Dr. Greene's Answer
When children reach their teen years, they are certain that they know more than their parents. Sometimes that’s hard to take, especially when we look back through the eyes of our own experience and see the mistakes they are about to make. We want to tell them just to take our word for it and follow in our footsteps. It would make their lives so much easier. Or would it?
Learning begins the moment a child is born. A baby begins with simple tasks like learning to recognize his parents’ faces and how to suck from his mother’s breast or from a bottle his parents offer him. Over the years the tasks become increasingly more complex, until finally, in the teen years, the big task is learning to become an individual. Teens must learn to make independent decisions, or they will not be able to function as adults. By nature, this requires that they question what we have taught them. They need to re-examine the belief system they have grown up with in order to successfully make the passage from adolescence to adulthood. Young people who do not go through this phase as teens often re-visit the same issues in mid-life. By that time, it can become an even bigger crisis!
Here are some things you can do to help make this transition less stressful:
- Respect the process your son is going through.
- Tell him that you understand his need to make sense out of religion, and although you can’t help being concerned, you are okay with him.
- Invite him to ask you hard questions — Why do good people suffer? Why do children get sick? Why do people die young? How can God permit evil? Etc.
- If you don’t have a satisfactory answer to his difficult questions, don’t try to bluff it — he’ll see right through you! Ask him for some time to formulate your thoughts and schedule a talk at a later date.
- Use his questioning as a springboard to examine your own faith.
- Be honest with yourself. If your religion is getting stale, admit it to yourself and your son. If it is vibrant and alive, be honest about that, too.
- Have an open mind to your son’s ideas, even if they seem to be extreme. He may be able to teach you a few things.
- Allow him the space to change religions several times before he makes his final decision. If what you believe is true, it can stand up to the test.
Religion is one of the things that cannot be effectively passed down from parents to their children without the children examining what they are being presented. From your question, it sounds like you have been working hard at sharing with your son the faith you have found so meaningful. That is excellent. It is also wonderful that he is now questioning your faith. For anyone to have genuine faith, it must be questioned, it must be examined, and then it can be embraced. Until that process takes place, your children will only mimic your faith instead of having their own.
From before the time our children are born, we begin learning how to parent. In the early months, we learn how to understand the un-spoken language they use to communicate their basic needs. As they grow, we are constantly being stretched as parents. The big task of the teen years is to learn to let go of the once-little ones we treasure so deeply. If we are going to successfully make the passage from parents of dependent children to parents of independent adults, we must learn to respect our children’s decisions, even if we don’t agree with them. If we can do that, the stage is set for the next transition in the parent-child relationship — becoming peers.