Faith, a wise person once said, should be as natural as breathing. Indeed, all we have to do is look at the faith of a small child to be reminded how as human beings we come into this world hard-wired to believe in, trust, and love our Creator.
In Judaism there is a wonderful legend that says that while a child is in the womb, she learns all about God and His heavenly kingdom, and then – just before the child is born – an angel descends and taps his finger on her lips and says, “Hush, don’t tell anyone what you know.” This, so the legend goes, is why we are born with a dimple above our lips and, more importantly, why we remember so little of our spiritual origins. It is an attempt to explain our instinctive sense that children do, indeed, arrive in this world fresh from heaven. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Children are like little ambassadors from God, eager to teach us about His heavenly kingdom.”
As every parent knows, children possess a very active inner life and can be surprisingly curious about religious and spiritual matters. Consider a few of the questions my daughter, Katy, and son, Brinck, asked when they were young:
“If God is invisible, how can I know He is real?”
When Jesus was born, was it before or after the dinosaurs?”
“How can God and Jesus be the same?”
“But my friend Alex says he doesn’t believe in God.”
“Mommy, what happens to me after I die?”
“Up in heaven, does Grandpa know it’s my birthday?”
I was also surprised to observe that even at very young ages my son and daughter were already being exposed to the darker sides of human nature. Even within their seemingly sheltered worlds of home and family, school and church, they grappled daily with complex emotions of rejection, temptation, peer pressure, guilt, anger, sadness, and loss—all part and parcel of growing up and being human, but confusing and painful nonetheless. Here are just a few examples of their struggles with painful childhood emotions:
“Emily says she isn’t my friend anymore!”
“Megan says it’s okay to say, ‘Shut up.’ How come you and Daddy tell me it’s wrong?
“I know I’m not supposed to talk in the library, but when I sit next to Sarah, it’s so hard not to.”
“Tracy says I’m fat. Mommy, am I fat?”
“Sometimes, Mommy, I love my teacher more than you. I hope that doesn’t make you too sad.” (It did!)
“But what if when it’s my turn, I feel too shy to sit on Santa’s lap?”
From the start, I knew I very much wanted Katy and Brinck to have a strong faith to help them as they grew. As a new mom, I understood that typically a child’s religious education includes enrollment in Sunday school, familiarity with the Bible, and family rituals such as routine prayers at meals and bedtime. But over the years, I learned that’s not enough. It takes a personal, intimate relationship with a loving God to breathe life and meaning into these religious traditions. Kids, like grown-ups, need faith.
So what’s a parent to do?
Here are the five most helpful tips I know for helping your child (and grandchild!) grow in faith:
Children enter this world with a tremendous capacity for faith. For children, believing in God is instinctive. For children, faith is as natural as breathing. It’s not a stretch to say that kids are natural-born experts when it comes to believing in God. Jesus recognized this when He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:16-17). As parents, it is not only our privilege but also our responsibility to nurture our children’s God-given faith.
2. Learn with your child …
And don’t be surprised when your child teaches you! I know a woman whose father died shortly after her wedding, and over the years she continued to grieve that he would never know his grandchildren.
“Don’t be sad about Grandpa,” her four-year-old son said firmly one day. “Don’t you know he’s watching us through a hole in the clouds?”
Now clearly this is not a theologically orthodox view of the Christian afterlife. But her child spoke with such assurance, with such simple faith, that she was jolted into accepting the reality of eternal life.
As you attempt to answer your child’s tougher questions, you may find that your own faith is challenged. But in the end, you will gain a clearer understanding of exactly what you believe and why. And remember, when there seems to be no satisfactory answer for a question, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Or “Let’s look in the Bible.” Or “Let’s ask our pastor or minister or priest about that.”
3. Remember, actions speak louder than words.
Ouch! If you’re like me, this one is always a challenge. How does your relationship with God figure in your own day-to-day life?
I will always remember a mom who, whenever the family’s pet hamster escaped, invited God to join the search party. And back when we lived in New York City, I knew a dad who, whenever he encountered a down-and-out person on the street, offered a gift of food—an apple or a sandwich from a nearby deli. When asked by his ten-year-old daughter why he did this, he answered, “Because this is what Jesus expects me to do.”
4. Pray with your child.
In addition to regular prayers at meals and bedtime, try to look for opportunities to include your child in spontaneous, conversational prayer. Talking to God in this way shows how prayer can be a part of daily life. This is the intimate, natural way that Jesus prayed. In fact, Jesus was so comfortable and close to God that when He prayed, He called His father “Abba,” which in His native Aramaic language means “Daddy” or “Papa.”
I’ll never forget the afternoon when our daughter was in sixth grade playing soccer and one of her classmates took a terrible fall, badly twisting her ankle. The girl’s mother immediately ran to her side and didn’t think twice about praying out loud for her child.
Even as our kids grew older, Tom and I kept praying with them. They didn’t seem to mind, especially during that most grueling and stressful of modern parenting experiences: the college application process. Many times while sitting in the car in a college admissions parking lot, we would take a moment to pray, asking God to walk alongside our child throughout his or her visit.
And I’ll always remember the afternoon Katy came to me with her completed application to her favorite school.
“Mom,” she said, “will you say a prayer?”
Together we placed our hands on the fat envelope and asked God for His will to be done regarding the results. It was a tremendous comfort for both of us to know that whatever the outcome was, the situation was in God’s capable and loving hands. Wouldn’t you know, Katy not only wound up graduating from this particular school, but it is also where she met the wonderful young man who would become her husband!
5. Tell your child what you believe.
Don’t be shy about this! And pay attention to the inner nudging of God’s Holy Spirit. One Christmas Eve when Katy was five years old and I was tucking her into bed, I found myself gently steering our talk from Santa Claus and the presents under the tree to what we were actually celebrating. Without planning it, I suddenly found myself telling Katy who Jesus was for me and the story—a simplified version—of how He had come into my life. Then we prayed one of the simplest, most profound prayers I know:
Jesus, I love You and believe in You. Please come into my heart now, live in me, and be my friend and savior.
It is important to remember that our children really do believe and take to heart what we tell them. Consider, for example, the ancient and beautiful phrase in the Christian sacrament of Holy Baptism that promises our children are “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Isn’t that beautiful? It’s a phrase I continue to repeat to my kids—even now that they’re grown—to remind them of their identity as people of faith.
Just the other day, our now-grown son Brinck was pulling out of the driveway after a weekend visit home. As I waved good-bye, I impulsively called, “Remember, Brinck, you’re sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever!”
“Yeah, yeah, Mom.” He rolled his eyes. “I know.”
He knows, I thought. My spirit soared. For this ever-worrying, ever-praying mother, this was not only good news. It was the best news I could ever hope for.
In what ways have you helped your child grow in their faith?