I’m not sure if it’s because more American young people actually don’t believe, or if it’s simply because our culture applauds this mindset, but I’m hearing the question more and more from today’s parents. It comes in many forms.
“What do I do when my 16-year-old doesn’t want to go to church anymore?”
“My 17-year-old claims he’s an atheist. How do I respond to that?”
Parenting has never been easy, but somehow it seems a little more difficult to raise kids in the truth when they are drowning in lies. And this job only becomes more difficult when “truth” is slowly being overtaken by “post-truth” thinking.
So how is Mom or Dad to respond when their 16-year-old announces, “Why do you make me go to church—I don’t even believe in this stuff!”
I’m choosing age 16 specifically because I think the answer to this question is much different than if the kid was 13, or even 18. A 13-year-old still needs lots of guidance and has about five years left under the care of his or her parents. Parents of young tweens and teens need to provide plenty of boundaries in equal supply to their bonding with that child.
And an 18-year-old could join the Marines or move in with friends… tomorrow! So all these parents might have left is bonding.
But 16 or 17-years-old is a unique time. They’re typically not mature enough to make their own decisions, but they are competing for independence at every opportunity. If Mom or Dad squeezes too tight at this age, the result is almost always rebellion. That, or their kids will just passive aggressively count their days until freedom. Either way, an excess of boundaries hurts bonding. I know, because I did it. It’s one of the parenting practices I wish I could do over.
So how is a Christian parent to respond when their kids push away from God or the church?
Here are 5 tips that I found have helped parents respond in both grace and truth:
- Press Pause
If your 16-year-old has the guts to tell you, “I don’t want to go to your church!” he or she might just be testing the waters to see how you respond. Moms and dads need to remember to “press pause” so they can collect their thoughts and not say something they’ll regret.
Sadly, I know this simply because I’ve failed in this area countless times. I reacted—actually overreacted—only to look back in hindsight hours later and think, “If only I would have said…”
So why not give yourself that time to stop and think at any given moment? Think about it. Was it the mistake you learned from, or the time you spent rehashing those mistakes over and over in your head? Why not do the rehashing before you act out?
My delayed response is always better than my immediate one. James actually knew what he was talking about when he advised that we be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger (James 1:19). Try it. It actually works.
Practice it in your mind. Think of the worse thing your kid could possibly announce to you:
“I’ve joined a coven of witches and am going to run away with them so we can have free sex and engage in human sacrifice.”
“I just downloaded Rihanna’s new album.”
Not a good time to respond, “Not under my watch! You’re grounded until you’re a legal adult!!!”
Instead, press pause. Remind yourself that what you say in this moment counts. Your tone counts. Your volume counts. Your facial expression counts. Breathe.
Then pre-program yourself to communicate two simple truths whenever you’re caught off guard like this: your love for them, and your need to stop and think. Maybe you could say it like this:
“Wow. You’ve kind of caught me off guard right now. Honestly, I’m not really sure how to respond. Here’s what I do know. I love you so much and nothing you ever do or believe can ever change that. And because I love you so much and care about our relationship, I’d really like some time to think about what you just said before I respond. Is that fair? Can we sit down and talk tomorrow?”
This gives you time to…
I never like to make big decisions on my own. So when your kid drops a bomb like this on you, don’t respond before seeking wisdom from all around.
Start by seeking wisdom and strength from above. If you’re in this situation, you’ll probably do this automatically. Moments like these tend to drive God’s people to their knees. And it’s a good place to be. Prayer puts perspective on the problem. Prayer reminds us that this situation is beyond us. Prayer reminds us how much we need Him for conversations like this.
But also seek wisdom from fellow believers. Yes, this can be embarrassing, but trust me… you aren’t alone. I hear this from parents literally every weekend at my parent workshops. There are definitely parents in your church who have experienced similar situations. And personally, I always seek out mentors who not only are wise, but are empty nesters and have grown kids. These parents seem to have a grounded perspective and greater life experience (in fact, these are the core group of parents I sought out interviewing for my book, If I Had a Parenting Do Over).
If you have a youth pastor, call him or her up and let them know what your son or daughter shared (with your kid’s permission). Not so you can hand your kid off to them like your Honda to your mechanic, “Fix this!” But because many youth workers are used to working with doubting kids and might be a big help in the process.
And finally, don’t hesitate to seek wisdom from articles and books that might help you address common questions or doubts young people feel, books like, Christianity…It’s Like This, The Case for Faith, or More Than a Carpenter.
But you’ll never know what your son or daughter is truly feeling if you don’t…
The biggest complaint I hear from kids about their parents is, “They don’t listen to me.” Young people want to be noticed and heard. When you respect them enough to stop doing whatever you’re doing, sit down, look them in the eyes, and truly listen to their heart, they’ll respect you for it.
Sadly, moms and dads often begin reprimanding or correcting before they’ve even taken the time to hear their kids’ side of the story. Give your kids a chance to share their point of view. Seek to understand the “why” behind their doubts. Is it because church is more boring than staying home and playing video games? Or, are they taking a science class at school where the teacher is telling them that science shows us there is no God? There would be two very different approaches to those very different reasons, and you’ll never know what approach to take if you don’t listen carefully with the genuine intention of seeking to understand.
Remember, actions are going to speak louder than words through this entire process. Our love and grace will probably influence our kids far more than any argument we can conjure.
Sit down and ask them honestly, “Help me understand.” Maybe even ask them their expectations. “How would you like me to respond?”
Don’t be surprised if they don’t open up immediately. They might be skeptical and you might need to reason with them a little bit. It’s okay for you to say, “You told me you don’t want to go to church with us any more. I don’t want to judge you or overreact. So help me understand so I can better consider your feelings.”
I find that many of today’s young people have trouble articulating what they believe… because they don’t know what they believe! I remember a young man I got to know through a sports ministry. He claimed he was an atheist. I befriended him, talking football and movies; and every once in a while conversations would turn towards truth. Whenever he would declare his unbelief, I would simply ask, “Tell me what you do believe.”
I recall one specific time he tried to articulate his beliefs. “I don’t think there’s a God, there’s just… something out there. I don’t know… maybe a vapor or something.”
I just sat and listened as he fumbled through his thoughts. He finally looked up at me and asked, “Does this sound stupid?”
I replied, “How does it sound to you?”
I stayed consistent in his life, brought him to church with me and the kid accepted Christ a few months later.
It all starts with listening.
But listening is a two way street. So try to…
Create A Level Playing Field
As you enter this conversation, begin with the end in mind. As tough as this situation is, most parents would probably opt for healthy dialogue over emotional banter. Better yet, seek to create a climate where everyone is free to respectfully express their beliefs. The key word here is everyone.
Chances are, your unbelieving kids haven’t thought through the ramifications of creating a level playing field. They are probably so focused on being heard, they aren’t thinking about reciprocating. If you approach it softly and shrewdly, you can create a climate where truth can be shared.
Approach it by first asking about them:
“As you’re exploring answers to some of your questions, you’d appreciate us respecting your beliefs and being open to conversations about what you believe, right?”
Most kids will agree to this. So follow it up with it’s next logical step, one they probably haven’t thought through:
“And it would only be fair if you responded in kind, by being open to conversations about what we believe, right?”
Don’t be surprised if you see the facial expression of Admiral Akbar. “It’s a trap!”
Rest assured, you aren’t demanding anything unfair. You’re simply laying down the ground rules. “If you want this house to be a safe place where people can believe what they want, and respect others’ beliefs, then that has to be true for everyone.”
If they want respect for not believing, then they can’t mock their brother or sister for believing.
Laying down the ground rules keeps the conversation open. It gives them something they want—freedom of belief, but more importantly, it gives you what you want—the opportunity to dialogue about truth. Conversations are where values are passed on. Keep the doors to dialogue open.
But include this gentle reminder…
Distinguish Freedom of Belief From Anarchy
Unless our kids are 22-year-old philosophy majors, they probably haven’t spent a lot of time thinking through the ramifications of their beliefs, and most of them surely haven’t dialogued about them. Many kids who claim unbelief are simply doing so to push away the truth in attempt to justify their behaviors (Romans 1:18-32).
So as much as we want to keep the doors of dialogue open, don’t confuse this with providing a “get out of jail free” card for negative behaviors. Your kid might believe smoking pot isn’t harmful to them, but it doesn’t mean you have to allow it in your house. Freedom of belief doesn’t excuse lawlessness.
You may have to explain this reasoning to them:
“If you truly believe it’s okay for 16-year-olds to drink alcohol, you are free to believe that, but that doesn’t mean your school will tolerate you bringing beer in your Star Wars lunchbox. And the police will still arrest you for wandering through town carrying a bottle of Jack Daniels.”
Let them know that you aren’t going to dictate what they need to believe, but at the same time, as long as they live in your house, there will be some reasonable house rules:
“We will never force you to believe something. In fact, we hope you will always feel free to express your opinion respectfully here. Home is a safe place. In the same way, we want to keep home a safe place. So that means we have some house rules.”
Parents will probably vary on which house rules to enforce. You’ll want to pray and consider those carefully. But once you decide what those are, communicate those rules.
I’m a big believer in starting strict, and incrementally giving kids more independence, as they get older. When my own kids were in middle school we were really strict, but each year we gave more freedom. In fact, I gave them complete freedom their senior year (more on that here). If they wanted to go somewhere, they didn’t need permission; they just needed to tell us where they were going. That worked really well with my girls. They dialogued with us about most decisions, not because they needed permission, but because we had a good relationship with them. Plus, when they went off to college 500 miles south of us, they weren’t making decisions on their own for the first time.
This principle of incremental independence is a little more daunting when you feel like your kid is making poor decisions at 16 or 17. But just remember to keep your eyes on the calendar. At age 18 they can move out and make decisions on their own whether you like it or not. Are you doing everything you can to prepare them for that day?
If you believe in incremental independence, then maybe your talk to your 16-year-old might sound like this:
“We have some house rules we’ve established, and one of those rules is that we go to church as a family on Sundays, at least until you’re 17-years-old. At 17, you can choose to skip if you want, even though you still live here. That’s a freedom we allow. But we’ll miss you. We really value that time.”
If your son decides to skip church at 17, then don’t nag him about his decision. Simply tell him you missed him. Invite him every once in a while. You will have plenty of other opportunities to build into him and affirm him in the truth: family dinners, milkshake conversations, family trips. Use all these as times to bond with your doubting kid and engage in meaningful conversations.
Freedom of belief doesn’t mean freedom from house rules.
Grace and Truth
Rebellion is often just a phase. Chances are, many of you went through a time where you pushed God away or had some sincere doubts.
It’s our job to parent our kid through times of belief and doubt. And your response can really make a difference. Freaking out will never help. Forcing our kids to listen to lectures will only make it worse. Showing unconditional love, on the other hand, will make a world of difference. Be a calm voice of consistency and reason in a shaky and irrational world.
And don’t do it alone. Tap into the grace and truth Jesus exemplified and provides, and that balance of grace and truth will flow through you:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NIV)
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