I was raised to believe what sets Christianity apart from other religions is how God is a personable God. God is all-powerful but One who is accessible. I can still sing the familiar chorus without skipping a beat,
God knows my name,
God knows my every thought,
God sees each tear that falls,
And God hears me when I call.
God cares about the smallest details of our lives.
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I think this can be a beautiful thing to introduce to our children, that God loves, God cares, and God is always by-your-side; the most loyal friend, Someone besides parents to be their companion.
The problem is, a child’s view of a Personal God is based mostly on their conception of relationships with the people in their lives. This is why modeling a loving and healthy relationship with our children is so vital to their spirituality—because we are their first examples of what a relationship with God can look like.
If a child has a toxic relationship with his parents, it is very difficult to wrest that dysfunction away from their relationship with God.
One example of relationship dysfunction is emotional manipulation. When we parent our children by telling them, “if you act this way, you will make mommy sad,” this is a form of control. It guilts the child into behaving the way the parent wants them to behave; it breaches emotional boundaries by making the child responsible for the adult’s feelings.
And yet, this kind of emotional manipulation is rampant in religious fundamentalism, where God can be displeased by a child’s behavior. God is wielded as a tool of discipline and control over a child’s will.
This is terrifying for a child because they also learn that God is even more powerful than their human parents. God is an almighty, omnipotent God who is in your head and knows your every thought. God is there in the most private, sacred areas of your life, and a dysfunctional personal relationship with God can damage just about every aspect of a child’s life long after they’ve entered adulthood.
In order to cultivate a healthy spirituality in our children, there’s a couple things to address here.
First, as parents, we must do our best to form healthy relationships with appropriate emotional boundaries. This may require work to dismantle and heal from unhealthy patterns from our own past relationships, but this effort is worth it for our own well-being as well as our parenting. When we find our own whole-heartedness, to use Brene Brown’s term, we will not transfer shame to the kids. When we can respect ourselves fully, we will then be equipped to respect our children.
Part of respecting our children’s autonomy is to give them the freedom to relate to God and exercise their spirituality according to their unique identities. When kids are given the space and time to explore who God is—they are the ones in control of walking towards God, instead of feeling afraid and ashamed because of God.
And of course, we always have to maintain the possibility our children will grow up to disbelieve God’s existence altogether, and the choice to do that is their right.
A God who is good and kind would never emotionally manipulate a child into behaving a certain way. The God who loves patiently waits for a child to grow into a relationship—there should never be any hurry to ‘convert’ or get the kid to pray the sinner’s prayer. A God who heals would never punish, control, or wound a child.
God is at least as tender as I am towards my own children. If even I care enough to respect my children’s spiritual autonomy, surely God does as well.
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