Dealing With Your Children’s Doubts
About the Guest
What if your child doubts God? Kara Powell reveals that 70 percent of high school seniors have doubts about their faith, but parents shouldn't be alarmed. Kara explains that when young people explore their doubts, it leads to maturity. If your kids ask a question you can't answer, it's okay to tell them you don't know and then help them find the answer. Most importantly, share yourself. Tell them what you're learning about God and how you see Him working.
Kara PowellDr. Kara E. Powell is an educator, professor, youth minister, author, and speaker. She is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary (see www.fulleryouthinstitute.org). Kara also serves as an Advisor to Youth Specialties and currently volunteers in student ministries at Lake Avenue church in Pasadena, CA. She is the author of many books including Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas t...more
Kara Powell reveals that 70 percent of high school seniors have doubts about their faith, but parents shouldn’t be alarmed. Kara explains that when young people explore their doubts, it leads to maturity.
Dealing With Your Children’s Doubts
Bob: Do you find that your kids don’t want to engage with you in any kind of spiritual conversations? Kara Powell has some thoughts about that.
Kara: What we, as parents, tend to do is—we tend to ask our kids questions about their faith: “How was church?”—we say in the minivan ride home—“How was youth group? What did you talk about? What did you learn?” And depending on your kid’s mood, personality, relationship with you—you might get an answer; you might get a short answer; you might get an eye roll and, “Leave me alone, Mom,”—depending on where your kid is at.
It is a good thing for us, as parents, to keep asking those questions of our kids—but what is as important and much less practiced—isn’t just that we, basically, interview our kids—but that we share ourselves, organically, about our faith journey.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, January 29th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. How can moms and dads have conversations with their kids that lead their kids in the right direction, spiritually?
We’re going to explore that today. Hope you can stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I have, many times, quoted out of context 3 John, where the Bible says, “I have no greater joy than to know that my children are walking in the truth.” And I say it’s out of context because John is talking about his spiritual children.
Bob: He’s not talking about his physical children.
Dennis: But they can be our spiritual children.
Bob: They can be, and there is no greater joy for a mom or a dad—and probably no greater pain for a mom or dad than when your kids are off in the far country; right?
Dennis: Yes. And we have with us somebody to talk about that. Dr. Kara Powell joins us. Kara, welcome back.
Kara: It’s wonderful to be here!
Dennis: She’s written a book called The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family: Over 100 Practical and Tested Ideas to Build Lasting Faith.
Bob: Dennis likes practical and tested.
Dennis: I do.
Bob: He’s big on that.
Dennis: I do. I think the average parent needs to know how to think right and they need a good philosophical background; but most parents just need somebody to put their arm around them and say, “Here are five ways you can help build faith in your kids.”
You’re raising three, right now.
Dennis: What’s the biggest challenge you are facing in raising two teenagers?—as I recall, one that is an emerging teenager in Southern California. What’s the biggest challenge you are facing?
Kara: The first thing that comes to my mind when you asked that question is: “How to make sure I stay connected with my kids’ hearts in the midst of an often frenetic and, at least, always busy family schedule.”
Dennis: And the implication there—if you’re not connecting with your kids, you can’t pass on your faith to your kids.
Kara: Yes, in the midst of our research—I love practical ideas, and we’ll certainly unpack those—one of the things that’s been most challenging to me and encouraging to me is just to stay heart-connected to my kids—that I have those times to really listen and talk with them about who they are / what they are struggling with.
That is gold!
Dennis: To that point, one of the things I struggled with, as a high school student, going off to college, were doubts.
Dennis: I don’t remember opening myself up to my mom or dad about my doubts. It wasn’t that they were particularly unsafe to talk about this. I’m not sure I felt like doubts were a fair point of discussion with anybody in the church. It was like: “You shouldn’t talk about your doubts. That’s anti-faith. What are you going to do with that?” But I was struggling with it.
You’ve found that doubts can be a key to the door to open your child’s heart and to build their faith.
Kara: Well, you’re certainly not alone in having tough questions about God and doubts. Our research indicates that about 70 percent of high school seniors have significant questions about God and faith.
Bob: Here’s what I’m observing, though, that’s a little concerning. It seems to me, not with young people as much as, maybe, with 20-somethings.
There seems to be almost a celebration of doubt and skepticism—
Bob: —an elevation of this like, “You’re not really authentic if you don’t doubt.” It’s almost like, “If you don’t doubt, and if you have faith, we think you’re probably a phony.”
Kara: Right. And that’s where I think what Dennis was saying earlier is so important—that in our research, we found that, when young people have the opportunity to express and explore their doubts, that’s actually correlated with greater faith maturity. In other words, doubt isn’t toxic to faith—silence is. But Bob, you’re pointing out another extreme, which is to say: “We kind of throw up our hands and say, ‘Well, what can we know? Let’s just kind of sit and be mired in all of our tough questions.’”
As a parent, one of the phrases that has really helped me with my own kids—and it helps me find that balance between finding a safe space to talk about doubts but still pointing to the truth of what I do know about God—is four words.
These are four words we recommend that parents use, starting when their kids are young up through the 20’s—like you’re talking about—and I’ve used this when my kids will come to me with their tough questions. It is this: “I don’t know, but….” “I don’t know, but here’s what I do know to be true about God.”
Kara: And I’ll tell you—Romans 5:3 and 4—in the midst of my kids and our family experiencing suffering and seeing people close to us experience suffering—that is often what we have pointed to—my husband and I, when we say: “Boy, we don’t know why our dear friend died of cancer prematurely…” “We don’t know why God would allow that plane to crash; but we do know suffering leads to perseverance, perseverance to character, and character to hope.”
That’s one anchor we try to use with our own family to find that balance of being a safe place but still knowing the rocks of our faith that we can stand upon.
Bob: I had the opportunity, a number of months ago, to be teaching through the life of Joseph in church. We were in the middle of the story of Joseph and his brothers.
I was making the point that—here was evil that was visited on Joseph by his brothers; and yet, God, in His divine sovereignty, had allowed these things and had actually been using these for His own purposes. We all know that at the end of the story, Joseph says, “You meant it for evil; God meant it for good.”
A young woman in our church wrote me a note and she said: “I’m struggling with this. How can God hold people accountable for the evil that they’ve done if He’s using it for His purposes and if it’s under His divine sovereignty?” You know, it’s the tension that we all are aware of—between human responsibility and divine sovereignty. I wrote her back and I said: “You’re struggling with this. Good. Welcome to the club”—
Bob: —“of people who have struggled with this for centuries.”
Bob: And I tried to do what you’re describing, which is to say: “I don’t think anybody’s going to answer all your questions on this. And if you need all of them answered in order to trust God, you’re probably going to be frustrated.
But here is what I do know…”
Kara: Yes; exactly.
Bob: And I was able to unpack: “I know this…” and how all of that works together. I think, someday, we’ll get a better picture of that than we have today; but for now, we walk by faith and not by sight.
Dennis: And we really do have to be okay with our kids struggling—
Dennis: —with their faith.
Dennis: Better that they struggle with their faith under your roof—
Dennis: —than leave your house, dutifully nodding their heads, all the way through adolescence into college.
Kara: Yes. And that we, as parents—we’re in process too. It’s not just our kids who are in process.
You know, Sticky Faith has changed my parenting. Every day, I parent differently. I think this whole area of parent/child faith conversations is the most tangible way my parenting has changed. So, whether it’s doubt or other topics related to faith—let me illustrate for a moment the biggest shift I’ve made, as a parent, based on our research.
So, Dennis, let’s say that you’re my child. What we, as parents, tend to do is—
—we tend to ask our kids questions about their faith: “How was church?”—we say on the minivan ride home—“How was youth group? What did you talk about? What did you learn?” Depending on your kid’s mood, personality, relationship with you—you might get an answer; you might get a short answer; you might get an eye roll and a, “Leave me alone, Mom,”—depending on where your kid is at.
Kara: Well, what our research suggests is—it is a good thing for us, as parents, to keep asking those questions of our kids—but what is as important and much less practiced—isn’t just that we, basically, interview our kids—but that we share ourselves about our faith journey.
Bob: “Let me tell you what I learned at church this morning. It was really powerful,”—that kind of thing.
Kara: Exactly! And before our research, we would, as a family, talk about what we learned at church. Literally, Dave and I would ask our three kids, “What did you learn?” Then, we prayed as a family; and Dave and I never shared what we learned.
Kara: We were totally missing that opportunity. So, one of the questions that we ask now at the dinner table with our kids is, “How did you see God at work today?”
And when we first raised that question, one of our daughters was about eight. She said, “Well, Mommy/Daddy, I can’t answer that question.” “Really? Why not?” She said, “Well, I don’t have a job,”—“How did you see God at work today?” [Laughter]
But then, when we reframed it—“Okay, how did you see God working?”—all of us / Dave and I included—answer that question. I’ve got to be honest—I don’t always love the theology that comes out of my kids’ mouths: “I saw God work because we won the kickball tournament today!” Eventually, we will deconstruct that. [Laughter] But at this time in their development, we just, not only want them to share with us how they saw God at work—and sometimes, they say they didn’t really see God at work today; and that’s okay too. But we want them to hear Dave and me talking, every day, how we saw God at work that day.
Bob: Yes. We’re talking with Kara Powell today, who is the author of the book, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, on FamilyLife Today.
And I think it’s important for parents, here, to know these kinds of conversations need to be handled with care. It is—when a child comes and says, “I have a question about this,”—and the parent either shrugs it off, or ignores it, or minimizes it—
—that’s problematic—but it can be equally problematic for the parent to become the one-man apologetic, “Let me lock this down tight for you, and give you all of the right answers, and get you boxed in so you’re thinking correctly.” A lot of kids grow up and rebel from that kind of training as well; don’t they?
Kara: Absolutely. And we heard from student after student, who was in our study, that what their parents did well is—they let their kids come to own their own faith because, if we just try to impose our faith on our kids, it’s going to be like a jacket that never changes who they are. To really have kids come to internalize the faith, we have to ask the kind of questions that lets them think, lets them wrestle, and live with some tension—meaning that we might not be able to come to an easy answer or resolution about a particular Scripture passage or a particular cultural issue. That’s okay. The conversation is ongoing in our family.
Dennis: One of the biggest challenges that parents are expressing to me is, “How do I raise a child, who has his or her own convictions, and heads out into a culture that is not going to reward my son or my daughter for standing firm about what the Bible teaches about an issue?”
Bob: How do you get a Daniel, who is going to live in Babylon, and still fear the God of Israel?
Kara: Well, let me tell you what I’m doing with my own kids to try to instill that sense of them being Daniel in the midst of a hostile culture.
Number one, I’m praying for them. I pray for my kids holistically every morning—I pray for them physically, spiritually, emotionally. I ask God to show me how to pray for my kids. There is one of my kids, in particular, who I feel like God has said I need to pray for boldness for that child. I am very much living that out.
Back to the power of family conversations—I’ve been praying for my kids since they were born—before they were born, even.
My kids often see me praying. But what I wasn’t doing—until our research came about—is I wasn’t talking with my kids about what I was praying for them. They knew I was praying for them, and that is certainly very meaningful. I was modeling prayer—
Kara: —very meaningful.
Kara: But I finally started saying to my kids, “Hey, can I show you what I’m praying for you?” They see the pages in my prayer journal—where I’m praying for them. So, I would say: Number one—it starts with prayer.
Number two—be encouraging with our kids about the unique gifts that they have. My son, in particular, is an athlete and how he can be a leader in the midst of him being an athlete. So, that’s number two.
Number three—just how important it is that, when our kids struggle to be that salt and light, that we are that safe place for them—that we offer them forgiveness, acceptance, and a sense that God is still working in them and through them, even if on one particular day they didn’t stand up for that joke that was inappropriate and say something to a friend about a joke that really crossed a line. Our kids are going to, sometimes, not correct that joke.
Kara: And for us to say to our kids: “You know what? I sometimes struggle at work…” or “I sometimes struggle at the grocery store; and here is how I’m continuing to grow, even in the midst of my struggles.”
Dennis: I think that’s excellent—I really do. I think parents need to be encouraged to pray the right thing and ask God how to pray for their kids. They need to be developing their gifts and teach them how to respond in the midst of tough circumstances. There are issues today, where your kids are going to run into friends, who are coming from homes who do not believe like your home.
Bob: Or they may be coming from Christian homes, but the kids aren’t embracing—
Dennis: Well, that starts in junior high—
Bob: Yes; right.
Dennis: —and even younger now. What are you going to do in those situations?—I mean, without getting into the specifics of what the issue is. To me—I think parents today need encouragement to equip their children with the truth to know how to stand strong and to also know how to stand while loving other people compassionately.
Kara: It’s hard to be a teenager on a campus today—public/private—I don’t care what kind of campus it is. It is really hard. Sometimes, I see my kids do it well. My son was telling me that, at the lunchroom, he and his eighth-grade friends—somebody said a curse word at a lunch period. The teacher said, “Okay, everybody’s going to stay here until we figure out who said that swear word.” A number of the boys said, “Well, it wasn’t Nathan because he never swears.” I thought: “Alright! Good! He’s known as a kid who doesn’t swear. He’s, at least, doing that well.”
But there are a lot of ways where I know my kids are struggling with knowing how to fit into culture and how to be that salt and light. I think one of the ways that I try to most proactively support them is help them have friends who can stand with them. I’m very intentional in the kind of friendships that are developed at school and the kind of families that I make sure that we spend time with—whether it’s at school or whether it’s at a church because I was a high school student too. It made all the difference when I had one other Christian friend on campus, or those friends in the youth group, that we could talk to.
Trying to do it alone is really hard. Part of what we can do, as parents, is help our kids not be alone.
Bob: So, do you say, “Yes,” and “No,” to whom their friends can be?
Kara: Well, I’m—I have to be a little bit more covert than that! I mean, especially now that they are older; but I certainly say, “Well, why don’t we have So-and-so over?”—it’s who I am extra proactive with that tends to make a difference. Now, once my kids start driving, it’s going to be a little bit hard to control that; but until they start driving, a lot of who they spend time with is still largely influenced by me.
Bob: So, let’s say that, at your kid’s school—it’s back to school time. There is going to be the big “See You at the Pole” thing; and all of the Christian kids are getting there. You say to your son, “So, are you going early Thursday for See You at the Pole?” He goes: “No. The kids who go to that are just—uh.”
Kara: “They’re the dorky kids,” or whatever it might be.
Bob: Do you just let that go; or do you say, “I’m driving you to See You at the Pole. You’re going to see me at the pole because I’m going to see you at the pole!”? What do you do?
Kara: “We will stand there together if it’s just the two of us!”
Bob: That’s right!
Kara: You know, what I would say to my son, if that happened is, “Well, I’ll tell you what—is Luke going?” Then, what I would probably do is—I would text Luke’s mom and say, “Hey, how about if we both encourage our sons?” You know, Luke is Nathan’s Christian friend, who is at his non-Christian campus. If the two of them are going, then, all of a sudden, there is more momentum there.
I would not force my child, as a teenager, to take a stand like that publicly; but I would try to maneuver as much as I could, behind the scenes, so that he has that positive social support—and even positive peer pressure to show up for that flag pole, or do that book report on The Screwtape Letters, or whatever it might be that lets him be a light in the midst of a sometimes dark world.
Bob: I’m not even sure if kids are gathering at the pole. I may be ten years out of date.
Kara: It still happens.
Dennis: It still happens.
Kara: It still happens; yes.
Dennis: So, are you doing anything to prepare your kids for—not the coming persecution—but the present persecution?
There are only going to be two kids—those who fit in and those who don’t. Have any of your kids been persecuted?
Kara: Well, they certainly get left out of things and feel left out. Everybody is going to a party, and they don’t invite my son because they know that he wouldn’t like it. Everybody’s going to an R-rated movie, and they don’t invite my son. It hasn’t so much been overt persecution as it’s been left out of some of those more cultural, iconic experiences.
Dennis: These are days when parents want to know—
Dennis: —“How do I do this?” It’s not a matter of skirting the issues—it’s a matter of genuinely equipping our children to know how to stand strong in a culture that will punish them for standing firm.
Kara: Yes. The verse that’s coming to mind in this complicated conversation about persecution and helping our kids stand up for truth is 1 Peter 3:15-16: “But in your hearts, regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.
“Yet, do it with gentleness and respect.” I love that balance there that we get in that passage—there is boldness, but there is also a gentleness and respect.
One of the things that I pray every day for our kids—in fact, Dave and I—we have the same prayer that we pray every night with and for our kids to the point that they have it memorized—is that one of the phrases in there is that they will be leaders, and learners, and people of gentle strength. I think that is what is needed in our culture—is strength, and a passion, and a conviction—but paired with gentleness and tenderness. That’s what we are trying to instill at home.
Dennis: And they need that today if they are going to be, not just survivors of the culture, but able to stand strong and grow up and become an adult, who is going to have to that as well.
Dennis: I think it’s a different day. I think, if there isn’t a spiritual awakening that sweeps across our nation, these kinds of discussions are going to become increasingly important because this country is not moving in a conservative direction toward the Bible—
—it’s moving away from it.
Bob: Well, and we have a responsibility, as moms and dads—whatever direction the broader culture is moving, we have a responsibility to train up our kids in the fear and admonition of the Lord to present a clear gospel to them, to love them, to be Jesus’ representatives, introducing them to God the Father—I think what you’ve outlined in your book, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family—practical ways that we can do this, as parents.
And I’ll just let our listeners know here—we’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com to request your copy of The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY and order the book by phone. So, again, online—it’s FamilyLifeToday.com. The phone number is 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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You know, I was thinking about the fact that we started this conversation with Kara Powell talking about: “How do you deal with doubt when a child comes and has questions about doubt?” I thought, for sure, that the reason that Dennis wanted to engage in that conversation is so that he could share with you the quote he has shared most often on FamilyLife Today in 23 years. I don’t think there is anything you’ve quoted more often than this particular quote; do you think?
Dennis: Well—and it’s because it was at a real formative time in my faith. It was given to me by a man who grew up in Brooklyn. He was a preacher’s son, in a gang, who met Christ listening to the radio.
Dennis: His name was Tom Skinner. He became the chaplain of the Washington Redskins. I had the privilege of driving him all over campus.
He was probably one of the first African American speakers ever to speak at our Baptist church. Our pastor—I didn’t realize how heroic and what a pioneer he was in doing that at the time. But he [Tom Skinner] began and ended each of five messages with this quote: “I spent a long time trying to come to grips with my doubts when, suddenly, I realized I better come to grips with what I believed. I have since moved from the agony of questions that I cannot answer to the reality of answers that I cannot escape. And it’s a great relief.”
That hit me so between the eyes as, a young man—just the freedom to have doubts, but the exhortation to move from doubt to determine what you believe, and to bet your life on it instead of waffling on the fence for the rest of your life.
Bob: It needs to be sticky; doesn’t it?
Dennis: It does need to be sticky. And I want to say, “Thanks,” to Kara Powell for your work on this book.
I’m glad we finally got you here—have heard about you for a number of years and just grateful for your work at Fuller. Trust you’ll come back and join us again sometime.
Kara: I’d be delighted to.
Bob: “Thanks,” to our listeners for joining us today as well. Hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend in church. And I hope you can join us back on Monday. We’re going to talk about faith again, but we’re going to talk about what genuine biblical faith looks like. Dr. Crawford Loritts joins us as we explore authentic faith.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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