A new baby brings us such hope. They are so pure, their slate so clean, and for those of us who carry spiritual baggage from our past, our children compel us to do better by them. We are eager to offer them a spiritual environment that isn’t toxic but allows them to flourish as fully embodied human beings.
We’ve heard the saying, hurt people hurt people. The challenge for parents who bear childhood wounds is to bravely do the inner work of healing ourselves to become healthier parents who don’t pass on the pain. Toxic cycles can be broken, the spokes of injustice can be disrupted and new patterns established. We have these budding lives in our family—a beautiful opportunity to give them a childhood we never had. A do over. Or to co-opt evangelical lingo, to be born again into new life, a better life.
However, our children are more than a mechanism through which we remedy our mistakes. We should be careful to draw appropriate boundaries around the space within which we are working through our spiritual baggage. We take responsibility for our own work, instead of requiring our children to do the work for us.
The religious system that taught me how to develop a personal relationship with God was dysfunctional and abusive, so it is a struggle for me to untangle that dysfunction in my own faith. This is my spiritual baggage.
When my children began to exercise their spiritual agency and explore what it might look like to relate to God personally I became immensely triggered. Their words about God unleashed an avalanche of feelings. My upbringing of spiritual dysfunction flashed before my eyes and I would flutter with fear of watching history repeat itself. The choice I had to make at that moment was whether I was going to own my baggage and unload it on another capable adult who cared for me (this could be either a loving partner, friends, or a qualified therapist), or place it on the small shoulders of my child. I was tempted to do the latter. My instinct was to drag my child through the clutter of my escalating thoughts and question their view of God, interrogate their growing understanding, and demand that they reconsider how to have a personal relationship with God.
To be sure, raising a critical thinker and encouraging interrogation of religious traditions is a healthy act of spirituality. It is a conscious act of resistance and a brave aspect of parenting…when we are in a healthy place. But in that moment when I felt charged and triggered, any reaction directed at my child becomes an unfair burden to them.
Our children are not us. They are not, they are not, they are not. They are their own unique individuals, living life in a different time and context than us. They are fully human with the right to think their own thoughts, believe their own beliefs, and practice their own spirituality. My husband and I both have seminary degrees and career experience within Christendom, but even with all that pedigree, we do not have authority over our children’s spirituality. They have the right to pave their own path to a relationship with God in whatever ways that may shape and form.
I want my children to feel free to share all of their life experiences with me, including their spirituality. If their stories trigger me, that is my problem to deal with, not theirs. I work hard at healing my spiritual past, and one day I will share my stories with them out of my scars, but not from fresh wounds. I want to show them how resilient we can be, that even though I grew up with toxicity, I was able to give them fresh air. I want them to witness that just as I made beauty out of ashes, they too, can turn the pain of life into power.
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