by Steve Wilson
My second oldest child is living in England for several months while interning in her field of work. We’ve kept up with her adventure through the standard media of the day—Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Skype and iCloud Photo Sharing. It’s been fun to watch and listen as she navigates a new city and country. My wife and I have watched her develop new friendships and anxiously waited for updates as she took part in a project in Uganda. It’s been satisfying for me as a dad to observe from a distance as my daughter experiences this adventure.
A few weeks ago, in the midst of all the pictures and comments about her flights and new surroundings, I texted my daughter a simple question, “What’s happening spiritually?” Then I shared a few things that I was learning and trying to apply in my life.
Her quick response was an encouraging, “Ahhh, love that!!! Kind of aligns with what I’ve been discovering.” She then sent an extended email sharing about her spiritual journey over the past several weeks and thanking me for asking about it. I was so encouraged by the lessons she was learning and how she was continuing to grow in her own faith. She ended by asking me more about what I was going through and how she could encourage me.
The exchange reminded me of the important role that I have in being a spiritual mentor for my kids. Even though our kids are all in their twenties or late teens, my concern for their spiritual development and my opportunity to encourage that development has been on my mind a lot lately. And because of their stage in life, conversations about meaning and purpose and core beliefs seem to be more organic, rather than simply theory. It’s been energizing to my own faith journey to have these discussions with all four of our kids.
At the same time, I can’t help but look back and ask myself, “Did I do all I could to help my kids develop a healthy spiritual life?” This is a question worth considering given the important influence fathers have in the area of faith and spiritual development.
Vern Bengtson, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, studied the inter-generational transmission of faith using data from a 30-year multi-generational sample that followed 2,000 people in 360 families. His conclusion was rather simple: the correlation between parents and children and the intensity and importance of religious life was undeniably strong regardless of the religion – Christian, Mormon, Jewish, even non-religious.
Even more compelling was Bengtson’s finding that fathers who lack warmth, affirmation and unconditional love for their children are less likely to see their children carry on the family’s faith tradition. In other words, practicing one’s faith is important, but a dad’s emotional relationship with his kids is key to helping them develop a healthy spiritual life.
Ken Canfield, founder of the National Center for Fathering, shared in his book, The 7 Secrets of Effective Fathers, a couple of other practical ways for dads to help their children develop spiritually—which happens to be his seventh “secret”:
- Take primary responsibility for your children’s spiritual development, along with your child’s mother. Don’t delegate it outside the home, to the church or synagogue or school. Make spiritual equipping a part of the day-in and day-out of living.
- Be honest with your own spiritual struggles. No one is perfect, so we shouldn’t pretend to be. Kids will benefit from a father who is transparent about his inadequacies; it’s OK to be flawed and to be able to talk about it.
- Model integrity in your spiritual life. In other words, “practice what you preach.” Our children can plainly see hypocrisy and be repelled by it.
- Lead your family in worship. Be comfortable expressing yourself to God around your family. Whether in your house of worship, at home or outside the home, model worship to your kids.
- Don’t equate spiritually equipping your children with enforcing morality. The latter is about controlling behavior, while the former is about living faithfully in relationship to God.
Of course, Ken’s tips are provided within the overall context of a healthy, committed, loving relationship with one’s children—which affirms Dr. Bengtson’s findings that passing on our faith to our kids is as much about being emotionally connected as it is about being pious. A distant relationship with one’s kids can blunt the influence of consistent religious activity.
I’m sure I haven’t done the best job in the world at helping my kids along in their journey of faith, but I’m encouraged that they are growing into their own understanding of who God is and their relationship with Him. And I’m excited about continuing to be there to share in those journeys.
So, dad, what’s happening spiritually with you and your kids?
Just Be a Spiritual Mentor. Just Be DAD.
Steve Wilson was formerly Chief Financial Officer at the National Center for Fathering. Steve coordinated fathering seminars, worked with local volunteer teams and worked with leaders in both Ukraine and Poland to help establish fathering movements in those countries. Steve and his wife Michelle have four children and live in the Kansas City area.