Help! My 9 year old daughter was “saved” at a VBS tonight that she attended with her friend…I do not believe in the concept of “being saved” and really wasn’t prepared when she walked through the door happily proclaiming her new status. She could tell I was a bit thrown off, and she shared the story of feeling like she needed “more of Jesus in her heart,” because she doesn’t think of him enough. She said that it felt really special and she was glad. She had a hint of disappointment as she saw me fumble to explain that even those who don’t get “saved” can still have “Jesus in their heart…” Anyway, where do I go from here? She’s upstairs playing with her bff who also “got saved” tonight. So I won’t go into detail with her about what she experienced—- the classic “get kids emotional and hook em on the bait of Jesus” spill. But, I am just wondering how would you approach this? Thanks.
I have to confess I had a moment of panic myself as I read your cry for help because the language surrounding getting “saved” and knowing the evangelistic agenda of many VBS’s (I know not all are like that), ignited a visceral reaction for what fire-and-brimstone indoctrination your daughter might have received.
I think that feeling of panic and fear is so good. It demonstrates love. It’s our reflexive reaction to when our children are in danger. So we are going to acknowledge the panic and ask it to sit in the waiting room of our heart for a moment, because we’re going to come back to it with some questions later.
Okay, now that we’ve got panic settled in another room, we can take a deep breath and regroup a bit. Let’s consider what the most loving response to your daughter might be. I think it is to embrace our children and ensure connection to them no matter who they are and are becoming. It’s good practice for all of us to have the experience of going toward our children if and when they make some surprising, and possibly triggering, proclamation when they walk in our door. Because the first thing they have to know is that we will love them regardless of their next self-proclaimed status.
In this instance, I think it’s particularly important to express interest and affirmation in her experiences, because this is an important part of her spiritual formation. In a world where we are drowning in various material distractions, her ability to reflect on her heart (needing more Jesus in her heart), her feelings (it felt special and she was glad), is something you can encourage. Those spiritual skills of deep reflection is an asset in helping her navigate these tumultuous growing up years. And the fact that she “got saved” with her friend is an extra bonus because being in community is such an essential aspect of spiritual formation as well.
By affirming her, you are fostering her spiritual curiosity instead of shutting it down. But the thing about curiosity is that it asks a lot of questions. Given that we have the advantage of experience with bad religion, you can help her avoid going down the path of toxic fundamentalism by asking if her spirituality leads her toward loving herself, others, and particularly the most vulnerable people? Good religion will make room for interrogating its own tradition and practices, and always leads to greater inclusion, more freedom, and genuine kindness. Pay attention and encourage that within your daughter as she continues to process this event and future spiritual moments.
Now, let’s come back to the waiting room and have a conversation with our initial panic. First, tell it we’re taking care of our baby. We need to remind ourselves that our children are not us. When we are triggered by a religious buzzword because it conjures up painful past experiences, those are our stories, not our children’s. Tell Panic we had to invite it to the waiting room while we parent our children without our own spiritual baggage.
Next, we’re going to need to ask our panic some questions. Because here’s the thing about our fears, it helps us identify what is in fact, dangerous, for our children. Lean into our fears and ask if there were toxic elements to the VBS your daughter attended? Did the VBS leaders violate your daughter’s autonomy by forcing a conversion using shame? Were there child protection policies in place to ensure this? Could you have demanded assurance from the VBS coordinators or learned more about the curriculum and goals? Depending on the answers to these sample of questions you may want to either make alternative plans for your daughter next summer, or know better how to prepare her beforehand and respond to her after.
This is not easy, what we’re doing: sorting out our own faith baggage and shifting while parenting these little ones we love. I’m so glad to have you as a companion as we learn together. Thank you for reaching out and best wishes for your family’s spiritual wholeness.
Cindy for Unfundamentalist Parenting
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*This is part of Ask Unfundamentalist Parenting series where I answer real life parenting dilemmas. You can submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org*