Spring 2013 | Volume 111 | Number 667
Parenting a teen isn't always a joyride, especially when it comes to matters of faith. What can you do when your child seems to give up on God?
By Margaret Loftus
It's a scene played out in many homes every Sunday morning: A teenager, bed sheets pulled over his or her head, insists on sleeping in rather than join the family at church.
Call it a rite of passage. At some point, a child is likely to question family faith practices and even God's role in his or her life. The dilemma is how to handle it. Do parents stand firm, forcing church attendance and other religious activities? Or do they try to be flexible?
The answer lies somewhere in the middle, say Thrivent members and faith experts. After all, where there's faith, there's hope. Here are some ways to approach the issue:
Stay calm and remain flexible. "The more rigid you are, the more young people resist it," says David Kinnaman, author of You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith.
Kinnaman cautions parents against making church attendance the ultimate goal once kids hit the teen years. "We lull ourselves into thinking everything is fine because we have a teenager who's actively attending church, but that's not an indicator of future faithfulness. The goal is to be a devout follower of faith, and some involvement in church is an expression of our love for God."
Thrivent member Valerie Anderson of Cambridge, Minnesota, whose four children range in age from 12 to 22, says she has learned to pick her battles. "Not going to church one Sunday isn't going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back," she says. "It's important not to turn their faith into just another pressure."
Suggest faith-related activities. Faith can sometimes be too abstract for many teens, and Kinnaman says they often want to make connections and crave everyday meaning in their lives. In other words, keep it real for them.
One of the best ways is to involve them in outreach – from church youth groups to faith-based projects – where teens can see and do good work in the spirit of God. Getting the whole family involved in those activities also gives teens a chance to see their parents live out their own faith.
Lynn Goldberg, whose five children are ages 15 to 28, says she and her husband enforced regular church attendance until their kids hit confirmation age. "We said, 'You're intelligent; you've always made good decisions. You decide whether to go to church,'" says Goldberg, a Thrivent member who lives in Hollis, New Hampshire.
Their oldest two children surprised the couple by choosing not to attend church after high school, but their third child remains firmly rooted in her faith, even occasionally walking five miles to attend services while in college. Goldberg is encouraged that four of her children – even the ones who stopped going to church – have been involved in Group Workcamps, Christian mission trips that repair homes for people in need. It's a strong and meaningful spiritual anchor at this stage of their lives, she says.
Model your faith. It's hard to tell kids they should do something if they don't see their parents doing the same. That's why it's important to live your faith every day, not just by going to church on Sunday.
Let them see you pray – and invite them to join in. Demonstrate compassion and forgiveness when someone has hurt you. Make giving to church and to others in need a priority in the family budget. And be involved with your church. Goldberg served as Christian education director at her church for four years; her husband has been a trustee for five years. It encourages their kids to be involved in youth group and other activities, and to show them that everyone can contribute to their church family.
Give them time to think. If church holds little significance to your teens, consider letting them use the time at church to meditate or reflect. "It's really a centering time of the week," says Jim LaDoux, the director of coaching and training at Vibrant Faith Ministries in Minneapolis.
Chat up God. Beyond Sunday services and saying grace before meals, how often is God woven into family talk?
Kinnaman urges parents to keep God and faith part of everyday conversations. "The challenge to all of us as Christians is to think about faith in a more comprehensive way," he says. "Make God a regular guest at family gatherings."
For example, bring God into conversations about media, technology and health care. "The kind of Christianity that relegates God to Sunday mornings isn't sustainable," Kinnaman says. "Talk with your children about the fact that social media gives us a chance to encourage others and to help others follow Jesus."
Anderson, for one, tries to remind her children that God is everywhere, like in sunrises and sunsets. It seems to be working: She was pleasantly surprised recently when her 12-year-old daughter remarked on a particularly pretty sunset, "It's like God giving me a great big warm hug."
For a tween, an age where kids can be just as surly as teens, that's saying something!
Become a sounding board. Teens are busy figuring out their social and, yes, religious identities, so, above all, keep an open dialogue. "A parent needs to learn to distinguish between a tired, overcommitted teenager and a teenager who's beginning to find a sense of themselves outside of – and within – the Christian community," says Kinnaman. "Make a home where it's safe to talk about the things we struggle with."
LaDoux urges parents to look at pushback as an opportunity to engage. "It lends itself to many wonderful questions," he says. And you don't need to have all the answers. "It's OK to say, 'You know, I'm not 100% sure either. What do you think?' "
Balance is the key to success, Kinnaman explains. "Families that have a carefully calibrated balance between being open with our doubts and committed to our beliefs have a much higher retention rate" for long-term faith among teens – especially as they move past voting age.
Margaret Loftus is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler and has written for U.S. News & World Report, The Boston Globe and Salon.com.