Someone who liked my cartoon yesterday, love trumps belief: when your partner believes differently, asked about how to do this with children. I promised to do that today. This is a letter I wrote for the members of The Lasting Supper last year (you are invited to join us). I hope you find it helpful.
Here’s the letter (slightly edited):
I’d been looking forward to working on this letter and sending it to you today. Many people have been asking me to write about this issue. Obviously it is an important one that occupies many of our minds and evokes concern in our hearts.
It’s about our children. How do we deconstruct with our kids?
(***NOTE: This doesn’t just apply to our kids. You can apply these principles to any loved one… a partner, a family member or a friend. One thing I’ve learned: The way you do one thing is the way you do everything. The way you treat anybody is the way you treat everybody.)
I’m going to talk about how to deconstruct with your children. As parents we like to appear that we are in control of our lives and by inference the lives of our kids. We like to be responsible. So when we experience the death-throes of the deconstruction of our faith and beliefs and experience confusion, how do we take care of the spiritual lives of our own children? How do we oversee the spiritual development of our kids when we can’t even oversee our own?
Here are a few suggestions that are more about themes than advice.
1. RELINQUISH CONTROL BUT NOT RESPONSIBILITY:
Many people grow up in very tightly controlled homes where their spirituality is assigned. When I became a father I wanted to do it differently and help my children find their own selves and their own paths. We relinquished control. At the same time, we saw ourselves as gentle guides… like spiritual sherpas… showing our kids where the possible pitfalls and the safest pathways were, what foods were good and what wasn’t, and who and what to trust or not.
When Lisa and I left the church our children were already in their older teens, so they were already well on their way. We could hold adult conversations with mature themes. When Lisa and I were talking about this topic the other day, she said our kids were already deconstructing before we were because we allowed them to question from an early age. They had the ability, without our baggage, to be honest about what was real, authentic and true, and the strength to reject what didn’t pass that test. They were far more sensitive to control and nonsense than we were because they were raised differently than we were. So when we started deconstructing, they were already prepped for it.
We had obviously raised our kids in the Christian faith. We still have a collection of children’s bible story books that we used read from them every night. They grew up in the church so they knew the stories, the traditions and what church means. But we never required them to believe this or that. Like the sower with the seeds, we cast the seeds everywhere, knowing that what was good would stick and what wasn’t wouldn’t because it depended on what kind of soil their own hearts were. They’d develop their own spirituality and therefore find the special food that needed to feed it.
In 2002 Lisa’s father had come to live with us because he was dying of cancer. This was when we were in New Hampshire planting a church for a ministry. The day before Christmas, Lisa’s father died. Our approach to it was to try to understand it theologically, and we had our long-held world-views and the ministry people to bolster this attempt. Not our kids! They loved their papa, and when they watched him die in our house despite all the prayers and promises, they immediately questioned what all those prayers and promises claimed to be. So they not only questioned that, but they went to the source: God! They realized that the idea of God everyone talked about and what actually is are completely different things. The ministry fired me the next day and the church I planted and all the staff ignored us. We never saw them again. This, for my kids, was inexcusable. So they saw the church for what it was: just another collection of disappointing human beings. Not to say that they don’t think people and our groups can’t be good, but that the church has no divine right to claim that it is good by default. If you say you’re good, you have to walk the talk.
So we continued relinquishing control but kept our responsibility by allowing them to process this trauma in their own way. When our kids, who were very attached to papa, cried “I don’t believe in God anymore!”, we didn’t try to correct or balance them or even affirm their developing belief. We just let them say it and deal with it in their own way. As a result, years later, they have their own spirituality that is uniquely theirs. It isn’t the same as ours, and this is as it ought to be. We saw that they required a spirituality free of smoke and mirrors, magical thinking, and horse-and-pony shows.
2. ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY AND HONESTY WITHOUT SURRENDERING YOURS:
When our children asked hard questions we found it very tempting to give easy answers. Sometimes we’re just too exhausted to explain everything. Sometimes we’re just too confused. Sometimes we’re afraid and just want them to believe the magical thinking that religion is so good at nurturing. Sometimes we just couldn’t care.
Lisa and I sometimes fought. We decided when they were young that we wouldn’t pretend that our marriage was out of Disney, but the struggling union of two, real flesh and blood people. Lisa and I have been married 35 years. So our kids have seen us fight. Our strategy was to let them see us argue, but also let them see us resolve it. If I offended Lisa and the kids saw it, we would also let them watch me apologize and see us reconcile (yes, it was honestly usually my fault).
So when we went through our own deconstructions, we let our kids watch. When our kids questioned the existence of the rescuing God that our Christianity promoted, this affected us. We didn’t interpret it as a rebellion, backsliding or foolishness. We recognized the fear that their questions invoked in us. It’s terrible to think your children are forsaking your path and taking their own instead. But we had to believe that they, like us, would find their way. We would continue to point out dangers and make suggestions, but primarily we trusted that if their intelligence had integrity, they would make it.
I always recommend the incredibly helpful book on marriage and relationships, Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships. Relationships are formed and transformed in a crucible. When one person changes, it forces the other to change. Otherwise the relationship will fail. It’s the same with the relationship with our kids. If they change, it forces us to change. If we change, it forces them to change. It’s a perpetual dance. So when our kids changed direction theologically, we had to in some ways go their way while at the same time not forsaking our own. When we changed, if they wanted to remain in relationship with us, they had to adjust their steps as well without forsaking their integrity. Unlike the homes many people grow up in, it wasn’t “My way or the highway!” It was an intersection of our own highways weaving in and out of each other. As a result, we hopefully fostered a respect for their journeys and in them a respect for ours. That still holds.
3. RESPECT THEIR DISCOVERIES AND CONCLUSION BUT ALLOW FOR CROSS-POLLINATION:
Our children formed opinions that differed from ours. So in our house their was the fascinating interplay of five different opinions. This isn’t to say that the five world views blended together to become one syncretistic stew called Haywardism. Instead, our different beliefs were uniquely our own in a home that fostered a mutual respect for the other. And when I say different, this could even mean contradictory. It is like a United Nations of Spirituality. But Lisa and I learned early in our relationship that it wasn’t compatibility of beliefs that held us together. It was a love that respected the other no matter where they were. Lisa and I believe very differently, but we love each other. That’s the glue that binds us.
There have been difficult times when our differences created sparks that could have possibly turned into a raging fire that might have incinerated us. But I guess we learned how to negotiate those heated moments in ways that enabled us to put the fire out, divert it, or let it burn off the dross and change us.
Without a doubt, our kids learned from us. Without a doubt, we learned from them. Perhaps our kids learned from us how to be persistent, steadfast and faithful through difficult times. Perhaps we learned from our kids how to be honest, independent and outspoken through times of pressure to conform. While we taught our kids to think for themselves and believe what they believe with integrity, they also forced us to do the same. We told them our version. They’ve told us theirs. We’ve told them our stories. They’ve told us theirs. We pollinated them. They pollinated us. Like a hardy apple that has developed over the years through cross-pollination, we have fed off each other and developed traits that hopefully help us to survive even in the harshest of conditions.
I don’t want to give the impression that we are a perfect family. We are not perfect!We have our issues and problems as individuals and collectively. But there is a love and mutual respect that keep us together. There have been moments and seasons of unbelievable stress and confusion. There have been terrors and tensions. There have been separations and reconciliations. But so far we have survived them.
I was tempted at first to give maybe a 10 point list of advice for parents going through deconstruction in front of their kids… things like let them see the books you read and answer their curiosities about them; teach your kids how to think, not how to believe; tell them everything you’re going through and let them deal with what it means for them; ask them what they believe and listen objectively and engage in conversation about it; openly share your struggles with what you’re going through with the church and let them process it themselves, and so on. Rather, I thought I would give the three points above as sturdy blocks that help build an authentic, honest and thoughtful life.
I hope you find this helpful.
Have a great day, and peace on your path and the path of your kids!
Come join The Lasting Supper! I write a letter like this every week.