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Helping parents to co-build their children’s faith

Katherine Piper embraces the purity of curiosity and lack of bias when introducing difficult topics to young learners.

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

“We must teach our children how to think, not what to think.” —Margaret Mead

Jesus sat with children, he welcomed them into his circle, he spoke to them as he spoke to any adult in the room. He didn’t hand young ones a list of prescribed rules to memorize. He didn’t hide his teachings from them or ask for them to be removed when the “real talk” started. He named children as the inheritors of the kingdom of God.

I have walked in ministry with children and youth and families for almost a decade now, and the tapestry of wisdom woven for me by the youngest mouths inevitably points back to this truth: faith formation at its best is about how we think, not what we think. The moment we determine we know best, the moment we walk away from childhood wonder and questions and curiosity, we have taken the how out of thinking and reverted to the what.

During our vacation Bible school this year, we asked children to finish the phrase “God is like …” The answers varied as much as the children, and each response depicted a beautiful image of God born from learning how to think about God with mind, body and spirit. We did not characterize God with any pronoun-specific vocabulary that week. Using images from the 2021 book What Is God Like, by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner, we discussed God as a rainbow, as dancers, as the wind, as a fort and as whatever feels safe and brave and loving. We spent the week looking at how to think of God, not what to think of God. And it was holy.

Having long overdue conversations

My experience has been that young people are so much more adept at understanding, unpacking and accepting new and difficult topics than we give them credit for. The purity of curiosity and the lack of bias and embarrassment we find in children’s questions open wide the doors of sacred conversation. In a nutshell, children haven’t learned to squirm at the mention of something they haven’t yet understood or mastered. Young ones don’t yet know that talking about “those things” puts you into a vulnerable place of self-examination. And so our children are primed and ready to talk about how to understand difficult things; they do not need a tutorial from adults on what to think or say.

Identity and expression conversations, as well as the “you love who you love” conversations, are long overdue in the church, and they often lack genuine honesty. All too often we adults avoid conversations that feel uncomfortable to us, so as to “protect” our children. Protect them from what? I have come to realize we are not really protecting the children, but rather our own discomfort.

I sometimes find myself dodging difficult questions my two young children ask me by placating them with non-answer answers. I might deflect a real question from my sweet, honest, innocent kiddos because I don’t feel like engaging my brain to wrestle with my own thoughts on the topic. As adults, we often seek to protect our children by shielding them from truths we aren’t yet ready to engage in. We don’t always have the words, so rather than seeking the words through God’s inspiration, we avoid words altogether. At best, we might tell ourselves we are “staying out of the mess so we don’t make it worse.” At worst, we hide behind traditions or concepts that feel more comfortable, because they employ language we are used to.

When my daughter was three years old, she had a little best friend in her daycare class. She loved her friend, and one day she wanted to play wedding with her in the dress-up corner because that felt to her like the loving thing to do with a friend that day. Her teacher very gently but dismissively informed her that she could only marry a boy — so my daughter both was redirected from the joy of dress-up play but also was asked to live into what I believe to be a damaging status quo. Was there malice in this interaction? Of course not. But did the teacher perhaps fall back on a personal idea of comfort that leaves no room for God’s wonderfully huge definition of love? Absolutely.

Later that day, as my daughter relayed this experience to me – without anger for her teacher, but with curiosity and questions – I had the sacred experience of letting God into the room to guide the conversation. I was able to share with my daughter that we believe loving someone doesn’t have a small definition like “boy-and-girl only.” I could explain that the love she feels for her friend may not be the kind that ends in a wedding, but all the same, she is going to grow up to become a person who loves who she loves. And I could tell her that as long as that love is expressed safely and respectfully, her love was allowed to be wide open to anyone God put in her world for her.

I have learned in the church of Jesus Christ that it is always time to have hard conversations around identity and self-worth, around who you love and how you love well. Our children’s faith – their very lives – depends on the church saying Good News words: Words of truth and challenge and curiosity and comfort and belonging and faith. Words of faith that grow God bigger than specific pronouns. Words of faith that grow God’s children beyond binary definitions. Words of faith that recognize the complexity of creation in such intricate ways that we are able to see a person in transition as a person fully realizing the creation within them. The church’s words matter, and we aren’t saying enough of them on hard things.

Accessibility without agenda

We need not shift the universe to force hard conversations, nor do we need to protect our children from them. We need to simply to be intentional about and aware of how we orient the world for children so they can see how to build faith for themselves, within a million moments of passing conversation and exploration regarding new and growing truths about who and how we are as God’s good creations. A growing list of children’s literature provides beautifully gentle ways to talk about the spectrum of identity expression and sexual orientation with children and, perhaps more importantly, with adults.

It feels less confrontational to begin a deep conversation with a children’s book. Is it the thoughtfully illustrated pictures? The brilliant execution of language that couches new ideas and concepts in familiar and comfortable vocabulary? Yes and yes. But really it’s because the book hits at the heart of what is most important in any hard conversation: accessibility without agenda. Agendas enclose discussion in a small box, whereas accessibility opens the door for all to be a part of discussion. Agendas feel defensive; accessibility feels freeing. Agendas create otherness; accessibility creates all of us.

During the last six years at my current call, we have built a formidable children’s library at our church, and it continues to grow. With this tool, we also created and used a curriculum that pairs these wonderful children’s books with Scripture passages plus discussion questions for the car ride home. With any luck, we offer parents the courage to discuss tough topics with their children in an approachable way. Parents are the first and most valuable faith educators of children. Our role as church leadership is to walk alongside and equip parents to be bold and confident co-builders of faith.

Through this approach to teaching, we hope families realize some truths:

  • Loving one another is so simple in concept, but so very hard in practice!
  • Letting God into the space between “you” and “I” always guides difficult conversations.
  • The rules we’ve put around what we discuss with our children are more about our aversion to growth than about protecting our children.
  • God’s definitions of love and self and personhood are always bigger than we can imagine!

With God’s help, our lifelong faith journey can center on how to think, rather than relying on being told what to think — for our children and for ourselves. What holy truths can you see opening in your world when the how becomes the question?

Resources for teaching identity and expression through children’s literature

Annie’s Plaid Shirt, by Stacy B. Davids, illustrated by Rachael Balsaitis (Upswing Press, 2015)

  • Scripture Pairing: Psalm 139:14 — “I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart. Your works are wonderful — I know that very well.”
  • Car Question: What are the things you most love about yourself? Think about the things that make you you. What makes you unique? What makes you remember what a wonderful child of God you are? Share those qualities with each other now!

A Family Is a Family Is a Family, by Sarah O’Leary, illustrated by Qin Leng (Groundwood Books, 2016)

  • Scripture Pairing: 1 John 4:19 — “We love because God first loved us.”
  • Car Question: Love looks like a lot of different things. Sometimes it’s a hug, sometimes it’s sharing a seat on a bus, sometimes it’s being with another person who’s sad or scared. There are a million ways to love, and each family, no matter what its makeup, shares love in many special ways. Talk as a family about what makes your family unique, what makes you special and how you show love to one another, no matter what your family looks like. God is there, in that kind
    of love!

Jacob’s New Dress, by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, illustrated by Chris Case (Albert Whitman & Company, 2014)

  • Scripture Pairing: Psalm 139:14 — “I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart. Your works are wonderful — I know that very well.”
  • Car Question: This topic is important enough to cover twice! (We discussed this very thing two books ago.) What are the things you most love about yourself? Think about the things that make you you. What makes you unique? What makes you remember what a wonderful child of God you are, regardless of what anyone else says or does? Share those qualities with each other now!

Whoever You Are, by Mem Fox, illustrated by Leslie Staub (Clarion Books, 2006)

  • Scripture Pairing: 1 Timothy 4:4 — “Everything that has been created by God is good, and nothing that is received with thanksgiving should be rejected.”
  • Car Question: We see differences in people without even trying, don’t we? It’s okay, because our differences are beautiful! The problem comes when we see differences as reasons to make fun of people, to put others down, to think poorly of others. As a family, talk about ways you can see differences in people and honor those differences as unique, God-given qualities that make the world better!

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