Two weeks ago I spent six days driving to Richmond for an Old Testament 2 Class. The “2” is key here – after Creation, and Exodus, and David and Goliath. We focused on the Prophets. Yes. Amos, people, Micah. The stuff liturgies work to avoid. The stuff I work to avoid. It was a great class. Our professor confronted really difficult material and brought it to life. We wrestled with texts and current issues and our own biases towards Scripture. But inevitably, after studying challenging passages, topics we were being trained to teach, someone would ask “But what do we tell the kids?” In other words, how do we make this make sense to our children, when it does not fully make sense to us?
We were out of town at a wedding on Friday. News of the Paris attacks reached our group during the rehearsal dinner. We traveled back yesterday and only in starting a new week of school and watching more news did the question from class echo in my mind, “But what do we tell the kids?”
I’m scared. I don’t want my kids to be scared. I’m sad and I think if I’m honest, I treat my kids like my first and favorite consumers: I’m selling them on this life and this world as I know it, or often, as I want to know it.
I’m also trying to sell them on faith as I want to know it. I want it all to add up, no holes, and no hurts, you know, so that they too will believe.
Except the most steady believers I know do not come from lives in which things have added up.
So here’s what I do when it comes to telling the kids. This is not expert advice. You all know that. I made almost half my children cry this morning.
But I’m a learner, and I’m muddling through over here like so many of you and this process is important for our children, for our parenting selves, and for our faithful selves as we together journey through fear, lament, and hope.
1.) Pay attention. The more I’m available I’ve noticed the more they bring stuff up – what was said at lunch, what they heard at recess. Classroom Experts begin to emerge, and it’s always important to identify the Classroom Experts. Also, my children go to school with Professor’s kids, so do not think for a moment that existentialism has not been discussed at the first grade lunch table.
2.) Sometimes get ahead and sometimes wait. Getting ahead: You may hear about this at school. Let me tell you what I think…” Having information can empower and comfort our older kids. But sometimes I wait and take a Maria Montessori child-led approach when I think getting ahead will produce extra anxiety. But again, every situation, and child is different, and requires constant adherence to Step 1.
3.) Listen to their questions. This may seem obvious, but often we are triggered into panic as soon as we sense the subject that scares us emerging. Then we don’t even hear the question which may have a simple answer. Which leads us to point 4….
4.) Answer the question. Just the question. This is harder than you may think. Especially for me. We can’t let answering our kids become our own self-soothing. We also don’t have to cover everything they could possibly wonder in this answer. I have found if I follow steps 1-4 consistently they will keep asking questions. Unless I kill it every time with too many words and an inability to move on. Travis and I, we have some words between us. Even Leila, at barely three has learned to say quite directly, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
5.) Be honest about your fear and sadness. Expressing our own emotions normalizes theirs. And we know they know when we’re faking. It’s more alarming to see an adult try and hide an emotion than to hear an adult admit they feel just like children do.
6.) Confess your faith.
I was a sophomore in college in September 2001. I lived at the other end of the street where I am sitting now. For those first couple of days we hung American flags and ate communal meals with neighbors and leaned on each other and grew up a bit more than had been forecasted for that semester. But I’ll never forget showing up at a Young Life Leaders Meeting and our Area Director saying simply, “We know Who wins.” He wasn’t talking politically. He said, “We’ve been given a glimpse of how the story ends and We know Who wins.” He did not try and explain the massive horrors of that day theologically, or project meaning into the pain of so many people. He did not defend the faith we all ascribed to. He confessed, in the Presbyterian definition of stating and identifying with belief.
Deep down we were all so scared and trying not to show it. His confession, non-contrived and culturally dissonant, was a balm. Remember, always remember, the witness of faithful people is what forms us and will form our children – not arguments, systems, and constant answers.
That same evening my friend Amanda read from Psalm 46. I offer it as a prayer now. I also must add this, the Ancient Hebrew people who wrote the Psalms were terrified of water. Will you remember that as you read? Remember that it represented the unknown and all they felt powerless against – swarming chaos and fear and darkness. Feel familiar?
Praying for you friends as you process and share hope with your people, big and small.
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way,
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
The Lord Almighty is with us; The God of Jacob is our fortress.