I interviewed a man whose parents understood the need to tailor their spiritual conversations to each of their children. He was able to offer this perspective:
I am adopted and so are my brother and sister. Our values seem remarkably similar. We are always going to take the kitten out of the storm. That is what our parents taught us to do.
But we don’t otherwise parrot our parents and we don’t much resemble each other. This has led me to favor a theory of human nature wherein we are bestowed a core personality type. You could say this is largely through genetic make-up or perhaps you could call it the soulish essence of a person.
Environment may pinch or stretch or permanently stain us but our essential traits are immutable.
These essential traits show up, for example, in a child who likes routine.
In her spiritual development, this child will resonate with scheduled times for prayer, inspirational readings in the same favorite location every day, or regular attendance at religious services.
Another more free-spirited child will find this style constraining…
and boring and “something I have to do.” So we approach this child about talking to God wherever, whenever, spontaneously. When you are out doing active things and you feel God’s presence, say a prayer of gratitude. When you get yourself into a precarious situation, call on God’s help. In these ways you help them connect with God in different ways that align with their personality.
Adults who take a truly holistic view of children often feel a responsibility to attend to their spiritual need to connect with God just as much as to the physical, emotional and social need to form relationships with other people.
They realize it doesn’t make sense to enforce one style, one method, or only the approach that works for them.
A child’s core personality guides caregivers in how to discuss spirituality. Click to Tweet
Different aspects of God’s character are going to attract one child more than another.
A child who likes routine
With a child who does not like change, who likes routine, and who references the past for clues about what to do in the present, God’s unchanging nature (the same today as he has always been) draws that child close.
So if your child worries about things, you can reassure him that the problem he has now is something God has seen before, and what you know of God in the past is what you can expect to see in the future.
A high energy child
Another child is high energy, curious, and all about action and excitement. If you focus with this kid on God being the same today as he has always been, he doesn’t get excited–how boring!—and does not connect strongly with this part of God’s character.
To this child you talk about God being the most adventurous person they’ve ever seen, how God is right there with them when they are taking risks, doing brave and exciting things. Don’t expect them to relate with a God who is boring or who has lists of rules.
While another child wants to do what’s right and needs structure, rules make this action-seeker want to rebel. Rules? I want to be outside the box, to push the limits, to test the boundaries.
A better approach is to emphasize how difficult it is to do the right thing. When you stand out from the crowd for doing what is right or just or good, you are very brave.
We give children a complete picture of what God is like….but
We think through which characteristics are going to click with each one. If this is overlooked, God can seem foreign to them, and makes it more difficult for them to find the connecting points they seek.
When a child asks about God, here’s an idea for matching their personality to God’s characteristics. Click to Tweet
One family doesn’t encourage their children to dress up for church, even though most of the kids who attend dress up a bit more. If you ask them why, they’d tell you: We don’t have to dress up and look good to present ourselves to God. Come as you are.
The point is not about proper attire for church, temple, or mosque
Each culture has different clothing that may be considered appropriate, and for different reasons. A mosque may require modesty in dress. An African American church may encourage people to wear their best as a celebratory gesture in worship.
The point I make with that story is that we need to find a way to help the children in our lives present themselves with honesty to God and others. Some parents have a primary concern about what others will think of them if their child does something wrong. What will the neighbors think? That preoccupation can be subtle but damaging. It tells children they must look good above all else, with very little room for the mistakes that teach them so much.
Instead of worrying about what others think, what if we flip the focus back onto the child?
What will help develop their human spirit?
- Letting them make mistakes.
- Not covering those mistakes up.
- Helping them process wrongdoing so they can learn from it.
- Serving as a sounding board as they think, reflect, and make the kind of internal changes that will allow them to grow.
There’s a big difference between asking, “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” and asking, “How would that look to so-and-so if they saw you doing that?” One results in personal growth, the other in external conformity. The difference is between looking good and being good.
- How can we find a way to help children present themselves with honesty to God and others? Click to Tweet
- Be a sounding board as a child reflects and thinks and you’ll see them grow in common sense. Click to Tweet
One man remembers doing something wrong when he was young, and having his parents feel bad and embarrassed about it. They were essentially taking responsibility for his actions. They felt that their son’s wrongdoing reflected on them.
Do you see how this response displaces the guilt?
It becomes all about how the parents look instead of about what the child is learning. This type of negative reinforcement encourages the child to hide his future wrongdoings, so as to not bring shame on his parents.
Conversely, a child of a different temperament might respond differently
In this same situation, she might act out and misbehave in an active attempt to bring shame to her parents. She might also develop a pattern of placing the blame for her own actions onto others: “It’s the teacher’s fault I failed.” “My friends made me do it.”
Instead, put the responsibility back on the child
“Wow, yes, that is messed up! How are you going to fix that?”
And then listen to their response with real curiosity, because it is ultimately up to them to try to make things right. No one else can fix it for them.
When you feel responsible for your kids’ actions, something is wrong.
Granted, we are responsible to teach and model right behavior for them. But when they mess up, it’s up to them to take responsibility for their actions, not us. Yes, someone might think we are bad parents. But it’s better for the long-term development of the child.
Tweetable: When you feel responsible for your kids’ actions, something is wrong. Find a different perspective here. Click to Tweet