We’ve all heard about the story of the prodigal son. Jesus shared this story about a wayward child who blew his inheritance, lived recklessly, and once defeated returned back home to his father who readily forgave and embraced him. It was a parable meant to show God’s unrelenting love for his children; and (in my opinion) to encourage parents who may be struggling with their own. I work with a lot of kids and teenagers, several of whom confided that they don’t know if they believe in the same things their parents do, particularly about religion. I’ve heard this from teens who attend private and public schools alike. As teens start to come of age, they are forming their own opinions, and often come to a crisis of faith where they just aren’t sure what they believe.
Maybe they have been outspoken about it; openly rebelling from anything religious or talk of God. Others may be more reserved, but inside question everything that they’ve been brought up to believe. Research has shown that nearly 70% of young adults abandon their faith once they enter college or leave home. This is reasonably distressing to parents who deeply value their spiritual faith and have raised their children (so they thought) to do the same.
There is a good reason for this departure. Culturally, western civilization has become increasingly secularized. As our children move into college or out into the world they will invariably come across other worldviews, and likely be challenged on their own. Children who have experienced trauma, major life defeats, or pain and loss may have already abandoned the idea of a God who is good. Others who have had a relatively smooth life may say they believe in God, but don’t have a strong concept of why. Not knowing exactly what you believe, why, or how to defend it is shaky ground to stand on when met with a barrage of opposing views. I have talked with parents who are devastated about their children pulling away from their faith. It’s hard to concede that our kids are independent human beings who have the right to their own opinions and choices. It’s impossible to force faith on anyone. We are told, however, to raise up our children in the way that they should go (Proverbs 22:6), which tells me that parents are not helpless in this situation. It’s just a matter of focusing on the things that you can control that can help your children find their way.
This is one of the best things that we can do for our kids. Our teens actually want to talk to us, if they believe we will really listen and not be quick to judge, correct, or punish them for what they say. This is a confusing time to grow up in, and kids don’t want to navigate it on their own. Be willing to fully hear what your child is contemplating, create a safe space for them to explore their doubts, and allow them to speak frankly about how they feel. Not listening to them won’t make the doubts go away, but actually leaning in will let you be part of the conversation instead of them going someplace else.
Some parents out of a sense of fear may be tempted to browbeat their kids with scripture and pressure them if they don’t believe. Needless to say, these actions are counterproductive, and will only serve to push already skeptical teens further away. Since many young people abandon the faith for lack of knowing how to defend it, use this opportunity to encourage your child to dig further into their questions and dialogue with you or other trusted spiritual leaders. Try not to blow off your kid’s doubt; research and exploration of their faith can actually strengthen it. The idea is that at some point our kids have to own what they believe, which has to go deeper than our proverbial ‘because I said so’.
Walk the talk
Our children’s first exposure to God and faith is what they see (or don’t see) at home. Our kids watch us pretty closely and are observing us as first-hand witnesses to the faith we say we have. They’ll watch how we handle anger, defeat, pain, loss, and whether our words match our actions. Perceived hypocrisy can be a death blow to our kids following our faith. It’s important to fess up when we mess up and to exercise Godly guidance and grace when they do. Being a living example of Christ’s love, and declaring His power in your life, is often the most powerful influence our kids can see.
Keep the faith
I’m convinced that parenting is the hardest job there is. When my kids were younger I thought that would be the hardest season; now I know better. We never stop worrying whether they’ll take the right path and if we did a good enough job showing them. This is where believers need to rely on the same faith they wish for their children. The one that reminds us that God loves our kids more than we ever could and that there is no distance they may go that He is not faithful to pursue. Keep your own faith, and do what is in your power to control. Prayer is the most powerful tool parents have, which can call back home even the most prodigal of children.
Watching our kids carve their own road can be rewarding, and terrifying. Think back to your own spiritual journey, and recognize that curvy roads can still lead to the same place of salvation. It’s important to walk alongside our children, speaking truth and encouragement, as they figure it out. These can be stressful times. If you need help with your own encouragement and path, Crossroad counselors are here to help. You can find us at (225) 341-4147.