Conversation about Conversations – Part 2

Resources for the Home

In my last post, I promised to share resources that help parents encourage conversation in the home.  It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to get back to this post, between a major milestone, demands at work, and a household of sickness.  In the midst of all that, circumstances led to private conversations with each child about an important issue in their life. Then there were the usual conversations about the minutia of life, with a few brief moments of intentional connecting with each child.  And through it all, there is me, living with the nagging feeling that I am too busy, and not spending enough time with my kids!

Still, setting the guilt aside, I realize that these moments of conversations are for me some of the most enjoyable parts of parenting. More importantly, I know my children feel cared for when I take time to really listen and engage with them.

Conversation goals with children and teens

I have always thought of conversation as a learned skill, and see honest conversation as a gift we can give our children. Scripture talks about God knowing our innermost being, of God hemming us in ‘behind and before.’ (Psalm 139). There is nowhere we can flee from a God committed to loving us, just like the bunny that is unable to escape his mother’s love, in Margaret Wise’s well-loved children’s story, The Runaway Bunny.

Scripture tells us God knows us.  And that is comforting, intellectually. But how do we come to experience ourselves as known, and loved?  For me personally, the experience of being known and loved by God has come through prayer, which is of course conversation (talking, listening, focus on mutual presence and through it all: honesty).

Most of my conversation goals with my children come from my experiences in prayer.  Also influential is a book I read by Toronto-based child and family therapist, Jennifer Kolari, called Connected Parenting.  The book describes, among other things, how to build loving bonds between you and your child through empathetic conversations.  I read it ages ago, but it continues to subtly shape my thinking and practice.

Here is a rough description of how I would like our children to feel in conversation with me.  Namely that:

  • Mum genuinely is interested in what I think and how I feel
  • Mum is willing to talk with me about hard things
  • Mum is willing to listen
  • Mum values me
  • Mum and I can heal do healing and constructive things through conversations
  • Mum is proud of me and thinks I am a cool person

My hope is that our children will not only learn how to have conversations, in general, but that experience of being loved through conversation might also open them to experiencing loving conversation with God.  Whether or not I am succeeding in any of this, I have no idea. Regardless, I am committed to trying!

As a Christian mum, another one of my goals is to introduce faith as one of the many things we talk about as a family. Just as I want my children to gain the words to talk about their feelings, about their problems and about ideas, so I want them to acquire a language of faith.  One of the way that language acquisition happens is through conversation with a parent or close mentor who already speaks the language.  And, as mentioned in the last post, learning to speak about faith is part of the acquisition and development of faith itself.

Aside from the conversations that happen organically over the course of the week, here are some of my intentional practices:

Resources:

Encouraging dinnertime conversation:

We are lucky to be able to eat all our dinners together.  Our longtime practice has been to do a simple review of the day, each person sharing the best part and hardest part of the day.  When they were younger, to get things going and to learn about emotions, I would ask the kids to pick cards that described two to three emotions they felt during the day. (You can find that post here.)  We also have conversation cards, to broaden the topics we speak about as a family, and to build bonds by learning more about one another.  Some of the sample questions we have asked are as simple as “What is your favourite food that grandma makes?” to more obviously spiritual “If you could go and witness any moment in Jesus’s life, which would it be?” to downright revelatory: “If you could ask God any question, what would it be.” If you google “conversation cards Christian parenting,” a ton of free resources will come up such as this and this.  It’s up to you as parent to figure out which questions to ask in your home.

Using guided conversations around faith:

So, Christian devotionals.  Nothing revolutionary here. And it is not always effortless. We are are 24 entries into a new one right now, and it’s just meh. Our kids have loved the Adventures in Odyssey table devotional, and we have several of those. Overall, our experience with devotionals have been really hit and miss.

What is important to me is that there is a least some time in the week when we are having a family conversation about faith, no matter how brief, or, occasionally, how bored or confused.  The scintillating discussions are awesome, but I suspect the mundane and brief ones might matter too.

And to be perfectly up front: it doesn’t happen every day.  Sometimes we have been weeks without it, especially when we are running off to other activities.  But we always come back to it, and keep trying.

Seizing ordinary opportunities for conversations about faith:

This is really just about remembering to pay attention. If your kid asks a faith related question, don’t disappoint them by failing to engage!  This might unintentionally communicate that questions about faith don’t matter.  If you don’t have time, acknowledge the importance of the question and agree to find time later to pick up the conversation.

And if, of course, your child asks a question that stumps you (happens all the time around here), try not to close the conversation before it starts by only saying: “I don’t know.”  How about: “I don’t know.  What do you think?”  Or: “I wonder who might be able to help us find the answer?”  Wondering questions are always good. And it’s okay not to have all the answers.  I sure don’t have all the answers, and I am supposed to be a Professional Religious Person!

Creating extraordinary opportunities for conversations about faith:

Is there a parent/child Christian retreat at your Church or at your child’s summer camp?  Seize it. Is there a learning event that would interest your child, that you can attend together? Grab it.  Is there an opportunity to invite your tween into a conversation with other adults on faith?  Invite them in.  Recently, I took our eldest to a convent for a spiritual retreat. I thought she would be bored to tears; instead, she really welcomed the experience of silence.

When we move outside our comfort zones during these liminal moments, God sometimes does surprising things. Certainly, I am learning not to underestimate my offspring. Or God.

This desire to create extraordinary opportunities may be more important during the teen years, as the cognitive capacity of  your child grows and there is the desire to verbally and intellectually make sense of life, the world and faith.

Inviting others into the family conversation:

This is important for teens.

This is a new idea that we are trying on in our household, so I don’t have much insight to offer!  But the research suggests that for faith to “stick”, teens benefit from 5 Christian mentors investing in their lives in some way.   That person might be a youth pastor, a godparent, a trusted friend who is a regular feature in the family.  I will share more on the research on this one in a later post.

 

Conversation about Conversations

A few years ago I read the book Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids.  The book is one of two coming out of a major research project by Kara Powell and Chap Clark from Fuller Institute, who researched a group of 11,000 church-going teens. One of their findings in that study was the importance of conversations about spiritual matters between parents and their children. Sadly, the study also discovered that these kinds of conversations are happening infrequently in American Christian homes.

Since then, I have read a number of interesting studies in psychology journals whose findings line up with those in Sticky Faith.  A particularly compelling read was Kenda Creasy Dean’s report on the results of the National Study of Youth and Religion research, by sociologist Christian Smith.  In her book, Almost Christian, Dean has a chapter on the importance of language for creating not only meaning, but faith.  That chapter is so important, I reproduce a portion for you, below.

After a discussion of philosopher Charles Taylor’s writing on language, Dean notes:

If language has world-creating power, a theological vocabulary that helps us talk about God also helps us imagine what a God-shaped world looks like. The Holy Spirit reveals divine truth in the gospel not only to tell us what God has done in Jesus Christ but to help the church envision a way of life in which the life, death and resurrection of Christ become the ‘grammar’ of human existence. Teenagers who have trouble articulating what they believe about God also seem to have trouble forging a significant connection to God – and youth who do not have language for Christ are unlikely to imagine an identity in Christ. The practical theologian Thomas Long points out: ‘We don’t just say things we already believe. To the contrary, saying things out loud is part of how we come to believe.”(142)

Dean then goes on to make a case for what she calls ‘conversational Christianity,’ which includes reflections on the place for testimony as a tool for learning Christian language. (You can see the influence of Dean’s writings in my un-Anglican love of testimony!)

Dean’s writing in particular has galvanized my interest in helping parishioners find ways to gain a language of faith; in the home, it has in particular spurred on my interest in ‘sticky conversation.’

In my next blog posts, I will share resources I have found to encourage sticky conversations in the home, and my own efforts at encouraging parishioners more generally in developing their skills in conversational Christianity.

In Theaters: The Case for Christ

I just took our eldest to see the movie, The Case for Christ, which is out now in select theaters.

The movie tells the true story of an atheist journalist, Lee Strobel, who sets out to disprove Christianity after his wife becomes a Christian. To his mind, she has joined a cult; he despises the  (perceived) religious kookiness so much that for him, his quest is really about saving his marriage.  The movie essentially relates the backstory to Strobel’s world-wide bestseller: The Case for Christ.

Now I am not, generally speaking, a fan of explicitly Christian cinema, as it is usually tainted by overacting and saccharine plots. Of course, Lee’s conversion is a foregone conclusion – this is after all a Christian film!  True to life, Strobel does indeed come to faith through his strange little piece of “investigative journalism,” in a most awkward scene in the final moments of the film.

Having said all that, my daughter and I both liked the movie.  Yes, there was a bit of over-drama.  The story itself, though was compelling. The film is essentially a series of love stories: it is the story of a husband’s and wife’s struggling love in a bad place in their marriage; of a son’s anger at his distant father; of a man’s resistance to the very notion of a loving God.

caseforchrist
Strobel and his wife, not seeing eye to eye

There’s nothing in the movie that will convict the viewer of the ‘truth’ of Christianity, but the movie doesn’t aim at laying out the material in The Case for Christ.  The movie simply offers depictions of different ways of coming to faith, with Strobel wrestling for a reasonable faith, and his wife having more a deep conversion of the heart.  I appreciate that it also tells the stories of the atheists and agnostics too – those who have landed, by faith, in a different space – and painting them as the reasonable and caring people.

The research literature talks about the importance of mentors for young people, as they begin sorting through what they believe and don’t believe, and what their religious identity will be.  This movie, in a modest way, gives space for teens to question and wonder, and perhaps find for themselves someone with whom they identify in the film.  The characters offer a comforting model of people – who unlike, perhaps other adults in the teen’s life – haven’t landed yet on the side of faith but are still figuring out what it all means.

Capture
Strobel working late, investigating news stories and the Jesus story

The film offers a helpful assurances that questions and wondering and uncertainty are all a normal part of the journey of faith, which is critical for teens to hear at their stage of faith development.  It also gently reminds the viewer that the end goal is not doubt, but trusting relationship.

For the youth pastor and the parent, this movie may be a helpful resource, opening the door to conversations about the young person’s own faith questions and intellectual wrestlings, which conversations are so critical at this stage of development.

An interview worth reading: “The Teenage Brain”

On the Grown and Flown website, there is an excellent interview with Dr. Frances E. Jensen, author of the The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.  You can find it here.

We don’t have teens yet. But I do know that from a spiritual perspective, emotional attachment with parents is an important piece of the faith transmission puzzle. Dr. Jensen offers good tips on how to stay connected to your teen during those often turbulent years. Her insights help parents understand their offspring’s sometimes trying behaviour, from a developmental perspective.

Dr. Jensen also offers advice on key parenting issues during those growing years, especially as it relates to brain development.

It’s a quick and worthwhile read.

I find neuroscience (when it is explained in lay terms) fascinating, so I may even get around to reading Jensen’s book.  Likely when our kids move into the teen years, and I shift into “oh-oh” mode.