Framework for answering kids’ tough spiritual questions

teen-boy-thinkingOlder children seem to be aware of unexplainable events in their life, events having spiritual or metaphysical overtones. They speak freely to an interested listener, with the attitude that it’s obvious there’s something out there. And they have ideas and questions about what that something might be. It is important to a young person to have adult engagement with their most difficult questions.

Adults can offer a calm presence.

Even though we may have no clue how to answer their specific question, we can offer a non-anxious presence —  a certain comfort level with the contradictions and complexities of a preteen.

mentorWe also offer understanding when they share their outlook:

There’s a lot of time I think I don’t really necessarily believe there’s life after death right now. I’m pondering, toying around with the idea that once you die it’s done, which would put the end to the point of belief right? But at the same time there’s this nagging, well if it is true, I’m screwed.

If a caregiver has a clear belief system…

…we can suggest an answer to a child’s questions in alignment with that belief system, although it’s still a good idea to hear the child out and not try to force your own opinions.

A framework is useful when adults aren’t sure what they believe.

The obvious challenge arises if a caregivers aren’t sure what they believe themselves.What then? Although saying “I have no idea” to an adult is a perfectly fine response, that can be unsettling to a child because it does not provide a safe boundary.

You might consider responses such as:  

  • Some people think X, others think Y.”  “What do you think?”
  • Or “That’s a great question. Let’s explore that together and figure it out,”  followed by an Internet search, a trip to the library and/or some other sources of information.


  • Something to consider when a child’s spiritual questions arise and we’re not sure what we believe ourselves. Click to Tweet.
  • Saying “I have no idea” to an adult is okay, but can be unsettling to a child asking about God. Go here for ideas. Click to Tweet


“Do I have to go to church?”

This question presents an interesting dilemma from the parent-teen perspective. Someone in our blog community shared this story with me. As you read it, consider how you might handle the situation.

Yesterday my daughter asked if she had to go to church. She said she was tired and needed some unscheduled downtime.

After asking her some questions,

it did seem like the issue was more about her time-management skills (too many activities and social events and time spent texting) than about anything specifically at church, which she generally seemed to like.

But her question led to some conversations

about whether or not church was required in our family or optional. My analytic daughter (who will almost certainly go into the sciences) asked, “So if one of us decided we didn’t believe in Christianity at all and we didn’t want to go anymore, would we have to go?”  And of course she kept pressing for an answer, even though I had never really thought that scenario through– or talked about it with her dad (who was conveniently not present at the time so I couldn’t get his opinion).

Eventually I said, “If the reason not to go was that you don’t believe it, we wouldn’t force you to go. That wouldn’t feel good. At the same time, if it’s a matter of just going when you feel like it and skipping it when you would rather sleep in, that wouldn’t feel good either. So the answer kind of depends on the deeper reasons. In this case, let’s talk about how you could prioritize your time so you have that downtime you need.”

churchI’m not sure what we’ll do

if one of our kids really decides to opt out. Most likely they wouldn’t say they didn’t believe in Christianity at all, but simply that church wasn’t a priority at this point in their life. Hmmmm…

After that conversation, the issue seemed to pass.

My daughter hasn’t asked again about having to go to church. But we have had some conversations about what she likes about the experience of attending, and whether she’s going for her own sake or ours. We’ve talked about other families who have different rules and what their reasons might be.

She did, however, opt out of youth group this semester.

In thinking through her time-management and current activities (some of which she shouldn’t drop mid-school-year), she decided something had to go. Together we decided two things. One: She would not have to attend youth group if she didn’t want to. Two: She would have her phone taken away at 10pm on school nights, which would allow for better sleep.

Tweetable: Teen’s question, “Do I have to go to church?” led to a very thoughtful discussion with her mom here. Click to Tweet

Spirituality for young athletes: What good is “almost winning?”

I have 4 nieces on my husband’s side of the family. All are high level competitors—two are professional cyclists and two played volleyball on athletic scholarships at UCLA and Hawaii.

Alison on bikeOne of my nieces, Alison Tetrick,recently reflected about “almost winning.” It spoke to me of child-centered spirituality and I’ve summarized her ideas here.

Our whole lives we are taught to strive to win, to be the best.

Be the best in sport, school, career and even family life. At one point some of us settle for the 80% or even just completion credit. If not, just use a clever filter and crop on Instagram and play the part. No one can be in top form all the time, right? But the athletes we idolize and the CEOs we google-stalk are all considered winners in our book.

We want to be winners too.

Honestly, that’s why I like being in sport. There are clear and concise deliverables.  Whoever crosses the line first, wins. Although it may not guarantee your Olympic bid, you had a moment of winning. But what about the people who really tried? Who gave their best effort? Whose struggle captured the crowd’s heart? The underdog with the compelling story? What about those who almost won?

Is there such a thing as almost winning?

For me, this concept goes back to my first-grade spelling bee. I remember prancing proudly into the house at 7 years old with my second-place ribbon, only to reach the realization that second place was really just the first loser. In this situation being the first loser may have been prevented if I had asked them to use the word in a sentence. I had difficulty pronouncing the difference between “ripe” and “wipe” so I spelled the wrong word. Even so, this is a lesson I will always remember.

Alison racingI have been on both sides of the results and scoreboard.

I have been the rider who even though was victorious, was close to being upset and the crowds murmured about the possibility of dethroning the queen. And I have been the rider who almost won with courage and gusto, but was just passed at the line in dramatic fashion.

The concept of almost winning has been floating in my mind since my return from the Aviva Women’s Tour in Great Britain. Almost winning a Women’s World Tour race and donning the leader’s jersey! Can you imagine!? But, I didn’t win.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Even if you didn’t win, you were a crucial part of sport. You showed courage and tenacity and maybe a little stupidity, but that is what it is all about.  Why else do you line up to a race?

Winning isn’t everything.  Almost winning is something too.

Even if it is just against yourself. You risked, you raced. You put yourself out there to either succeed or fail. That’s why we spectate and participate in sport. We don’t compete to just get a gold star for finishing. We compete to push our limits. To test ourselves. Sometimes the test is your overall effort, not the result. You know when you almost beat yourself, and when you played it safe.

I would rather almost win, than just survive.

Of course I can say that now with hindsight clarity. In the moment I wanted to crawl into a hole. The end result is only one part of the endeavor. You have to have courage under fire and be bold. By doing this, you will have a hell of a story, and you also may surprise yourself and those around you.

Race bikes. Use it in a sentence. Win. Almost win. Lose. But make it count.

Tweetable: For a young athlete in the family, a pro cyclist gives a different perspective on “almost winning” here.  Click to Tweet

Spirituality in adolescence: not what but how

teens rugbyYoung people raised with moral or religious principles and practices typically arrive at adolescence ready to find answers to a questions like “How do I know and experience and be ‘right’ with God? How should that look different for me than it does for my parents?”
After all, the faith they have now cannot be the faith they had when they were 4 or 8 or 10.

Nor will it be their faith when they’re 21 or 48 or 83. Faith is a force that will continue to develop and mature over the course of a lifetime, and sometimes it needs to change in order to continue to invigorate and sustain people as they enter different stages of their own development.

Show them how

teen girl wonderingSo how– now in their teens– can you show the kids in your life how to experience and navigate a relationship with God? Here are some thoughts I have… feel free to adapt them for your own use.

  • Explain “relationship” with God as an internal conversation that includes questions, doubts, heart longings/prayers. God is big enough to handle it all.
  • Ask them questions… and really listen to their answers.
  • Do NOT pretend you have it all together and do NOT pretend you know everything. They will know you are lying.
  • Open up to share appropriately (less is more) when you’re going through something that life throws at you and how you experience God in that situation.
  • Confirm that a relationship with God is a good idea, even when you don’t know all the answers. Open dialogue is good.
  • Invite them to come along with you when you’re doing community service… or just doing something nice for others. Making a meal for someone who just had a baby is a tangible way of showing the love of God. Make that connection.
  • Don’t major on the minors. When kids get sidetracked on minor points of doctrine and belief, try to call their attention back to the main points and general principles.

“But I’m not a religious person.”

if you don’t think of yourself as having spiritual awareness, ask trusted family friends whose spiritual life you respect to stand in for you. Meanwhile, communicate positive intent toward God and faith, much like divorced couples who have learned it is best for the children to speak positively of the other parent, though they personally feel quite differently.

The evidence confirms the value of faith to young people.

Studies of religiousness/spirituality have found a positive correlation with an adolescent sense of well-being, positive life attitudes, altruism, resiliency, school success, health and positive identity, as well as a negative correlation with alcohol and drug use, delinquency, depression, excessive risk-taking and early sexual activity.

Their questions are deeper than we think.

teen boy 1“A number of years ago I overheard my then teenage son discussing with his friends the origin of AIDS. Not how AIDS developed…. rather they were arguing why — a deep spiritual question. Was this disease a simple development of nature? A cosmic punishment? Or even a divine opportunity for compassion?

The conversation surprised me,” said Dr. Ken Doka. “I was confounded by the intensity of the debate. I should not have been. We often fail to acknowledge the intense spirituality that underlies adolescence. It’s a spiritual time of development, complete with idealism and questions of identity and meaning.

Tweetable: The faith adolescents have now cannot be the faith they had when they were 4 or 8 or 10. Here’s why. Click to Tweet


How we encourage kids to act on what they decide

fireworksCelebrate when children make a realistic plan and act on one of their choices! (They are succeeding at a skill more than a few adults have not mastered.) It may not be perfect. They may have overlooked some important criteria. Maybe they need to move on to one of their other options. Yet with each new venture they learn valuable lessons about seeing things through.

See it through  —  act on the choice

The first four steps of the C.H.O.O.S.E. tool teach children to think about the wisest choice they can make. Now they take action.

The best choices are not necessarily the easiest!

In order to “see it through” children learn to do things that are wise but feel scary or difficult—taking a risk. They don’t know how risks will turn out. But they only develop new skills by taking risks.

A child’s follow-through increases significantly when they ask for and receive help.

It’s okay to make mistakes or forget sometimes. The point is to keep talking about it and working at it until the child accomplishes the goal.

Conversation starter:  A girl is learning to see it through

Shiloh, Melissa’s preteen daughter, made a choice that looked great on paper. She chose to talk to someone when she felt hurt instead of eating to cover up her feelings—and it’s proving to be a struggle to keep her commitment.

Shiloh walked into the house hoping no one was home.

oreosShe didn’t feel like talking to anyone. She was in luck—nobody was home. Without even realizing what she was doing, she put her books on the table and went immediately to the kitchen and grabbed the package of Oreos. How lucky can you get! She took a fistful and started twisting them open so she could scrape the creamy middle off with her teeth before crunching into the chocolate wafers.

Somewhere in the distance she heard a car door slam. At the moment, however, chocolate wafers and creamy middles were all she cared about.

“Shiloh, where are you?” her mom yelled as she stumbled through the back door, her arms overstuffed with grocery bags. “I need some help with —” she stopped in mid-sentence when she saw the cookie package clutched tightly in her daughter’s arms. “Uh, I take it things didn’t go very well today.”

Shiloh looked up, surprised by her mother’s words. “Why do you say that?”

“You’re eating cookies as if your life depended on it.”

“I know you. Whenever you get upset, you eat. Are you going to get a part in the school play?”

“I don’t know yet,” Shiloh said with her mouth full of cookies. “The list gets posted next week.”

“Shiloh, stop it!” Her mom said, prying the cookie package out of her daughter’s hands. “What happened to the list of things you could do instead of eating when you feel anxious? You decided you wouldn’t do this anymore—eat to cover up your feelings. We’ve talked this through a million times.”

“It was a dumb decision. It’s too hard, Mom. I can’t do it!”

Her mom sighed and said, “Yes, you can! And I will help if you’ll let me.” When Shiloh nodded, her mother continued, “Great! I remember your decision was to tell someone what happened and how you are really feeling. Do you want to talk about it?”

Be aware of opportunities for follow-through on choices made by children this week. Praise them when they do well carrying out a choice. Be aware of their need for help. If the child did not follow through with a choice, make time to talk about it.

(Linda Sibley developed the C.H.O.O.S.E. tool and shared Shiloh’s story with us.)

Tweetable: It’s not enough to know what to do, a kid has to see it through and do it.How we can help them succeed. Click to Tweet

Deciding which choice to try builds a child’s willpower

choiceWe’re at the midway point of the C.H.O.O.S.E tool, which builds willpower and gives children a sound decision-making process they can carry throughout their lifetime.

Deciding what to do–one choice to TRY

This is the point at which the child settles on one good option to TRY in the situation.

After working through the previous steps of the C.H.O.O.S.E. tool, the only options on the child’s list are the wise ones. Sometimes the best option emerges very quickly, and other times it takes a while and the child may have to try a few different options before one works.

kid beachAt times, children may not want to try any of their options. Why not?

  • Fear of failure
  • Need for approval from parents or others (e.g. people-pleasing)
  • Disconnection from their source of guidance

For example, if you believe they are afraid to fail, see if they want to revisit the brainstorming process until the child convinces himself he does indeed have enough information to make a choice.

Maybe the child can’t decide because she wants to choose an option she thinks will not please you.  You can assure her you see her point of view and you are supportive of her choice no matter what the outcome.

Remember, the list contains only positive choices in the sense that unsafe choices or those with consequences that can’t be undone have already been deleted.  Furthermore, you will be there to help the kids identify what they are learning from the choice and what they might want to do differently next time. This builds willpower.

Getting it right is not the point.

Rather, by taking time with the child to carefully think about each possibility, children can be increasingly confident of making the best choice they can–and move on.

The goal is the child’s growth in the ability to make a good choice based on careful evaluation of all the options.


  • When a child is confused about making an important choice, take a closer look at these 3 hindrances. Click to Tweet
  • Here’s some practical guidance when a child procrastinates in making a decision. Click to Tweet