Nurturing a Child's Faith: FAQ

At our Family Faith Formation nights, Trinity families come together for a meal and workshop on different aspects of raising children in faith. On April 30th, we sat down with Heather Ingersoll, a specialist in child faith formation. Afterwards, we gathered your questions from Heather, and here are her answers.

1. How much of our kids' spiritual development spills out from our own, as opposed to child focused practices?

A lot! Research indicates that the strongest predictor of religiosity in adolescents is the faith of their parents. So if you can choose to only do one thing, modeling a faithful life is the most important. Ideally, balance modeling your faith and cultivating intentional faith practices with your children.

How can you model your faith? We've got some ideas!

  • Parental Religiosity: Intrinsic Value Regard
    • Recently, researchers have begun to investigate religiosity internalization. They found that the more children perceive that their parents internalize their faith, the greater likelihood that children will also have an internalized faith. So, if children sense that you aren't just "going through the motions," but that your faith really impacts your day to day life, they are more likely to adopt a faith that impacts their everyday life
  • Conversations
    • Engage in regular conversations about faith, where both the parent and child have opportunities to express their opinions and ask questions. This dyadic dimension is an important piece of the conversation, particularly as children reach upper elementary school. 
  • Shared practices/rituals
    • Regular practices that fit well into your every day life - and are not forced - are another good example. This can be simple practices, like prayer before bed or meals, a special blessings to say to each other on your way out the door, praying when an ambulance goes by, volunteering as a family, and more! Check out question #5 for more ideas and resources.
  • Religious Mentors
    • As your children get older, having other adult religious mentors in an important part of spiritual grown. Be intentional about surrounding your children with other adults who will connect with them this way.

2. How do we connect church on Sunday with the rest of the week? How do we keep spiritual conversations open?

  • Worship Together
    • Worshiping together can be valuable in so many ways. It gives you a shared experience, something you can talk about. It is a great opportunity for your kids to see your how much your faith means to you.
  • Have special Sunday rituals
    • For my family growing up, it was donuts after church. Have a special meal each Sunday, or a picnic at a favorite park. Setting aside intentional family time after church on Sunday mornings can provide the impetus for conversations and connections about your Sunday morning experience. Some days it could turn into deep conversations, and other days it might just be good family fun with no conversation about the Sunday morning experience at church...and that is okay. Both are important!
  • Conversation
    • Do you ever ask your child “How was Sunday school?” and get a one word response like “fine”. I love this list of questions to ask your child after school...use this as a guide to begin conversation either after church or after school during the week.
  • Prioritize your time
    • One of my colleagues thinks the greatest issue hurting the faith of our children and youth today is busyness. As children get older, it is difficult to avoid getting sucked into a highly scheduled family routine based around kids activities. While sports, music lessons, scouts, and other extra curricular activities are valuable, be sure to evaluate what they are replacing. Those things linked to spiritual well-being for children -- time out in nature, family rituals (like shared meals), relationships with adult mentors, free play, family sabbath, volunteering -- are often pushed aside due to the looming list of possible activities for your children. Be intentional and proactive when making choices of how your family will spend their time.

3. How do we teach age-appropriate faith when we, as the parents, are in such a different place? How can we separate our belief from fact, in explaining matters of faith with kids?

I think it might help to reframe your responsibility from that of teacher to that of guide or, in the words of Robert Coles, “fellow pilgrims.” Using a schooling-paradigm to understand the faith development can hinder our ability to recognize the depth of children’s experiences of faith.

  • Do more listening than talking. Invite children to share their perspectives. You can say, "I understand it this way, but I am curious how you understand it." 
  • Recognize and be mindful of the ways your children impact your faith. You are learning as much as they are.

4. How should we deal with resistance around prayer, coming to church, etc?

This can be a difficult one, but I think pushing your children into something they are resisting can be harmful to their faith in the long run. I always start by evaluating your child and the underlying cause for resistance:

  • Coming to church: Why don't they want to come? Bored? Not challenged? Would rather play video games? Does not have friends or other adult connections?
    • Bored: Would they like to be involved in leadership? Is there something your child loves to do that they could incorporate into Sunday mornings?
    • Relationships: Is there a way to be more intentional about helping your child build relationships? A playdate with other kids in the church? Invite an older adult couple to your home for dinner?
  • Resistance to prayer or other practices:
    • Don't force it. If it is part of a family ritual, give the child some    ownership about how you do you. Maybe invite him or her to explore different ways of praying. If they still resist, respect their right to not participate. Say something like "It is really important to us to take time out of our day to connect with God. We are still going to do it, but you are welcome to not participate."

5. What are some good ways to be intentional in family faith formation? What are the best rituals and systems?

The best rituals and systems are ones you will be able to do! Evaluate your family’s time and schedules. When are you all together? What do to love to do as a family? When do you kids seem more open to conversation?

For ideas, check out a new book by Traci Smith, Faithful Families.

6. How much information should we give to kids on complicated topics? How do we talk to kids about things we are not sure about?

Be honest. Dyadic conversation, when kids and parents share and learn from each other, is best. You don’t have to have the right answer! How you engage in the conversation is most important.

Some things to say:

  • Great question. I'm not really sure. I wonder how we might find an answer to that together.
  • This is the way I see it or what I believe. Others believe something different. What do you think?

7. How should I address questions about death? How do I field questions about death and heaven with a 4 year old?

The literature suggests that being open and honest about death is most important. Here are a few articles that have some good information:

  • How to Talk to Kids About Death, from the Child Development Institute
    • This article has helpful information about talking about death based on children’s age. There is a brief section about religion that cautions against saying, “This person is with God” because children might be worried they will be snatched away by God. I think discussing God and heaven is a crucial piece to talking about death. Preferably, it is something that you talk to your children about regularly, not just when someone has died. Young children enjoy dreaming of what heaven might be like.
  • Dealing with Death, from the Fred Rogers Company
    • Who doesn't love Fred Rogers? This is a valuable article and video modeling sensitive and honest approaches to talking about death with children.
  • The Jesus Comfort Quilt, from Beyond the Blue
    • This organization has good resources for helping children through grief. It includes coloring pages, things to think about, and is a helpful Christian perspective for helping grieving children.

Other Resources for Nurturing a Child's Faith

Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents

Faithful Families

Real Kids, Real Faith by Karen Marie Yust

Children’s Books:

Anything by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, for example God's Paintbrush

Desmond Tutu’s Children of God Storybook Bible

Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus

The Bible for Children by Murray Watts

Shine On: A Story Bible

The Jesus Storybook Bible

Julia's Takeaways from Heather's Presentation

  1. Even the youngest children experience God in their own way.

  2. These religious experiences are oftentimes spontaneous/unorchestrated, and are tied to the feeling of transcendence/being one with nature, and the people who love them and are close to them.
  3. Our culture offers fewer and fewer business free/media free "empty spaces" necessary for a healthy identity and faith formation.
  4. Both AUTONOMY and a sense of RELATEDNESS are important factors in faith formation: needs need to be surrounded by/loved/known by faithful adults who also value their choices and opinions.
  5. Authoritarian parenting and perceived conditional regard (thinking that you are loved conditionally) hurt faith formation.
  6. Formative faith development needs to happen INSIDE OUT instead of OUTSIDE IN. We need to know our children, see what makes them come alive, and support those experiences.
  7. We need to be open and listen for our children sharing their experiences of transcendence and communion with God, and to their thoughts and ideas about God without being overly didactic or cutting them off.
  8. Even as we try to find the best ways to facilitate faith formation in our children, we have hope and freedom from anxiety in the knowledge that God is seeking to connect with our children through, alongside, and in spite of our efforts.