Faith Development in Children: Answering Difficult Spiritual Questions

by Dr. Mom®

Even adults struggle with spiritual questions and doubts. You don’t have to know all the answers to have a meaningful conversation with your child about spiritual matters. An atmosphere of open communication and emotional availability will allow your child to feel comfortable asking faith questions without fear of being criticized. Worry less about “knowing the correct answer,” and focus more on opening a spiritual dialogue with your child. Don’t be afraid to share your own spiritual journey and quest for answers. Consider these suggested talking points when your child asks tough spiritual questions.

How to Answer Difficult Questions Children Ask

• Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen?   This is one of the most difficult questions facing children, parents, and theologians. Eventually children will want to know why a good God allows pain in people’s lives. Help your child understand that life has many pleasures and blessings that we enjoy, as well as some sadness and heartaches. Explain that God still cares about us when bad things happen and that God supplies the strength to enable us to cope with life’s difficulties. Choose your words of comfort carefully. Well-intentioned comments like “God wanted Grandpa with him in heaven” can leave young children confused about why a good God would deliberately take a loved one away. Emphasize that God shares our concerns, feels our pain, and comforts us in our sorrows. Remember that your own response to adversity will powerfully shape your child’s reaction. 

• Why Doesn’t God Answer All My Prayers?   This is a difficult concept for young children, making it preferable to have preschoolers say prayers to praise and thank God. As children get older and offer prayer requests—including petitions for themselves and intercessory prayers on behalf of others–they will want to know why an all-loving, all-powerful God doesn’t grant every prayer request. Teach children that God does indeed hear and answer every prayer, and that the answer can be “yes,” “no,” or “wait.” We can offer older children examples in which a “no” answer that was disappointing at the time turned out to be for the best in the long run.

• What Happens After People Die?   Explain that people go to be with God after they die. While we don’t know exactly what heaven is like, we can be certain that we will continue to be in the loving care and protection of God. God never stops taking good care of everything God has created. God’s loving care continues eternally after we die and leave this world. Help children accept death as a natural part of life by showing them that flowers die, goldfish die, and eventually people die.

• Is There Only One Right Religion?   Help your child understand there are many differing religious beliefs and teach them to respect the beliefs of others. Discuss why you believe as you do, without putting down other faith traditions. Explain that you read and study the Bible because you believe it holds the answers to what is true and right. As children get older, you can help them explore the beliefs of their friends and identify differences and common beliefs among various faiths.

• Does God Get Mad When I Do Bad Things?   Explain that God wants to help us learn what is right and to make good choices each day. Although it makes God sad when we do wrong things, God is always ready to forgive us and to forget our mistakes–not to criticize, judge, or punish us.  Teach your child the meaning of repentance—to admit our mistakes, feel sorry for them, ask for God’s forgiveness, make amends, and then choose to do the right thing the next time. Your own model of forgiveness is important in helping your child understand the forgiving nature of God.

Mistakes to Avoid in Teaching Young Children about Faith

• Pushing Too Hard.   A harsh approach to religious instruction can backfire by creating an image of an overly critical, judgmental God. The resulting negative feelings about religion and spirituality may cause a child to reject your beliefs.

• Misinterpretation.   Because young children cannot read, have a limited vocabulary, and think concretely, they are prone to misinterpret what they hear and recite about God. Such misinterpretations range from the humorous to anxiety-provoking, or theologically unsound. Use simple language when talking about God and periodically ask your child to explain concepts in her own words.

• Difficult Emotions.   Negative emotions, such as fear, guilt, and anger, can stunt a child’s faith development. Children and adults alike naturally are reluctant to get very close to a God they perceive to be harsh and punitive. An emphasis on sins or mandatory religious rituals can produce excessive guilt that interferes with a child’s authentic response to our loving, compassionate, and forgiving God.   
Copyright ©  2011  Marianne Neifert, MD, MTS     May be duplicated if authorship is cited.