As children get older, their disappointments grow larger. Hurt and angry feelings get directed at God too, often due to:
- Prayers not answered.
- Hurt by religious people.
- Overwhelmed by evil and suffering in the world.
Many children say that unanswered prayers disappoint them the most.
They see the needs within their extended family. They hear the adult conversations. Some of them pray about it. When the situation doesn’t change according to their wishes, they may conclude that God hardly listens and feel personal rejection by God.
This topic is obviously a vast and complex one. My only goal here is to try to find a few ways we can help children when they feel disappointed with God. We can help them when we:
- Offer empathy by listening without trying to change them or their feelings.
- Accept all the child’s feelings and thoughts about God.
- Express care and support.
- Be mindful of our own feelings about God and not try to project them onto the child.
- Sort out expectations or conditions the child places on God.
Every relationship involves expectations.
1. Ask the child, “What do you expect God to do when you pray for something?” Allow the child to respond by writing it or by speaking it or by returning to it later after they think about it. Now here’s the part we almost always overlook: Help the child find a way to express expectations directly to God (and how they feel about it), using an approach they decide on.
2. Help change expectations to be more realistic.
- In what ways do they expect God to respond?
- What are God’s limitations? (For example, some would say that one of God’s self-imposed limits is refusal to force people to do anything against their will.)
- Observe others and search out some different expectations for God.
3. Decide what to do.
- Exit: Some children choose to terminate the relationship with God, but that is rare before adolescence. (And from many sources we glean that God never stops trying to connect with them.)
- Stay and withdraw: These children continue to believe in God but withdraw from trying to have any kind of relationship with God at this time. If the family is religious, they may pretend to go along with it.
- Stay and revise: By changing expectations of God, the child is more conscious of the possibility that God’s perspective is different, and that God’s gift of presence is only beginning to be discovered.
Dr. Bill McRae’s organizing principles for expectations were adapted here for use with children.
Skill #1: Attentiveness: Notice spiritual activity in children.
Attentiveness is used most often in the context of everyday life, but don’t overlook its presence here:
- Awe-inspiring activities
- Peace in hard times
- Out-of-control events
- Coincidences and unexplainable events
Skill #2: Active listening: Engage the child in conversation about it.
- Dreams — “As my son was going to sleep he said he was afraid to go to heaven because he didn’t know what it would look like. I told him to ask God to show him while he was asleep.” Later, his mom listened to the dream and asked if it took away her son’s fear.
- Awe-inspiring activities — When a teenage girl was asked what she liked about surfing, she said: “For me, just being in nature and feeling the ocean as this elemental force, and then doing some sort of meditation. I think yoga is a good starting point.”“
- Peace in hard times: “I was 6, maybe 7, when my pet cat died. I wanted to know where my cat went, why she couldn’t come back, etc. I was completely satisfied with my parents’ answers of “She went to Heaven.” God is watching over her now.” I felt peace. I remember it distinctly. That’s when I realized that there was someone watching and caring for us that we couldn’t see or touch, but they were out there.”
- Out-of-control events: “During the pandemic things were out of control and I didn’t expect anything positive to come out of it. My mother helped me recognize some good things did come out of it.”
- Coincidences and unexplainable events: “My teenage daughter called me to tell me that she had pulled a 10-year-old up from the bottom of the pool where she lifeguards. The next morning she said, ‘I couldn’t sleep last night, Ma. I kept thinking about that girl and what might have happened if I hadn’t rescued her.’ And I responded, ‘You did something extraordinary. You should feel incredibly good about yourself.’”
Skill #3: Acceptance: Discern if the child wants information or empathy.
Pay attention to this distinction. Accept it either way and respond accordingly. The child in Situation 3 needs information about her cat. The child in Situation 5 wants understanding.
“One size fits all” doesn’t make sense in children’s faith development. I like my cousin’s perspective. He said, “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.”
One child’s essential traits tend toward ritual and 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.
Adults who take a truly holistic view of children will help them connect with God in different ways that align with their personality. 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 uniquely with each
Talk to any 3- or 4-year-old and you will find a capacity to think about God. Researcher Justin Barrett says, “They already have something like an impulse to think about supernatural beings, to account for why things are the way they are and how things work in the world around them. They’re really inclined to make sense of it in terms of something like God.”
Cultivate that natural capacity as they get older.
So how does that work? How can parents, or any adult who’s caring for a child’s spiritual well-being, encourage engaging with the mind of God? Dr. Barrett continues:
Ask your child to consider: How does God think?
How might that be different from how they think? What is God’s perspective on their life, on the lives of those around them? This kind of engagement might be good for their personal development but it’s also great for their social, cognitive development.
Children’s social intelligence increases as they consider these kinds of questions.
There is evidence that thinking about others who have different perspectives is good for developing children’s social intelligence:
- others who look at things a different way
- others who feel something differently
- others who know different things
- myself who is not the center of the world
- myself who does not think the way everyone else thinks
- myself who isn’t always is right nor is what everybody else thinks wrong
God is a really interesting test case
Thinking about God, engaging with God, and considering the difference between God and them can help stretch a child. It can bring the understanding that I could be wrong about certain things because God captures the truth better than I do.
It is healthy for children from a very young age to begin engaging with how God thinks.
This post is composed of excerpts taken from a magazine interview given by Dr. Justin Barrett.
A child’s soul develops like a new building under construction with scaffolding around it. Parents and other adults provide a framework for support, but the child is the one under development. The point is the child—or the building.
Everybody looks past the scaffolding
They are trying to see around or through the scaffolding to get an idea of what the building is going to look like. So it doesn’t matter what scaffolding looks like, as long as it serves its purpose.
Instead of worrying about what others think of our efforts, what if we keep our focus on the best interests of the child?
What will help develop their soul?
- Letting them make mistakes. Not covering those mistakes up, but 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. Here’s a free resource to use.
When scaffolding is no longer needed, it goes away.
I’d argue that this removal of support doesn’t happen all of a sudden at age 18, but gradually throughout childhood and the teen years as kids take on more responsibility and make wise choices more consistently.
Paradoxically, the sign of good parenting is when they don’t need you anymore.
The very idea of allowing children to develop their own spirituality can be anxiety-producing, whether a family is religious or not (after all, no one wants them joining a cult). Yet attending to things of eternal significance is a wide-open field of exploration for children– one in which they want their caregivers to allow them room to explore while also providing enough security and boundaries to keep them safe.
A child’s repeated experience of exploring in safe surroundings teaches toddlers that they are not likely to get hurt, that they can trust their caregivers to keep them safe, and that new experiences are enjoyable.
Picture it this way…
Educator Janet Gonzalez-Mena wrote, “Imagine driving over a bridge in the dark. If the bridge has no railings we will drive across it slowly and tentatively. But if we see railings on either side of us, we can drive over the bridge with easy confidence.
This is good news.
Children’s curiosity and desire to explore eternity is revealed by their questions: What happens when people die? Why do bad things happen? Yet those same questions also reveal a desire for adult engagement in that exploration. That adult engagement provides the safety rails.
We allow children room to explore while also providing enough boundaries to keep them safe. We dialogue with them and allow them to ask questions… no matter what kinds of questions those might be. And we give God as much time as God needs to bring wisdom and guidance to them.