The cry of a Christian teen breaks a parent’s heart. Why does life hurt so much? Why do I face rejection, broken relationships, the death of a friend, failure? Where is the God that I trusted as a child? The one who’s supposed to be kind and loving and faithful? How can He stand by and let me suffer like this? Is He even real? Right now, it’s hard to believe that He cares or that He exists.
What’s happening among Christian youth in America today? Why are large numbers of them feeling disillusioned with God and turning away from their faith?
We don’t seem to be doing a very good job, as the Body of Christ, of raising children who can cope with the suffering that will inevitably impact their lives. I hear so many stories of young people who are raised in Christian homes and who profess faith at an early age, but who are later blindsided by unexpected hardships. A crisis of faith, often leading to a loss of faith.
Security and suffering
In twenty-first century America we face an unusual dilemma. On the one hand, we need to emphasize to our little ones, from the time they’re born, how much God loves them, how He’s watching over them every minute, how He wants only the best for them. Young children need to know that they’re loved unconditionally, that their needs will be met by someone who cares.
Security. Without it, they’re likely to struggle for the rest of their lives with building trusting relationships.
But on the other hand, kids in our middle- and upper-class homes rarely go through suffering on the scale that occurred in every part of the globe just a couple of centuries ago. Gone are the days when even the most affluent families experienced the death of at least one child before the age of five. Extended families are a thing of the past and life expectancy has increased greatly, reducing the possibility that a young one will see the death of someone close to him.
Due to advances in medicine and technology, they’re shielded from the suffering that would have been considered natural a hundred or so years ago. Parents and churches don’t have the opportunity to help them through the pain and sorrow early in their lives because there is no pain and sorrow yet.
We need to offer our kids security, but at what point, and how, do we introduce them to the world of suffering? If they don’t experience real hurt by the time they’re five or seven years old, will they be able to handle it in a healthy way at a later age? Are our youngest overprotected because of the circumstances that they’re born into?
My baby-boomer generation was one of the first to question the wisdom of sharing the old fairy tales with young children. Too scary. Boys’ and girls’ lives at risk. Evil stepparents. How could a good mom tell such fearful stories to preschoolers?
But I wonder if there was a healthy side to these tales. Maybe young ones can process their trauma and fears in the security of their own homes through the world of make-believe. There is real danger in the world. The old fairy tales don’t disguise this fact. But they also offer the role models of courageous children and caring adults (alongside the evil ones), plus happy endings. In addition to the real pain of the world, there is love and hope and the strength to overcome.
The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website, demonstrates the paradox that Christian parents face in an article depicting Nathan, a three-year-old boy whose room is newly decorated with pictures of Noah’s ark. Nathan is shocked by the illustrations of an event “in which almost every creature on earth was wiped out by drowning as punishment for mankind’s rebellion against the Almighty.” He says that it was “made all the worse by the cutesy, pastel presentation.”
Here we see parents who understandably want to teach their child about a significant Bible event and at the same time protect him from the terror of God’s judgment. The illustrations are intended to draw Nathan’s attention to the lovable animals in God’s creation and to His protection of Noah’s family, rather than the devastation occurring all around them.
What can we do?
But is this the best approach? Is it okay to place so much emphasis on the “cutesy” side of the situation that we ignore or downplay the harsh reality, in order to build a foundation of security? Or should we avoid painful Bible stories until our kids are old enough to process them? Can we find a way to share the truth of God’s judgment, along with His grace, with our three- and four-year-olds, as we would with older children? Would that undermine their childlike faith? Or would it strengthen them to face the suffering that awaits them in the future?
At the same time, the secular culture around us has been exposing children to the dangers of the world at younger and younger ages. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the 1990s, I heard a newscaster state that one of the aspects of the whole affair that he found most challenging was that he now had to teach his five-year-old about oral sex.
Secular America no longer feels a need to shelter our most vulnerable family members from adult topics. If it’s in the news we have to explain it to them. And the news is filled with sensational stories involving sex and violence. Is it any wonder that Christian families are withdrawing from the larger culture in order to protect their youngest from everyday screen views that they’re not mature enough to process? But is this withdrawal also adding to the problem by shielding them too much?
How do we deal with the lack of suffering in our young children’s lives? How do we introduce them gently and without a loss of security to the realities of death and danger? Of course I don’t want to go back to the days when harsh circumstances impacted every family on a regular basis. And of course I’m not advocating exposing our kids to more pain than they can handle. I’m just hoping to introduce a topic of discussion that I rarely hear mentioned in American evangelical circles. A topic that might be critical in raising Christian kids who continue to trust Him when a loving, faithful God allows them to go through difficult times as they grow up.
(Click here to read an excellent article by Sam Williamson sharing another aspect of the problem of raising our kids in an evangelically correct environment.)