As a person and parent of faith, most likely you hope to pass that faith down to your child. Or perhaps you’re not a strong person of faith at this moment but still hope your child has some sort of faith to help guide her as she gets older.
As a pediatrician who works, speaks, and writes in secular spaces, I often get pushback for claiming that God is good for kids. But as a longtime person of faith myself, I’m Ok with this.
I’ve seen what faith can do for a child, for his character, integrity, self-esteem, and overall health. And I remain committed to my statement: God is good for kids.
When it comes to faith (and many other aspects of life), I believe parents have the most power in their child’s life. This means you have the power to encourage your child’s faith or hurt it.
This might sound like an ominous statement, but it’s important for you to understand the spiritual role you play in your child’s life. As scripture says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). I say this goes for mothers as well as fathers.
It’s easy to encourage your child in his faith, and it’s easy to hurt your child’s faith. In my experience, parents tend to make a few common mistakes that ultimately hurt their child’s faith.
1. Fail to Establish Faith as a Value
Faith can’t just be a tangential part of your life. It needs to be the central part of your family’s life. If faith is a thing you do on Sundays but not a value you carry throughout the week, your child will not latch onto it.
Reflect your faith in your behavior. If you tend to be impatient, ask God for more patience. If you have a tendency to fly off the handle, trust God to make you gentler.
One of Israel’s great prophets said it best: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
Once you make faith a value, you can practice what you preach.
In his book, Abandoned Faith: Why Millennials Are Walking Away and How You Can Lead Them Home, Dr. Alex McFarland sites “lack of spiritual authenticity among adults” as one of the top ten reasons millennials are walking away from the church and religion. They find it hypocritical.
I say this about little kids all the time, but it is true for all children: More is caught than taught. This is especially true for faith and religion. If you say you are a Christian, but your child sees you gossiping about your neighbor all the time, how will she believe that Christians really do love their neighbors? She won’t. She’ll just think Christians are hypocrites.
Before you tell your child you want her to have faith, make sure you are modeling the faith you want her to have by making it a central value for you and your family.
2. Shy Away from the Topic
One of the biggest concerns I hear from parents about teaching faith to their kids is they are worried they don’t understand it well enough themselves, so they avoid talking about it altogether.
I understand that. teaching your child about God, heaven, and hell, and what the Scriptures say can be intimidating. But it is worth the courage it will take.
If you never talk about God with your child, how will he get to decide what he believes in? How will he get to even explore faith and religion if the topic isn’t allowed in your home?
Strengthening your own faith will make you feel more equipped when your child approaches you with questions. You can do this by doing two simple things: reading and praying.
Read: The Bible itself says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Our faith in God grows the more we pay attention to what he has revealed about himself in the pages of scripture and through Christ.
Sadly, many people reject the Bible without even reading it. They dismiss it solely on the basis of what others have said. I would counter by saying, “Don’t take the word of others. Read it for yourself.”
The Old and New Testaments are not a haphazard collection of disparate writings. They comprise one continuous story.
The first book of the Bible tells of God’s creation of the world and humanity’s rebellion against Him. The next sixty-four books of the Bible unveil God’s redemptive plan in history, culminating in the coming of Christ.
The last book of the Bible gives us a glimpse of the future restoration of all things. It’s one epic story, and it needs to be read that way with a thoughtful, humble, inquisitive mind.
If you are skeptical of faith, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity may help you as it has helped millions. More recent books like Tim Keller’s The Reason for God or Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith are also excellent. (By the way, both Lewis and Strobel were confirmed atheists who each came to faith after an honest, rigorous, intellectual search.)
Pray: The Bible frequently encourages prayer. For example, Colossians 4:2 says, “Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart.”
But many parents feel they don’t know how to pray—they feel self-conscious, intimidated, or ignorant. But prayer is simply conversing with God—and it’s a conversation he wants to have.
As James 4:8 says, “Come close to God, and God will come close to you.”
If God seems far away and talking to him feels like talking to an imaginary friend, ask him to reveal himself to you. When you make poor choices, humbly confess your failures.
When you are grateful, express this to God. When you have needs or concerns, ask for help. When you don’t know what to do, ask for guidance. And, as in any good conversation, we shouldn’t do all the talking.
It is not only good, it is necessary in prayer to sit still and listen for God’s voice.
Don’t shy away from the topic of faith with your child. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t fully understand. Faith is somewhat mysterious for us all and so is a lot of life. Help your child embrace that mystery by talking openly about it and strengthening your own belief as you go.
3. Preach Instead of Listen
When parents hear their child say something they disagree with, they feel the need to hurry up and convince him he’s wrong. The temptation is to preach first, listen later.
But parents, you must reverse this. The more you preach, the less he’ll listen.
Then, whatever you have to say about the goodness of God, going to church or religion, he will naturally tune out.
Show your child you are there for him by listening to him first. If he says something you disagree with about God or the church, don’t tell him so; simply be curious.
Ask him more questions. This will make him feel known and cared for and later when he is deciding if he wants to go to church or if he believes in God, he will remember those conversations and feel confident he can make the choice himself.
When you’re thinking about passing your faith down to your child, establish faith as a central value for you and your family, don’t shy away from the hard conversations about God, faith, and belief and listen, listen, and then listen some more.
You may not see the fruits of your labor immediately, but if you can focus on practicing what you preach and giving your child space and permission to grow, your child will leave your home one day with a strong sense not only of who she is, but who God is.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Tetra Images/Jamie Grill
Meg Meeker, MD is a best-selling author and pediatrician. To find her online parenting courses or listen to her podcast Parenting Great Kids, go to meekerparenting.com. To send in questions of your own, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.