I am not a parent. I have no children, and so I can't even begin to say that I know what it is like to walk in your shoes. But I can say this: I know that you are the most important, most influential person in the spiritual life of your adolescent. It does not matter if they acknowledge it, it does not matter if you never talk with your child about about your spiritual life or their, it does not matter if you are not sure your children are even hearing you, no matter how they react, YOU are the most important person in the outcome, formation, and longevity of the spiritual lives of your teenager.
Over and over again the research points to parents being far and away the most consistent predictor of the faith of their children. As Kenda Creasy Dean puts it "we get what we are." Christian Smith and the National Study for Youth and Religion name parents, and in particular, the mother, as the most influential factor in the participation and internalization of the faith of their children. " On page 116 of Soul Searching he says, "Family socialization generally seems to work when it comes to teenagers’ religious faith and practice. Furthermore, the quality of the relationships that parents build with their teenagers, and their own choices about marriage relationships, education, and occupations—insofar as they have choices in these areas—also create family contexts that again form the outcome of their teenagers’ religious and spiritual lives."
Your kids ARE listening, or more accurately, they are absorbing. They are absorbing your beliefs, habits, and level of internalization. I want to take a minute and talk about the internalization piece (which is a word coined by Fuller Youth Institute). In a nut shell: internalization is the level at which one's faith affects one's daily life and character. It is about Christ changing who we are, not just what we do. An integrated faith changes thoughts, values, beliefs, priorities, budgets, relationships, and schedules. A person who is internalizing their faith in Christ is moving towards loving others and God on a daily basis. This is often messy and awkward. It involves mistakes, apologies, harming others, being harmed, sharing our tender spots, it often involves anger, confusion, hope, tears, affection, kindness, and grace - lots and lots of grace. If you are moving towards internalizing your faith, then the odds are high that your child is as well. In short, adolescents are absorbing and mimicking the level at which the faith of their parents is or is not internalized.
I ask myself this often as a youth worker: Am I being transparent about my mess? I am becoming more and more passionate about parents also asking that question. The influence of positive parental relationships during adolescence is both one of the most powerful influences on lasting faith, and one of the places that our culture has stereotypically expected disengagement on both the part of the adolescent and the parent. While teens naturally reproduce the spirituality of their parents, they also benefit greatly from an adult, and most particularly, a parent having an open dialogue about one another'sspiritual lives. In particular, if you are following Christ, then sharing about your daily spiritual life, how you became a Christian, and everything in between can equip your child to navigate the transition into adulthood with their faith in tact. It makes so much sense to me! You have lived more, and you know what it looks like to follow Christ in your stage of life, and quite simply, your kids do not. They have not lived it or walked it and cannot know what it looks like without the adults in their lives being honest about what it means to follow Christ in all of its messy glory.
How you live your spiritual life matters, how you share that with your teenager matters. I am praying for you all as you make this journey. Please pray for me as I learn to relate to you and your children. Let's keep walking this road together.