Like it or not, a child’s caregivers mirror God’s character in the child’s eyes. No doubt you’ve been part of conversations like this:
My 3-year-old asked me something–I’ve forgotten the exact question–but it was something I didn’t know the answer to. So I told him, ‘Hunter, I don’t know the answer to that question.’
As if he hadn’t heard me, he asked the same question again. Again I said, ‘I told you already; Daddy doesn’t know the answer to that question.’
‘Yes you do, Daddy,’ he said with confidence, ‘you know everything! Now tell me the answer!’
Obviously it sorts itself out and children grow to grasp the reality that my parents are only human.
Yet a spiritual component remains in effect.
The way caregivers express their values and emotions “wires” the child’s brain for the way children will perceive their higher power.
As a father held his crying little daughter in his arms, one of his statements to her was, “God knows we are sad when we lose something we like, but he promises to hold us just like I’m holding you right now.”
A mother of two explains how she understands the mirror image.
Let’s say Sally is crying because she has scraped her knee. An empathetic parent would come to her aid asking how she is doing rather than curtly telling her to stop crying like a baby. This child feels understood and connected, and the universe makes sense to her.
Author Curt Thompson states, “This mindful approach to the emotional state of a child literally prepares a template at a neurological level that enables the child to grow into an awareness of a God who also cares about his or her joys, hurts, fears and mistakes.”
The child ultimately is able to envision God as responsible and trustworthy and that the world is safe, despite the apparent contradictions.
When you consider this idea, do you feel increased frustration or increased hope?
Tweetable: The way caregivers express their values and emotions “wires” the child’s brain for the way children will perceive God. Click to Tweet
“There were maybe 5 kids sitting in a car across the street,” author Kara Powell says, recalling how she tripped and fell as a teenager. “I remember them laughing at me as I picked myself up. But that was in front of five kids, and it was over in five minutes. Today, if someone caught a moment like that on a smartphone and shared it on social media, that shame could live with the kid for the rest of high school.”
The merging of public and private
In recent years, awareness of shame has intensified in our society and our children are not immune. Psychologist Brene Brown describes an inner sense of unworthiness, often rooted in trauma and embarrassing experiences. Children may come to feel they are bad or good based upon what their community says about them.
The Hunger Games
Andy Crouch observes that some of the most powerful dynamics of today’s youth culture are preoccupied with shame and fame. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss Everdeen and her fellow tributes make every move under the watchful eyes of her nation’s culture of spectacle. “The power of the trilogy is that it centers on a young woman trying to maintain goodness and honor in a world that seems to offer only fame and shame,” observes Mr. Crouch.
Resilience to shame
He continues, “The remedy for shame is not becoming famous. It is not even being affirmed. It is being incorporated into a community with new, different and better standards for honor. It’s a community where [for example] weakness is not excluded but valued; where honor-seeking and boasting are repudiated, where connection is important.” This kind of community can give children shame resilience.
Children who believe in God experience shame resilience when they internalize the good news of God’s provisions for covering shame and guilt.
Furthermore, children acquire shame resilience as we encourage them toward self-care, which may mean pulling away from unhealthy people and self-defeating situations. The ability to differentiate and yet maintain the connection can be profoundly redemptive.”
How do you generate shame resilience for the important children in your life?
(Note: Mr. Crouch’s complete article here.)
- Awareness of shame has intensified in society but we can help our children build immunity. Click to Tweet
- How do you generate shame resilience for the important children in your life? Click to Tweet
Passing along spirituality to others can be fraught with many pitfalls and misconceptions. We must never try to force or convince, yet must still be open to those who are curious and seeking– especially when the seekers are the children in our lives.
Notice the approach this parent chooses with her preteen.
Recognizing spiritual development is an ongoing process, here’s a story about how one mom handled a difficult question from her 12-year-old. Your answer, and any alternative viewpoints you cite, might have been different, as you’d be speaking from your own beliefs.
“So Mom, do you think there’s a hell?”
The question came out of nowhere, as far as I could tell. We had a movie on and it was paused for a bathroom break. This is when my son decides to ask me about hell.
Although we periodically attend a Protestant Christian Church, I don’t have very formed ideas about hell. It is just not a subject that comes up much. So I first decided to see where the question was coming from: “Why do you ask?” “Well, Max from church said that people who are bad go to hell.”
Okay, I thought to myself, so the question is theoretical and not related to anyone specific dying. Now how do I answer when I’m not sure myself? Here’s what I came up with:
“Honestly, I am not really sure.
“I can tell you what I think, but I may be wrong. I do think heaven and hell exist, but I think that God would not force anyone to be with him in heaven who didn’t want to be with him. If someone didn’t want to be with God, they could choose not to be. Hell—I think—is the absence of God rather than fiery flames. Now some people think hell is literal fiery flames, and some people think it doesn’t exist at all.
“What do you think?”
My son then went on to think out loud about the idea of hell being so horrible, but also about the need to punish bad people, like Hitler. He seemed conflicted, and I could see that this conversation—like many other spiritual topics—would need to be an ongoing one as he thought through what he believed. I committed then to try to serve as a safe sounding board for him as he would think things through over the years. Then maybe in the future he would serve as a safe sounding board for others.
Tweetable: One mom does a good job handling her 12-year-old son’s question about hell. Here’s what she said. Click to Tweet
School children often learn about historical figures who change their country through their fight against injustice. Mathatma Gandhi, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, Nellie Bly, Tommy Douglas.
Many figures throughout history who have fought against injustice acted out of a deep sense of spiritual direction. They were compelled, so to speak.
Some of those who are children now will grow up to be agents of transformation.
They may not all get written up in the history books of tomorrow, but they can all make a difference in the world around them– in ways both big and small. How can we help them discover the ways God may be calling them to make a difference in their world?
In your context, what opportunities do you see?
- When the child is upset by a particular injustice, I discuss risks and rewards of involvement in the cause.
- I encourage the child to read biographies of historical figures they admire for standing against injustice.
- The child could take part in some local push for change.
- I can model responsible social involvement, such as volunteering, recycling, voting, and being aware of current events.
- When I see the child make a positive difference in their environment– even in a small way– I highlight it and praise them for it.
For one grandmother, it looked like this:
I live in an older neighborhood that has become increasingly run down and dangerous over the years. We used to have a large store nearby, but it got torn down and became an empty lot that was seeing more and more gang activity.
Some of us who have lived here for years planned a meeting to talk about what could be done, and my 16-year-old grandson happened to be visiting when the time for the meeting came around. He tagged along with me, bringing his iPhone so he’d have something to do.
But I noticed during the course of the meeting that he was texting less and listening more.
Based on what he heard, he decided to get involved in bringing change to the neighborhood. He helped clean up the empty lot. He contacted the city councilman for our district to ask for funds to make the area into a small park. He even volunteered with an organization that moved into the area to provide a safe place for kids to hang out after school.
He jokes and tells me that he’s just doing it because it will look good on college applications, but I know better. He knows now that his actions can make a difference– he’s caught the bug for community activism.
- What adults can do now to guide those children who will grow up to be agents of transformation. Click to Tweet
- How can we help children discover how God may be calling them to make a difference in their world? Click to Tweet