Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Let’s continue the game plan today:
V) Read the books A Practical Guide To Culture by Brett Kunkle and John Stonestreet, and The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse. Both have excellent advice on how to guide young kids and young adults through our tumultuous culture. Kunkle has a great ministry and youtube channel that is a resource you should lean on for perspective. VI) Make discussion on deep things a regular part of your day. Talk with your kids. Often. Listen. Bring up topics, questions, and issues. Philosophize with them. I’m talking about meaty stuff, not Instagram-meme-inspirational pablum. The fundamental questions of life, not just about how to be successful and working hard to accomplish things (though that should definitely be a part of it all!). Talk through questions and issues they will face in the world and teach them how to think through them. Let them ask questions, and if you don’t know the answer, say, “that’s a great question. I don’t know! Let me go do some research and find out.” Then get back to them! Actually follow through. Better yet: make the research something you do together with them. If you are like me, this is difficult to just start doing on the fly. It might take some foreplanning and thinking through ahead of time. Make lists of topics and questions, and plan beforehand how you might approach those topics. Many times, I even script out a conversation. The real conversation rarely goes 100% according to script, but just the practice of scripting helps immensely and gives me much more confidence to approach these topics with my own kids. Here are some everyday questions you can ask them to dig deeper in every day conversation, past the ‘ol “how was your day” / “fine” (end of conversation) rut. (More) If you set a little time aside, you can probably think of other questions/conversation starters to ask. We keep a few conversation starter style games in the car for longer trips to help build this habit in our family. At the right age (5th/6th grade), start asking *them* the tough questions. Spiritual things and discipleship can’t be just sequestered to church, youth group, and prayer before dinner. As I said in the series on student thinking:
“(Students) don’t have much opportunity to think about and talk about fundamental questions in any sort of rigorous and thorough way. My philosophy class is the first time many of them have heard of moral realism or substance dualism, or any substantive arguments against abortion or evidences for God’s existence (note: on these and other questions, they get both sides of the issue and must grapple with the arguments pro and con).
This goes for Christian families too, not just non-Christian ones. Developing a rigorous life of the mind that prioritizes thinking through tough and basic questions is just not a priority for most families, most schools, and therefore most kids. Most of their time and attention is devoted to soccer practice, college applications, acing the SAT, making the grade in AP classes, earning a paycheck, boyfriends and girlfriends, social media, getting into the inner ring of respectable society, and climbing the success ladder. The focus is on building a comfortable life of success and social reputation/good graces. They fill their days thinking through planning for college and career, but not developing a well thought out and evidenced life of wisdom.
Yeah, some might go to church every week, but like I said earlier, that’s a few hours a week at best, and is sequestered from the rest of life, put into the “faith” (read: “blind faith”) box--a perhaps emotional back pocket solution when needed, but not something that intersects with and describes reality in any deep way. For many, when church conflicts with jr’s soccer game, or when there’s going to be that important AP test on Monday, church takes a back seat to the game and to studying for the test.
Kids just don’t think hard and cohesively very much about this stuff, because that is how they’ve been raised. They simply conform to their environment.
We really can’t blame them. I mean, c'mon: I was the same way when I was their age.”
God, truth, morality doesn’t really come up much, especially in school, and if they do, they are relativised and seen as an ice cream choice rather than a question of reality. The Christian kids get an hour or two of spiritual talk per week--Sunday service and youth group, and for some of that they are distracted by their phones a lot of the time--but the rest of the time its day to day secular thinking. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism all the way down. Counter this by centering the fundamental questions as frequent topics of conversation in your relationship with your kids. I say frequently...This takes intention and effort. Swimming against the tide is hard work, and it’s understandable to be overwhelmed and not exactly know how to do it, but you can do this. Here are some things I do to help bridge the gap: 1) Avail yourself of resources, and lean on them. There are a plethora out there, but two for now: The Ology: Ancient Truths, Ever New--Marty Machowski Big Beliefs: Introducing Your Family To Big Truths--David Helm At dinner time, we simply cover a chapter by reading through it, and if there are good discussion questions, addressing them. Takes a few minutes. 4-5 times a week during dinner adds up. The point is that you don’t need to “reinvent the wheel” and feel like you have to create incredibly deep sermons every day. 2) Use natural joints of the day: in our home we spend time in the morning and at dinner. In the morning, we read a chapter from the Bible, and read a few pages in a classic book. Right now we are reading through a children’s adaptations of some Shakespeare plays. Same pattern applies here as in the discussion and devotions: I encourage my kids to ask at least one question or make one comment in response to what we read. I often ask them to narrate the story back to me after we read. 3) Speaking of, make a priority to eat dinner together, tech/screen free. To talk with your kids, you need to create that space, and that means de-cluttering your time by limiting screens (more on this later) 4) Take walks with your kids. A great time to chat about life. 5) Utilize time in the car. This is another place where it is important to create that space by limiting screens. We have a rule: no screens in the car, for driver or passenger. 6) If you aren’t the type that can think fast on your feet, map out conversations ahead of time. Create a list of socratic conversations you can have with your kids. I try to teach my kids socratically a lot with questions, to get them to think and help them develop critical thinking skills. You can help them with answers to the questions--you don’t have to leave them hanging--but I like at least *starting* the conversation socratically. Here is a list I’ve made. Is it perfect? No. But it is something. I have a goal of having 1-2 of these a week. Some you can cover when they are young, some will need to wait until they are older, but at least you can lean on the list you create rather than feeling pressured to come up with good questions on the fly. 7) As you read yourself, create a quotes list. Anything that you think is thoughtful/insightful. Do some internet sleuthing to find quotes from those in our tradition who’ve gone before us, like C.S Lewis and G.K Chesterton. Read one or two a week at dinner and discuss them. Ask your kids: “What is this person saying? Is it insightful?” You might need to walk them through those questions every now and then, and feel free to add your own commentary. 8) Immerse them in our tradition, in the permanent things, in the wisdom of our past that has withstood the test of time. Not everything in our past is worth preserving, not by a long shot, but a lot is. Students are taught by school and culture today to escape from the past because it is a mass of oppression and ignorance. This barbarism (the word literally means “absence of culture”) and anti-culture does them and us a disservice. Counter that in your own home.
The quotes list can be a piece of this puzzle. Also, read to them the classics. Here is a gathering of classical homeschool resources you can use to find good classics that are accessible to kids (note: it has links to many online versions of these. Bonus!) As an exemplar of this, consider the Benda family. Kamila and Vaclav Benda, (Kamila was a university professor) both devout Catholics, raised 6 children in communist Prague. The father, Vaclav, spent four years in jail as a political prisoner. During this time, Kamila pretty much raised the children as a single mother. Every night, she read two hours to her children...a single mother professor! Poems, myths, adventure stories, fairy tales. This gave the children a strong moral imagination. Talk to them today and they will point to that practice as giving them strength to resist the totalitarian order in their culture. You don’t have to read *that* much, but do try to find some time on the regular. Like I mentioned earlier, just a little every day consistently adds up. In our family, we read together 15 minutes most mornings as part of our morning routine. Benda read LOTR to her kids multiple times. Right now I’m utilizing online kids versions of Shakespeare plays, and poetry. We read a little bit and then talk about it. Nothing spectacular. Just habitual. Here is a Maven podcast that casts a vision for literature in the home and gives some very practical tips for how to go about accomplishing that (including some specific books to read that kids will love) 9) Read the Bible to them. Like with everything else, you don’t need to develop earth shattering devotions or sermons based on the Bible. Read a chapter nightly (we do this in the morning), and make it consistent. Get the kids in the habit of asking a question or making a comment in response. Even if it’s not particularly insightful, the habit of response is what counts. Play games as a family. We do so almost every night as part of my daughters’ night time routine.
You will trip up. Sometimes your conversations will go awkwardly. That’s ok. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Just think, plan, and get out there and execute. 10) Severely limit screen tech in your home. It starts with you. The books Techwise Family and Digital Minimalism both give good practical ways to accomplish this. A necessary part of this is your own tech habits. Watch how you, yourself, interact with technology. I tend to do a bad job w/ this myself so I’m saying this just as much to myself as to everyone else out there. If you talk to your kids about all this stuff regarding how screen tech affects us, but you are sneaking little snacks of Facebook here and there in the nooks and crannies of the day, your kids see that, and that’s what catechizes them, that’s what forms them, not what you are saying (although what you say *is* important!). These tools we use are way, way, way too powerful for us. We tend to way overestimate our own ability to keep a lid on them and use them properly, and severely underestimate their pull on us. These companies hire many, many very, very, very smart people and pay them millions of dollars to make sure they capture as much of our attention as possible, and they are really good at their jobs. They have made that thing in our pocket basically a rectangular, shiny heroin needle. If you have a smartphone (me included), you are probably addicted to it, your kids pick up on that, and solving that with any sort of depth takes some pretty extreme environmental measures, ones that are pretty inconvenient. For me, it got so bad that I just had to pretty much completely lock my phone down and throw away the key. I don’t have internet access on my phone, and besides the basics like text, weather, calendar, podcasts, and lists, I don’t have any access to any other apps (esp social media apps), and have no way to get them. That makes me look weird to my peers, including my peers in church, but I don’t care. I just had to take back my attention, and I also am setting an example for my kids. 11) Get out and serve. Find a homeless soup kitchen, roll up your sleeves, and do some work. Take your kids with you. Let them see you live it out in the world. Do you need to do *all* of this? No, but do something.
Yes, devotion to this kind of life will entail certain sacrifices. You can’t have it all, and you can’t do it all. The typical American busy suburban crazy-scheduled-travel-team-baseball life, the kind of life where your kids play a bazillion competitive sports year-round and do a ton of other organized things, that leaves you rushing to constantly chauffeur them everywhere and ordering/eating dinner on the fly, will have to take a back seat. You might need to focus less on building the insane college application resume and slow down. Our daughters do competitive sports, are involved in organized activities, and both them and our family as a whole has a good social life, but we live within limits. This entails certain future trade-offs. Worth it. What is all this? What are you doing when you undertake these habits? You are building a culture in your family and home, brick by brick. You are cultivating an oasis amidst the desert of secular western culture, an oasis that your kids can take refuge in and gain strength from.
The bottom line is captured in a Gospel Coalition headline recently--someone will catechize your kids in 2021. Don’t outsource that role. Church on Sunday and youth group on Wed nights is not enough. Even the best youth pastors can only make a small dent….its math. The youth pastor gets them for an hour a week. The secular education establishment gets them for 6-8 hours a day, five days a week, and it is incredibly immersive in nature. It’s not neutral; it’s not just teaching them math and the periodic table. It is forming them in a particular worldview...its secular, and secular ain’t neutral.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that if you don’t pull your kids from public ed that you are failing as a parent. The decision of what environment is right for your kid is one that is incredibly nuanced, and depends in large part on the context each individual family finds themselves in. I can’t do justice to that conversation here so I’m not going to make suggestions one way or the other here. It’s for a future post.