A few years ago, Duke University’s L. Gregory Jones pointed out that we might need to start engaging our kids’ mindsmore. “Christianity in the United States hasn’t done a good job of engaging serious Christian reflection with young people,” said the senior strategist for leadership and education. 

Don’t we know it?

We parents are getting hit from within the body of believers and from secular circles alike that we’ve coddled our kids rather than challenged them such that they’re stuck on proverbial milk rather than what Hebrews calls solid food (Hebrews 5:12-14). 

We know it doesn’t have to be that way, but less clear to most of us is what exactly do we do about it?

So what do we do?

Portrait of smiling family using tablet in the kitchen

Bible studies help us guide our kids in what to believe, but the business of recalibrating how our kids think starts with a fundamental problem of complexity. As in: life is complicated. Our kids? Complicated. Culture? The world? Our future? The past? Assessing our current place in all of that? 

Complicated.

Plus, data show that church attendance is on a downward spiral, so it appears our captive audience is getting less captive by the minute.

However, parents, take heart. That data isn’t exactly saying kids reject faith – at least not according to Jones, who said young adults are, “less ‘atheist’ than they are ‘bored.’”

In other words, parents can influence our kids’ thinking by relishing complexity rather than fearing it. Turns out, our kids can take it. In fact, they are primed for it.

Here are two tips for parents as we attempt to engage our kids’ minds in a fresh way.

Tip #1 Don’t over-intellectualize.

Empowering our kids to think does not mean drumming up highbrow language or rejecting simple ideas. We don’t want our kids thinking that forthright, unpretentious ideas are inherently naïve.  

They’re not.

Christians and non-Christians alike have noticed this. Case in point is secular novelist David Foster Wallace who was surprised to discover that simple ideas, like “don’t lie,” turn out to nourish us in a way that he hadn’t thought possible. He wanted to call out intellectuals for thumbing their noses at it. “It seems to me that the intellectualization of principles and values in this country is one of the things that’s gutted our generation,” Foster Wallace once said. 

Over-intellectualizing can keep us from getting to the meat of a matter. There’s a benefit to getting concrete in our thinking. It can reveal if we’ve become attached to cisterns that actually cannot hold water (Jeremiah 2:13).  

That’s a warning gong to us parents, tempted, as we are to over-intellectualize in order to dodge maturing questions from our kids. One example is questions about the Bible. We know where it came from. We have fairly direct informationabout its writers, its development over the centuries, its genres and lots more. (See Honest Answers). 

Telling our kids you have the Bible because God gave you the Bible served us well when introducing God to our kids. Introductions have been made. Now it’s time for the detail work of getting-to-know.

Over-intellectualizing isn’t going to get us there.

Tip #2 Don’t anti-intellectualize.

“I took a rational path, I would say, toward being a Christian,” Pastor Tim Keller told The Atlantic last year. “I didn’t want something that was going to crumble as I got older.”

That’s an approach most of us parents would agree with in principle, but we’re a nervous bunch. We’d rather hear our kids use default language that sounds extra Jesus-y, to ensure nobody’s skidding off into “wisdom by human standards”(1 Cor 1:26-28).  

However, we’re just scared, and that’s not a good reason to shut down our kids’ intellectual development. When folks like leading “new atheist” Sam Harris says, “At some point, there is going to be enough pressure that it is going to be too embarrassing to believe in God,” if our generation of Christian kids is still on milk rather than the solid food we noted earlier, we parents will not have done our job (Hebrews 5:12-14). 

“For an entire Christian community to neglect…serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts – all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory,” wrote Christian historian Mark Noll. “That may be, in fact, sinful.”

Yowch.

the solution?

We got it. Coddling? Not good. Over-intellectualizing? Not the solution. Anti-intellectualizing? That handicaps kids’ faith walks and likewise undermines the race set before this generation to connect theology to our current culture in a meaningful way.

We parents can be agents of changing how our kids think by changing how we think, or at the very least, rejecting our dread over our kids’ digging into their faith while taking their intellectual curiosity up a notch. 

Anybody panicked yet? Of course we are. Who knows how to proceed in such a time as this?

We do. 

It doesn’t feel like it, but we’re the parents, proceeding just like parents of yore – one small imperfect step at a time. Our kids’ intellectual growth might be hard for us to track at every detail on the surface, but we can take solace that their thoughtful experiences with God probably exceed their ability to talk about what’s happening between them and God at any given moment.

We’re counting on it.

He wishes we would.

Janelle Alberts is a freelance writer and has written for Christianity Today and RELEVANT online pubs. Her first book, Honest Answers: Exploring God Questions With Your Tween, preps parents on how to tackle hard questions with their tweens using pithy Q&A’s and can be found here.

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