Keeley Bruner is the mother of two daughters and a devoted, progressive member of the Disciples of Christ Church. In this three-part series, she writes of the challenge of handing on her faith in ways that mirror the best of her own religious upbringing while reflecting the ways in which her faith has matured and widened in adulthood.
In thinking about this, I am reminded of a class my husband and I attended a few years ago on Positive Discipline. For the uninitiated, this is a method of child-rearing that eschews punitive or reward measures for controlling behavior, preferring instead to cultivate a relationship of respect and understanding, along with developmentally-appropriate expectations, to achieve harmony in the home. That is neither here nor there necessarily, but I remember the first activity we did in the initial class of the series, which was to envision the sort of person we hoped our child would be at age 18, or 21, say, whenever they were an adult. Many of us shared answers like “independent,” “competent,” “creative,” “loving,” “self-reliant,” “kind,” and so on. From there, the teacher asked what sorts of things we could be doing now to facilitate the growth of those characteristics in our child(ren). If that baffles you to think about, you aren’t alone; fortunately the next 3 sessions were devoted to exactly that, and there are plenty of books around if this has piqued your curiosity. Although we aren’t talking about Positive Discipline in this particular conversation, I would like to submit that when it comes to guiding your children in a life of faith, a similar exercise is beneficial. What kind of person do you hope your child will be as an adult, in relationship to God and, more generally, matters of faith?
This is especially pertinent in light of statistics about the decreasing rates of church attendance in recent years, but I’m not someone who thinks those statistics tell the whole story. I know it’s possible to be a thoughtful, fulfilled Christian individual without attending church. However, it’s true that I would prefer my children grow up to be people who are able to find communities of faith, where they feel at home worshipping with others. I would also love for my children to honor and respect the Bible, revering it as something deeply true, if not necessarily factual. I would love for them to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and to believe they were made by a God who loves them and desires their welfare. I wish for them to know, without a doubt, that they aren’t perfect but that no one asks them to be. I hope they will come to know that a life of love and respect for the person of Christ can lead to salvation from many things, not the least of which are despair, hopelessness, impotent rage, and oppressive greed. That’s not to say they will never experience these things, but I hope that these do not become a way of life, rather that they are led by the Holy Spirit into ways of peace, love, joy, wisdom, strength, and sufficiency. I desire for them to have the flexibility to question while also having strong familiarity with Christian tradition as it has been expressed across time and place. I would love them to be people who, like God, love deeply and broadly, showing kindness and fighting for the oppressed in whatever capacities they feel called, and who share generously of their resources to those less fortunate. In short, I would like to do whatever I can as a parent to help my children learn to love God and to love their neighbors, in the example of and according to the teaching of Jesus.
Although for many it may go without saying, there are a couple of essential things to do on our end, before we ever worry about actively imparting anything about faith to our children. First would be to pray for them. I have been more faithful about doing this in certain seasons of my life than others, but I have always been grateful for God’s guidance through this practice. Whether specific concerns about my daughters have been teething or sleeplessness, or troubles with friends or other adjustments that come with age, I trust that God will give me the wisdom and strength I need to love them in ways that resonate with them. In addition, it follows that our children will be more likely to be the people we hope they will become if we are striving to be role models in our own lives. Realizing that my husband and I are not perfect people, we still try to keep in mind that we are being watched, whether in regard to faith or anything else. If we want our children to be people who love unconditionally and show grace, there can be no doubt that they experience that regularly in their own home. If we want them to be grateful for and generous with their resources, they need to see us doing this in ways large and small. Prayer and modeling are perhaps the most basic, but often the most challenging aspects of raising our children in faith. But presuming we would like to draw them in more intentionally in the ways of spirituality, what are some ways to do that?