“Mom,” my daughter’s eyes looked pleadingly into mine, “I don’t understand. They seem like such a perfect family. What do you mean they won’t live together as a family anymore? I didn’t even know that was a possibility for families like ours.” I sighed, looking upward. I, too, was confused by the sudden divorce announcement by some family friends. How do I address questions I don’t have answers for?
“Hija, lo siento …” I was sitting with my Mexican foster daughter stroking her back, begging God for inspiration. What words can I come up to ease the continual pain of rejection?
“Dear Miss Beth,” the letter started, “Our Sunday School class is praying for your family as our assigned missionary and we were wondering if you had some time to answer our questions this next month. We have collected a list and were curious of your answers. For example: Are there dogs in Mexico? (Lucky for me, they started off easy.) Are kids in the orphanages adoptable? (A bit more complicated, but still answerable.) What are some reasons why people give up their children? (Now we’re getting to the tough stuff.) There are more. Just write back. Please let us know when you are available. Love, Mr. Scott’s 4th Grade Second Hour Class.”
And these were just some of the scenarios from this week! I am sure if you work or live with children, you have your own examples of moments when storylines seemed more complicated than a child should comprehend and questions come that won’t ever have easy answers. What are our choices?
Either answer them or not.
If you avoid the question, distract the child, or gloss over the hard truth, you have missed out on a teachable moment, a window into their heart that you can shape with your worldview. But where does one start?
In my experience working with orphaned children, and as a mother to my own nine interrogators, I use the following steps to approach these tough subjects. It always feels easier to act like I didn’t hear, to redirect them to their father, to give them a pat answer or worse yet, false promise, but what an opportunity I miss when I take the easy way out.
Follow this pattern, not as a rulebook, but as a guide to give you the confidence to wade into waters where you, too, might still have some lingering questions and/or doubts.
- Always start with the thing you know to be true.
In my life, I have the same conversation starter whether I’m talking to an orphan about the questions they have in their head (Am I loveable? Am I loving? Am I loved?) or if I’m talking to a kid who has eye witnessed or heard hard things for the first time. (How could God let that happen? Could that happen to me? What should I do about it?)
All conversations start with the truths. It’s how you build the platform. So say, “What do we know to be true of God?”
- He loves us.
- He doesn’t want one of us to be lost.
- He is coming for us.
- He defends His people.
- He knows us.
Start hard conversations with the construction material we know will make the house stand. Make a list of the truths you find in Scripture and have them on hand, build them with the child, or offer them the truths that have been meaningful to you. Remind them of these truths in the conversations that follow. Help make “truth telling” their default button. When things get hard, when questions come, always start with the truths.
- Don’t shy away from the hard stuff.
Kids don’t want to be coddled; they can handle far more than we think. And they will hear about the tough stuff (through social media, school, conversations with friends), so it’s best if they hear it from us—the people who can shape their worldview and speak into our responsibility to it. And as adults, we need to understand what our responsibility is to the hard news we hear happening around the world. How should we pray? What should we give? When do we enter into the chaos around us?
It’s our temptation to shield kids from hard things, to help them experience all the benefits of being one of God’s kids and none of the costs. But here’s the truth: Jesus invites us into His sufferings and if we’re growing up the next generation of disciples, we need to teach them at an early age what it means to participate with Christ in His sufferings. That means offering ourselves (friendship, acts of service, goods) to people who might not understand our intentions. It means knowing that our teaching needs to reflect right theology. If we are, for example, teaching about God’s shelter in Psalms 91, we don’t equate shelter to our nice, American homes. Our teaching should reflect God’s truth, and any one of His children around the world should be about to hear it and apply it. This kind of teaching, that tells the truth and doesn’t tickle our ears, will inoculate our children from the struggles some Christians experience when their “shelter”, as they understand it, falls.
- When teaching about hard things, we should emphasize above all things, God’s sovereignty.
When things don’t go down as we wish they would, we can trust a God who never loses control. Hard news, hard images, hard realities make us doubt. (Could that happen to me?) Teaching children up front that above all things God is good … above all things He is sovereign … above all things He loves us … creates the foundation that won’t crack.
We have the opportunity to teach children that hard circumstances aren’t to be avoided or suffering ignored. So many adults don’t know what to do in the face of hard, so they do nothing. We not only can do something, we can be the hands and feet of a God looking to enter into the chaos of a lost world with good news! What if you role-played in your family devotions or Sunday school classrooms? Have the kids come up with examples of the tough stuff they see in the world or in their neighborhood. Then, act out the situation and generate conversation around how we can respond. What might each person in the story be feeling? Thinking? How can we pray? What can we do? What will it cost us? Is it worth it?
- We can talk to kids about the Galatians 6 principle.
In Galatians 6:2 Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” A little while later though, he says in 6:5, “For each one will bear his own load.” So, you might ask, “Which one is it?”
In the original language, a “load” is referred to as the weight of a soldier’s backpack, about 35 pounds. Paul is telling us to carry our own backpack, something manageable. We not only need to carry our own, but we need to allow others to carry their own. To take on someone’s backpack robs them of dignity and creates the victim mentality we see sometimes in social justice. But someone’s burden is our privilege to share. It’s more than someone can do on their own, and helping children live out this biblical principle of carrying another’s burden is an opportunity to teach a lesson that will stick with them for a lifetime.
Small children can understand what they have to offer (a smile, a seat next to them, a prayer, a toy or book, an afternoon, a listening ear, a snack.) Everyone has something to offer. Helping our kids understand what it means to look outside of themselves and enter into someone else’s chaos—not to carry their load, but to help ease their burden—puts our children directly in the will of God.
There is an exchange that happens when we reach out to others, and it looks best when it involves relationship. Even if the news is hard about a natural disaster somewhere around the world, or a child learns for the first time about the reality of slavery today, as the adult in their life, think about how you can turn this situation from a cause to a person? Causes illicit short-term reactions. We putter out over time if we work for a cause. It’s hard to see progress. It doesn’t hug back. But a person changes the whole dynamic. Is there someone you can introduce the child to that personalizes the storyline, even if it’s through a book or is someone they might never meet? We will sustain concern. We will sacrifice. We will pray for a person.
We can create lessons, discussion, devotionals and even crafts around this idea, but the best lesson is your life. How are you entering into someone else’s chaos? How do kids see your heart break for the lost world? What things do you find yourself praying about, learning about, extending yourself for?
- Make hard discussions a regular part of your routine.
As kids grow into adolescents and the hard just gets harder, be the person they feel like they can come and ask questions of. Open the door. Share your own questions. This is what it means to work out your faith with fear and trembling. Ask children in your class or in your family what concerns them? What do they hear that worries them? Be intentional about a safe environment so conversation is natural. Think about how you will address their unspoken concerns of: What does that mean about me? What does that mean about God? What does that mean I should do? What difference does what I do make?
Be thoughtful about listening first, even if what they ask about hints at wrong information. They might have wrong information, but don’t interrupt them to correct, and subsequently shut them down.
Start from the beginning with what you know to be true, and begin the conversation of substance God is inviting you into as He molds the storyline of the children we love.