our parents want for us, we reject it, claiming that “it’s stupid” or “it’s just not for me.” For children who have experienced trauma, separation or loss, their personal struggles in the form of a difficult family life, painful relationships with siblings, or difficulties at school, have the potential to interfere with their spiritual lives, leaving them vulnerable and open to doubt and a lack of support from two parents who are unable, for whatever reason, to model those spiritual values. There are also many young people who accept the precepts of their parents, who have active prayer and spiritual lives, and who contribute to the community based on the moral and ethical structures imparted by their place of worship and the religious disciplines found within it.

Older adolescence and young adulthood are also periods of questioning and arriving at one’s own spiritual conclusions. When our intellectual capabilities allow us to think in abstract terms, we often question those aspects of religious life that require us to take a “leap of faith,” the intellectual jump through reason and logic, thereby allowing us to arrive at conclusions cannot be proven by rational thought or science. Parents can only hope that the religious education they provided for their children during their younger years has taken firm enough root so that one day their children will come to the same conclusions that they did.

I wonder if these deviations are culturally universal with questioning and rebellion taking place in Jewish, Muslim, or non-western households. Either way, we parents have a few yet potent coping skills at our disposal. First, we must model for your children what we want for them – forgiving them for their shortcomings, surrounding them with love even when anger and disappointment find their way into our relationship with them. We must also work the challenge of their struggles into our own spiritual lives, giving the problems to God while using the resources at hand that He gives to us—the support of our faith community, our spiritual leaders, and that of our family and friends. Finally, patience is critical in any parent-child relationship.  By giving the child freedom to decide for him- or herself within boundaries of appropriate behavior, each child will develop to become an individual – growing to become a good person, in our eyes, in the eyes of others, and hopefully, in the eyes of God.

Image by George Cassutto
Copyright 2011
Used with permission