Teach Kids the Answers or to Think?

There are really great things good parents would want their children to have.

Some of these you can simply give them, not necessarily always easily, but rather they are straightforwardly giveable: clean water, shelter, clothing, affection. The list goes on.

But then, there are other goods that you can’t straightforwardly give your kids. You might do some things that make it more likely that the child will acquire them, but they aren’t giveable like the others: a sense of self-worth, confidence, a healthy, accurate worldview. Again the list goes on.

I want to focus on that last one - having an accurate worldview, or, believing the truth about the world, or, having values that align with what is “objectively” valuable (if I may help myself to this notion for this post).

Parents can’t just give these. And in fact, there are ways that I could try to give these things that might be counterproductive or frustrate my goal.

For instance, let’s say I wanted my child to share my values of self-sacrifice, loving others, even one’s enemies, and practicing the virtues. And further, let’s say that my upbringing and family faith tradition would have undergirded these ideas with a matrix of ideas from Christianity - something about Jesus being God, rescuer, and exemplar of these values.

Question: is it really a good idea to just tell our kids to believe in that stuff? When inevitably asked about deep questions, do we just tell them our preferred answer?

I want to suggest that even if belief in such things are in fact great and good parents would want their children to believe them, that simply informing or worse demanding that their children endorse these claims can be damaging.

I by no means have all the answers, but here’s one way to tweak the handling of deep, tough questions to create a culture of openness, curiosity, and truth-seeking in your home. And it’s not original with me.

Ask questions!

Here’s two examples.

1) “Believe-this” Dad

7-year-old Daughter, H: Dad, I heard in church that God made everything, but who made God?

Dad: Honey, God is uncreated and has always existed. There has to be a first unmoved-mover.

H: I’m not sure I understand, but okay.

D: It’s alright, you’ll understand when you’re older.

2) “Question-asking” Dad

H: Dad, I heard in church that God made everything, but who made God?

Dad: That’s so interesting and a really good question! Hmmm…(pause)....”What do you think? Have you given it some thought?”

H: (insert a funny, yet endearing explanation) I think an even stronger, smarter God made God.

Dad: That’s pretty creative! Are there any other ways someone might answer the question “Who made God”?

H: I’m not sure, what do you believe, Dad?

See the difference? In the first example, albeit a stilted version of true human dialogue, Dad simply answers the question with his preferred response, and it probably is true, or at least certainly falls within mainstream theological reasoning. But what did the child gain from it? As they say, give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.

There’s really something to that in the learning space. Teaching kids how to think is the only way to get the kind of results you actually want for them. Mere belief as a result of copying Mom and Dad is at best an anemic thread in a flimsy worldview.

And notice how the second example ends. The child asks what Dad thinks instead of the way the world is. Whatever answer is given, the power is given to the child to infer on the basis of dad-believes-this to their conclusion. The difference is subtle but it is so key:

  1. Who made God?

  2. Dad, how would you answer the question “Who made God”?

Adults might sometimes presume they are asking (b) even when they ask someone (a) - after all, I’m asking for your response - but I’m not so sure kids are on that level yet, depending on their age. When they ask me “Where do lions live?” they are seeking an objective truth of the world of which I am thought to be a reliable oracle. I can say “Africa and zoos” and be right, not lead them astray, and they’d likely never run into someone that would disagree with this.

Not so with matters of faith and worldview. These are fraught with disagreement. Many young people experience a disillusionment with their received, core faith and worldview ideas when they discover that hosts of people don’t buy into the same system of ideas they do. And we answer God-questions just like Lion-questions all the way through, we are opening our kids up to these crises of faith, that are just so avoidable.

What if from the outset of inquiry, when our kids are first asking such questions, we meet them with questions? We really can build a culture in the family of curiosity, exploration, imagination, critical thinking, and reasoning.

Now, the reason many parents opt to not do it this way is out of fear that their children will develop different values than them. Or worse, coupled with some notions about “not being saved” if one is coming from a certain Christian persuasion. But, I suggest that this is an unfounded worry, at least in one respect - they will share the values of the intellectual virtues. And it is only when one is armed with these that any of the resulting beliefs and values are really worth having.

This week’s guest, Dr. Pete Enns, helps us unpack these ideas at length and explore what it looks like to parent well in the midst of faith questions, deconstruction, or transition. You can watch the episode How the Bible Actually Works on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher.

Stay Curious!