Recently we received this question from a parent:
Q: How should we respond to our children (middle school, high school and college) who insist there is no God?
My first impulse in responding to people who “insist there is no God” is to show them how wrong they are to hold that belief. I mean, look around, right? It takes a lot of faith to believe everything came from nothing. But “people” denying God’s existence is much different than MY KIDS denying that God exists and turning from their (our) faith. That creates sleepless nights, desperate pleas and crying out to God. It also tends to lead parents into anxious lobbying for their point of view when in fact, there is probably very little new that parents can say.
Aside from the conventional wisdom about this (which we fully embrace) to pray, to speak truth, and to love them, here are some less common ideas that have been shown to have powerful influence with children over time.
Empathy is often a parent’s most powerful portal to influence. Even if you’ve not fully abandoned faith, almost every parent has had questions and doubts. Most parents still do. Being authentic about this lowers any perceived barriers between parent and child. It can open the door to candid conversation and questioning when kids may otherwise be accustomed to sermonizing.
2. Ask truly curious questions.
Develop a sense of curiosity about their current view of faith. Ask questions, but don’t be critical. Avoid “Why” questions. Romans 2:4b says, “…that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.” Some questions to consider:
- What brought you to question your faith?
- What about faith has repelled you?
- What is your idea of the “perfect” religion?
You may just find that you and your child have a lot in common regarding the answers. Give your energy to validating their answers, not to “setting them straight.”
3. Keep the posture of an ally not an adversary.
“I believe in you,” “I love you no matter what you believe,” or, “I’m for you,” are messages every human longs to experience. Research has shown that when parents give their kids room to spiritually “experiment,” those kids are far more inclined to embrace their parents’ faith some day than those kids whose parents become forceful about religious belief and behavior.
4. Invite them to grade you.
At the end of the day what matters at least as much as what you do is what your kids’ perception of it is. So ask them, “On a scale of 0 to 10 where zero is not at all accepting of you and 10 is fully accepting even though we disagree about some things, what number would you give me?” Be prepared for an unexpected answer. Be prepared to keep your defenses down. If you can ask this question in a manner that conveys you are truly interested in your child’s answer, and then carry on a light conversation in the face of disagreement, you will earn the respect of both you and your faith. Only when this respect is earned will kids feel an open invitation to return to faith.
We add this to assure, even though it is common advice, to not minimize the power of prayer to shape both you and your child in ways that bring God’s grace and truth to life. Some will even add spiritual fasting to the prayer strategy. In the end, your children’s faith is about God’s work in them, not about anyone convincing or controlling them. Pray that God would move powerfully in their lives to make his presence known.