….do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and the instruction of the Lord” Ephesians 6:4

The words listed above were originally addressed by Paul to fathers in the Ephesian Church. As such, they are of course important words for fathers to take to heart today. However, these words also give every parent or guardian the opportunity to think more carefully about how to respond to the children we love and care about, especially when their understanding of, or commitment to, God’s good design for their lives become unsure or unclear. To frame it in terms of a question: How should we respond when the children we love and care for begin to question important things like their faith or their identity or their sexual orientation?

That such confusion or questions will arise is I think a given, especially as our children are exposed to opinions which challenge Christian beliefs as well as the Christian world-view and ethical framework. Such anti-Christian opinions may come from more formal channels such as comments by teachers or in prescribed texts or, perhaps more frequently, simply from the prevailing culture as it is expressed in casual conversations at school or on the University campus. But confusion or questions can also arise as our children ‘come of age’ and grapple with their own emotions and thoughts.

Either way the question remains “How should we respond?”  I trust that the following answers will prove helpful and encouraging though I recognize that they by no means cover everything that can or should be said.           

 Firstly and in many ways most importantly, we need to ensure that our children have the freedom and confidence to bring their questions or doubts to us without fear. Nothing angers or frustrates or discourages a child or young person more than the sense that their opinions don’t matter or are not worth hearing. We may not agree with their views and may be right in disagreeing, but we must make time and create a safe space in which these views can be expressed. Here we need to keep in mind that children often have a high sense of loyalty and will be concerned that their views, especially if different from those we hold, will let us down or disappoint us. So their natural tendency will be to keep their doubts about faith or their confusion about moral or ethical things to themselves. It is important therefore that we treat their doubts and their confusion for what they are and that we don’t see them as rebellion or disloyalty.

To put it in a different way: Doubt and confusion is not the same thing as decision and therefore should never be punished. This is especially important when it comes to issues of faith or sexual identity. Confusion during adolescence is not a decision that will necessarily be carried into adulthood and there are many adults (ourselves included) who could testify to the truth of this.  Thus a safe space to talk and a listening ear is one of the most important things we can offer our children. Failure to provide this will frustrate and anger them and in the end drive them to have these vital conversations with others,  some at least of whom will exploit rather than help them.

Secondly, the whole point of a safe space and a listening ear is to build a relationship of trust and love in which God’s truth on these matters can be spoken. And God’s truth must indeed be taught, firmly, wisely and carefully. This is precisely what it means to bring children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Sometimes within secular culture the flip side of not angering or frustrating our children becomes allowing them to live out their confusion or doubt without wanting to be prescriptive. But this is surely to forsake the teaching role that God has given to parents in relation to their children. For we are to remember that children belong to God as well as to their parents and that we are accountable to God to teach them His truth.

God is good and His Way truly is best and so we need never fear that in teaching our children God’s truth or God’s standards regarding lifestyle choices we will be robbing them of freedom or what is good. And here as parents we need courage to believe that God’s ways truly are the best ways and we need character to follow them ourselves, long before we expect them of our children. The alternative to this is plain hypocrisy and children are very, very good at seeing through that.

So then, for the sake of the children, may God grant that we listen well, speak truth and since they are in His Hands, pray much. Speaking to our children about God and speaking to God about our children have always been to sides of the same coin.