When my husband and I were dating, we rarely spoke about religion,” Janet told me. “But once we were married and began to contemplate the arrival of children, the topic arose. Neither of us had attended church for quite some time, but I felt a sudden need to find something meaningful. He didn’t.”
Deborah found a church that met her needs, but her husband wasn’t interested in going with her. Consequently, she faced the difficult task of fashioning a philosophy of child-raising that incorporated both her strong commitment to religion and her husband’s lack of interest in spiritual matters. “There are so many things that we are still trying to work through,” she says. “How can I encourage my children to go to church when Daddy is offering them a day at the park to play football?”
Potential For Great Confusion
Janet and Deborah aren’t alone. Their questions are being asked again and again by those who are attempting to instill a spiritual value system in their children without putting down their spouse in the process. The deeper one’s commitment to religion, the more challenging and intense the problem becomes. But the real challenge comes when a parent attempts not only to bring youngsters to church once a week but also to establish a whole set of principles that will affect them every day of their lives. And while some feel that exposure to two different lifestyles can broaden a child’s outlook and experience, others see a potential for significant confusion.
The frustration that results from conflicting beliefs drives some parents to avoid the issue of religion altogether. “Dennis sees it one way, and I see it another, and we both believe our understandings to be from the Lord. How can we tell the children opposing things?” said one mother of three. “I’ve decided not to have anything to do with teaching religion to the kids. They’ll just have to get it in a parochial school.”
That’s a typical solution. But according to Dr. Ana-Maria Rizzuto, no child reaches school age without forming some image of God.
So what’s a parent to do? When value systems conflict and the children become the focus of a power struggle based on religion, where can such parents turn for answers?
There certainly are no simple formulas for resolving the myriad conflicts that arise over rearing children in a home divided over religion. There are, however, some principles that can provide understanding in the midst of the struggle.
1. First and foremost, understand the stages of spiritual development that your children are in, and don’t expect more from them than is reasonable.
In his classic book Stages of Faith, James Fowler outlines the stages through which an individual progresses in understanding spiritual matters.
During the first stage—that of young infants—the basics of trust, hope, and courage are established. These basics underlie all that comes later in faith development. The good news is that you instill these foundational spiritual components as you tend to your baby’s the needs. Surely you can give your baby lots of love and care without generating opposition on the part of your spouse.
The second stage, which typically occurs during the preschool years, is characterized by children copying the adults they are close to. During this time, the adults’ moods, their actions, their visible faith, strongly influence their children.
Fantasy is also highly developed at this time, for children’s imaginations know few restraints. While children at this stage are not prepared to handle the specifics of doctrine, they will respond readily to colorful stories and images. Their imaginations make it easy for them to accept and visualize the characters of the Bible.
The next stage of development is characterized by the cry, “That’s not fair!” This stage generally begins as children enter grade school. Children at this age are concerned with rules and fairness. During this time, it’s important that they see clearly defined principles of behavior. When issues don’t seem fair to them, they tend to reject the principles involved.
Children at this point in their development are also particularly open to the influences of story and drama—as evidenced by their general fascination with television and Internet games. Because they’re so vulnerable to narrative, it’s important that you give them something more substantial than the watered-down ethics of today’s digital world. Carefully selected Christian and nature videos, wholesome reading, and creative church skits can all have a positive impact on a child’s development.
The adolescent stage. As boys and girls leave their childhood behind and enter the turbulent years of adolescence, they begin to form their own value systems. These are the delicate years, the time in which you must maintain a balance—continuing to give direction while simultaneously offering the necessary freedoms. You should not relinquish your role as counselor and model, but you must realize that others also exert a strong influence at this stage. Your teenagers will sort through the values of everyone they’re around, discarding some and retaining others.
When you and your spouse have differing value systems, these are difficult years for both you and your children. As you see them making choices, you will find it hard not to groan or cheer audibly as they come down on one side or the other. The best you can offer at this point is a listening ear, understanding, and compassion.
2. Accept the fact that your children are the product of two parents. Like it or not, your children will be exposed to your spouse’s value system.
Life would be so much easier if we could determine all the input our offspring will receive. But the complexity of our world doesn’t allow for such simplistic solutions. Nor would it be fair to impose the thinking of one individual upon another. In the final analysis, we must accept the blessings inherent in individuality and choices.
Resist the urge to shelter your children from all thinking that differs from your own, particularly that of your spouse. Such an attempt isn’t only futile; it also conveys the message that you are insecure about your beliefs.
3. Find some common ground, no matter how small, to build on.
Deborah and Steve found common ground in that they both believe in God. Finding such common ground helps to bond husband and wife together and offers children at least a small sense of spiritual unity. It may be difficult at first to discover anything at all that you have in common with your spouse in the area of spirituality. But there are certain givens of fairness and right that are natural assumptions of human living.
In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis points out that a person standing in line will be instantly offended if another strides to the head with no recognition of the necessity of waiting his or her turn. Lewis identifies this as an inborn sense of justice. Your spouse surely becomes offended if someone cuts in front of him or her in line! So at least you hold in common and can transmit to your children the value of justice.
4. Accept the fact that there are some issues that you and your spouse will never resolve.
Talking is important in a marriage, and the more communication, the stronger the relationship. But there comes a point where the better part of wisdom is to let the issue lie, at least for a while.
“We are continually discussing our beliefs and how they affect our relationship,” a bride of six months told me. “We plan on having children, but there are some things about raising them that we will probably never agree on. When neither of us can see a solution and we sense the frustration beginning to mount, we just stop talking for a while.”
5. Be aware that you are modeling the effects of the message you preach. If your children view you as secure and happy, they will eventually conclude that your value system has offered meaning and significance to your life.
Recently, a twice-divorced mother confided to me that she married at an early age to get out of a rigid religious home. If your children view your life as a constant drudgery, beset by dos and don’ts, they aren’t likely to want to emulate you. If, on the other hand, they see that your outlook enables you to enjoy life and gives you courage to deal with its difficulties, they will want it for themselves.
6. Remember that the ultimate goal of child raising is self-discipline.
James Dobson, a popular author and speaker on family topics, said, “Parents should introduce their child to discipline and self-control by the use of external influences when he is young. By being required to behave responsibly, he gains valuable experience in controlling his own impulses and resources. Then as he grows into the teen years, the transfer of responsibility is made year by year from the shoulders of the parent directly to the child. He is no longer forced to do what he has learned during earlier years.”
The sooner children can take responsibility for their own actions, the stronger their self-concept will become and the more completely principle will become the basis of their actions.
7. Accept your children unconditionally when they enter young adulthood and have decided on their value system.
You won’t win your adult children to your faith or encourage them to a more positive lifestyle by attempting to shame them or by threatening them with alienation. Having a child reject your values often produces both pain and guilt. You may be tempted to take it out on the child, communicating disfavor in every possible opening in conversations. But such an attitude only increases the distance between you and your child, removing any possibility for restoration.
Stacey, a 30-year-old woman who doesn’t attend church, still enjoys the support, concern, and love of her conservative Protestant family. But Laura, who has rejected the values of her family, is held in contempt by her “religious” mother. Which person, would you guess, finds the family values more enticing?
And should neither Stacey nor Laura ever return to the standards of their youth, Stacey’s family at least enjoys a continuing relationship with her.
Just as God does.