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.”
I’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
Young 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
So 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.
“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
3rd in a series about a valuable, simple tool for teaching kids decision-making. The tool is C.H.O.O.S.E. and today’s big idea is to know and follow moral principles. A kid’s morals become their treasure chest of wisdom and guidance.
A child’s treasure chest
A child’s treasures can include their most special toys, a ribbon or trophy won at a swim meet, photos of the most special people and times in their lives. Many of a child’s treasures wouldn’t bring very much money if sold, but they bring something much more valuable: reminders of the best parts of the child’s life. A child’s morals are treasures of great value.
Conversation Starter: A camping story for kids
Imagine you are in the woods camping with your family, having a great time. In fact, you are having so much fun you don’t realize you are wandering deeper and deeper into the woods. Suddenly, it’s dark and you realize you’re lost! Now it’s very dark and you can’t see anything! How do you feel? (scared, alone) After awhile, you look up and see a light coming toward you. You hear your dad calling your name! You go toward the light until you meet your parents, and all of you follow the path back to camp. Now how do you feel? (relieved, safe) You were safe because the light showed you where to go in the darkness!
Four ethical questions can be like a light to children when they’re making a decision:
- Will it hurt me or someone else? If your brainstorming list of options includes ones that will hurt you, cross them off. Same with an option to hurt someone else—hitting, telling lies about them, stealing their things. You can find other ways to deal with your decision.
- Is there something beyond my control? That’s a real important question, because many times the choice we want to make is not within our power. For example, if your parents are getting a divorce, your first choice would probably be to have them get back together. But that is a choice your parents must make and is completely beyond your control. As hard as it may be, you need to cross it off your list of choices.
- How does it feel inside? If a choice feels wrong, cross it off your list. Be careful, though. Some choices may feel uncomfortable, but deep down inside we know they are wise—like choosing to tell the truth instead of covering up with lie. That’s different from feeling uncomfortable because we know it’s wrong—like letting your friend talk you into shoplifting, or letting someone touch you in ways you don’t want to be touched.
- Who can help me choose? Keep a list of people you can talk to whenever you feel confused or just don’t know what to do. (Some kids may include prayer or religious teachings sources of help.)
(Linda Sibley designed the CHOOSE tool and she is excited I’m sharing it here.)
- A child’s morals are treasures of great value, especially when used to make decisions. Read more. Click to Tweet
- 4 moral questions kids can use when making a difficult choice. Read more. Click to Tweet
A milestone occurs when children enter school and their relationship pool increases and deepens. They look for ways to connect with others and with God in new ways.
In grade school, you are still the one they most want to hear from about spirituality and the one they most watch to learn what it looks like to live with spirituality as part of daily life.
But now they act in a way that reveals their need to widen the circle to include their friends’ families and a faith community.
For some parents this seems like the right time to affiliate with a religion or faith community.
Community involvement has to do with how a child practices their spirituality, as expressed through various beliefs, practices and rituals. It is an attractive option for millions of families for addressing the longing in children’s hearts for spiritual understanding.
A faith community links up with a child’s needs for attachment and for trust.
It moves them forward to explore the other relational issue of importance to them: how a connection forms between God and a person. One woman remembers when she began to look for this connection:
Just because I was raised in a home in which God was never talked about, doesn’t mean that I never thought about God.
It is true that this influenced me to think that God was not a relevant part of how I go about living my life. And true that being raised in a home where relationship was deeply stunted influenced me to feel that God is distant, even non-existent.
However, these ideas about God being not relevant, non-existent or distant did not form a foundational belief in my core, even though my upbringing should have prescribed it.
There was nothing in my childhood experience to form in me a belief that God is relevant, real or near, but deep down inside these are precisely the attitudes that were rooted in my core, and even helped me to dig out of the relational laziness or isolation that I could have resigned myself to.
A faith Community is an attractive option for millions of families for addressing the longing in children’s hearts for spiritual understanding.
Tweetable: When is a good time to get my family involved in a faith community? Look here for a few thoughts about it. Click to Tweet