O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Parenting with Doubt: What Do We Teach Our Kids?

Over the last few days, I’ve gotten a couple of emails from readers that, for some reason, touch on the same theme — and it resonates pretty deeply with me. The question that keeps coming up is this:

Doubt is something I’ve gotten used to as an adult. But if I’m so uncertain about my faith, how am I supposed to pass it on to my kids?

I’ve asked the authors of these two emails for permission to quote them in this post, and they agreed.

From Glen Hoos:

I struggle with teaching my kids from the Bible, when I’m at a place where I no longer know exactly what I believe about it myself. Last week, I overheard my 8-year-old daughter’s friend evangelizing my daughter, which I thought was kind of hilarious actually. Her friend was explaining that “you just have to believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins, accept it, and ask him into your heart, and then you will go to Heaven.” And my daughter said, “I know… but sometimes it’s just so hard to believe!” I couldn’t decide if I was proud that she is examining things for herself, or sad that she’s already losing the simple, trusting faith that she’s always had.


He lists several questions, including “How do we pass on a solid faith when we may not have one of our
own? How do we teach [our kids] to question things and examine what they believe, when
this runs the risk that they will one day throw out faith entirely?”

Another reader, David Nilsen, identifies a similar parental problem:

I guess my biggest fear comes from the fact that this is all sort of untested. A large chunk of our generation has had the same experiences in the church, gone through some of the same crappy problems associated with it, and I feel like the last ten years we’ve been having one massive group therapy session. We’ve got families now, and we’re becoming okay with not being the Christian superheroes we thought we were supposed to be. We have doubts about the classic view of scriptural inerrancy, we think science probably hasn’t managed to get everything wrong for the last two hundred years, we’re not really sure how free will works or what the deal with heaven and hell is. All well and good.


However, I can’t help but wonder if much of my freedom and ability to question these things comfortably comes from the twenty years I spent NOT questioning them very much and just getting “truth” sandblasted into my skull. I may not agree with everything I learned in church growing up, I may think Bible drills and Awana quizzes were cheesy, and I may think Christian schools are a plague upon education (I graduated from one ten years ago…I’m doing better now), but I can’t deny that I owe much of my raw knowledge about Scripture and theology to that total immersion in the culture of belief.

David concludes that he doesn’t want his three year-old daughter to inherit the type of Christianity that he grew up with. But neither does he want her to go through life “with the ecumenical cynicism I feel doomed to carry till I die.”


This is the dark side of doubt. From a personal standpoint, I can justify and defend doubt as a necessary companion to faith, as something that strengthens and deepens faith, and as something that connects me to many believers throughout history, from biblical figures to Mother Theresa.

For individuals like me, doubt is manageable.

But what does parenting look like for doubters? I’m quick to give an answer when my kids ask me a question about dinosaurs or insects or Harry Potter. I feel confident in my knowledge, and when my knowledge is lacking on a subject, I can look it up. But when they ask me about God, I’m less confident. Do I tell them what most Christians believe? Do I tell them what I used to believe? Do I tell them what I’m learning to believe now? What do I tell them when my confidence is shaky? How do I help ground their faith?


Because David is exactly right: Like him, my biblical and scriptural and theological foundation was laid during my childhood of Bible Drill and Vacation Bible School and a lifetime of Southern Baptist Sunday school. I was at church all the time, and I am grateful for that. I know the Bible because of it. I am passionate about the Bible and theology because I was immersed in those things as a kid. That foundation — though I have grown beyond it in many ways — has nevertheless given me a solid platform from which to doubt…or from which to construct a new kind of faith.

I am OK with asking questions now. But am I able to ask these questions only because I was grounded in an unshakable childhood faith?


Is my freedom to ask these questions a result of the vast knowledge I gained as a child?

And if so, how do I give my kids the same knowledge without feeling like I’m indoctrinating them into a faith I struggle with?

How can I be honest with my kids when I lack confidence in the subject matter?

What do I teach them about faith when my own faith is mired in questions?

This is one of my biggest struggles, and as a parent, I don’t have much in the way of answers. I’m hoping you do. Can doubters pass faith onto their kids? Or can we only pass along our doubts?

Comments read comments(24)
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Mr. Big

posted August 30, 2010 at 9:55 am

So far I’ve went with the answers that I learned during my formative years of going to church “every time the doors were open”. But I think as my sons gets older (the oldest is 5) they will start to sense that I’m not really buying 100% into the answers I’m giving them. What do I do then? Maybe I’ll tell them to go ask Uncle Dave, he’s so sure it’s all true.
Example from last week: “Dad, where does the devil live?” “Well son, he’s not a real person, but a spririt that travels around in the world trying to get people to be mad at God or to not believe in Him at all.” Do I really believe that?

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C. Michael Pilato

posted August 30, 2010 at 10:11 am

My wife and I agree that we will raise our kids with Honesty, so we give maturity-appropriate answers where we can give them and loving-and-sensitive-but-outright question-dodging where we can’t!
Seriously, the health of any relationship is heavily dependent on Trust; much more so in a parent-child relationship. If our kids can trust us to give honest answers, they can also trust us when we say, “This is a complicated subject that we’d love to talk with you about, but which might need to wait until you’re a bit older.” Where my own beliefs are totally up on the air, I’m okay with allowing a couple thousand years of Christian thought provide default answers. (Even I’m not that arrogant.) It’s no problem for me to say, “I’m unsettled about SOME_THING, but our church teaches THIS_DOCTRINE.” On the other hand, it’s no problem for me to say, “Our church teaches THIS_DOCTRINE, which I think isn’t quite right, but here’s why it’s taught and some Truth that you can take away from it.”
In my mind is a constant warning: Don’t give your child the chance to look back at this moment later in life and realize that you flatly lied to him, even if you were doing it with good intent. When they get to the age where their own faith begins to rise up from the assimilated pieces of those who have influenced them in their early lives — which, as you know, can be a very rocky and sometimes endless period — it is imperative that my children know that Dad and Mom can be trusted to help them steer toward Truth rather than mere tradition (the church’s or their parents’) as the desired end.

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like a child

posted August 30, 2010 at 10:19 am

Unfortunately no answers, but having children certainly makes doubt unbearable at times. I’d like to pass along some semblance of a solid faith, but yet, I don’t want to indoctrinate my children if Christianity is false, so this leaves me no choice but to continue striving to be able to coexist with my doubt and find some resolution. My children are what sparked my faith crisis. If I manage to get through a day without questioning some aspect of Christianity – my doubt will come in like a flood as I listen to my daughter listen to songs that remind her how Jesus loves her and died for her.

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posted August 30, 2010 at 10:23 am

We can’t give our children our faith, that’s how freewill works, they have to choose faith over doubt for themselves.
God likes for us to ask questions; we’re not supposed to know it all, that’s how faith works.
The fear that they may turn away from God completely because of doubt is a real possibility, again freewill. Our job is to pray for them and to teach them the best we can. I don’t think we should pretend to know everything or to not have any doubts, especially when a child is older. We should be able to tell a child “well some people believe this, others believe this,” and encourage them to search and pray for answers themselves

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posted August 30, 2010 at 10:36 am

My answers tend to be the same as C. Michael’s. I don’t want to lie to my kids about my own beliefs and I don’t want them to think that they have to have solid answers to be a “real Christian.” I struggle with that enough as an adult — I just won’t feed it to my kids. Most of the adults that I’ve seen fall away from the faith have done so because they have been unable to reconcile their doubts with their faith and have been told (often unintentionally, but still) that they must choose. I don’t want my kids to feel like they EVER have to choose.

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David Morris

posted August 30, 2010 at 10:37 am

Having grown up immersed in Christian culture, the doubts I carry have a lot to do with how the culture sometimes teaches you to not think things through, and just play along with the things that culture gets wrong. So you get this association between Christianity and unthinkingness.
It took me a while, but I somehow came to a place where I realized I didn’t need to do that anymore, or to let that immersive culture be in charge of how I experience faith.
So when this really kicked in was not just when I started having kids, but when I became a Sunday school teacher. And low and behold, I found that my particular passion for not telling kids what to believe–and instead simply getting them to be in church and hear the stories of the Bible–brought questions, discussion, and often genuine engagement (though some of those squirmy 4th grade boys were a challenge this past year).
That’s really been a rewarding part of just letting the doubt feed my faith.
Great post. Thanks.

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posted August 30, 2010 at 11:00 am

I agree with being honest with them. Kids are smart and usually can tell when you’re just giving them the “right” answer even if it’s something you really don’t agree with. If I don’t know, I tell my kids “I’m not really sure”, but then share with them what I know of God. I feel if I share with them about the God I know and my experiences then I’m being honest. I think we are born with faith and the ability to believe in something we can’t see and then the world comes and tells us we’re suppose to be cynical about it. One thing I feel God has blessed me with is a simple faith. I don’t understand everything that happens and I’ve had quite a lot of crappy things happen. But I guess I choose to believe that God loves me and he’s got a plan that’s bigger than me and maybe I don’t need to understand it all because it’s not about me, it’s about Him. And if I can teach my kids that it’s not about us understanding things or making sense of everything but instead about God getting glory in situations, then I feel like I’m getting something right.

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posted August 30, 2010 at 11:18 am

Personally I don’t think the Bible or most concepts of Christianity are child-appropriate to begin with.
As for doubt, I think it’s good to teach your kids that there are some things we cannot be certain of. I do that all the time with mine on many scientific topics (Daddy, why aren’t there dinosaurs anymore?).
I hope my kids grow up to be critical thinkers and doubters, even if it means they would believe differently than I do.

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posted August 30, 2010 at 11:37 am

Thanks for the post Jason. You nailed the questions I was asking.
It’s tough, because until fairly recently, as a family we were full steam ahead on the evangelical train – inerrancy, Awana, “praying the prayer”, teaching the typical information in the typical ways. Now that my wife and I are rethinking much of what we’ve always believed, we don’t want to give the kids the impression that what we’ve been teaching them all their lives isn’t true, but we want to hold our beliefs with a more open hand. And there’s no proven paradigm for training kids in that way. It’s so much easier to use prepackaged evangelical systems than to forge our own path.
One thing that we’ve been thinking about doing is to take some time as a family to discuss and set down what we really believe as a family. What are the foundational beliefs that we want to build our lives on? The list would be much shorter now than it would have been a few years ago. Our older kids (8 and 10) would be involved in this discussion, which would hopefully give them more ownership over it. Not quite sure yet what this will look like, but this is the direction we are mulling over right now.
Some great responses here and I’m looking forward to reading more. Thanks everybody.

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Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

posted August 30, 2010 at 11:43 am

One of the things that struck me, as I was reading your post and the comments, is how we tend to think of “faith” and “doubt” as opposites—or at least we see them as two ends of a spectrum that we move along, always inching closer to one or the other. I think, though, that they not only do go hand-in-hand, they MUST go hand-in-hand. When we are taught about God in absolutes, faith is no longer required. We can rely on our intellect, logic, a blind acceptance of what’s being said by those older and wiser than us, etc. That doesn’t seem like *faith* at all.
Jesus told stories to teach people and help them see (or at least look in the right direction). I love that, because stories are not black and white the way math equations or scientific facts tend to be. Instead, stories shine a light, get our minds working, and often more insight as we grow and are ready. Let’s teach our children the way Jesus taught.

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posted August 30, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I believe in teaching kids the meta narrative of Scripture – the big picture. We’ve been using the Jesus Storybook Bible lately (Sally Lloyd-Jones). It offers a beautiful re-telling of this great story.
The classical Greek method of teaching (called trivium) emphasizes a pattern that moves from repetition/rote learning as elementary students (grammar) to analyzing arguments as middle schoolers (logic) into personal expression as young adults (rhetoric). I think this pattern is appropriate for teaching our kids our faith as well.
And it always helps my faith to remember Jesus’ simple command that I look at issues of faith/doubt in the same way as a child (I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if his term here comes from that first group?). A child doesn’t care about the theological in’s and out’s – they only want to know that God made them, cares for them, and provides for them. Those are my main concerns, too. : )

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posted August 30, 2010 at 2:22 pm

The way I raised my children seems to be quite different than everyone else. I am a pagan, but while my 2 oldest children were young, we did not go to “church”, “synogauge”, or “temple”. When they asked about “god”, we answered the questions to the best of our knowledge, when they asked about other “belief systems”, again, we answered to the best of our knowledge, or found the answer. My oldest daughter (now 21), finally decided buddhist was the path for her.
We tried to expose our children to people of many different “belief systems”, and let them decide for themselves.
This worked for us.

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Jeannie-Jesus Lover

posted August 30, 2010 at 3:19 pm

YES, I do believe that you can pass down “doubt” to your children. You can pass it down to a friend or relative also. I’ve seen this happen to my own sister (influenced doubt from her husband). The bottom line is, your way of thinking CAN be influenced by someone else’s way of thinking. That’s why we must surround ourselves with Christians with complete conviction, to protect our fragile minds from the thoughts of other weak individuals.

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posted August 30, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Thanks for your input Jeannie. But your comment presupposes what kind of faith we want for our children – a faith that is 100% certain, unquestioning and, dare I say, somewhat close-minded.
I want my kids to ask tough questions of their faith. If what we believe is true, it should be able to stand up to examination. Speaking for myself, my struggle is with how to pass on faith to my kids when my own convictions on many issues are unsettled. Do I ignore my own misgivings and teach them the traditional answers, even though I think many of them aren’t totally correct? Do I only teach them the things that I am certain about – a pretty small list at this point? Or do I try to instill faith in Christ while also equipping them to think critically about life and faith? To me, the latter is the direction I want to go, but I’m not quite sure how to do it.

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matt g.

posted August 30, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Felicity, thanks for a blueprint that I can follow for childlike faith:
“A child doesn’t care about the theological in’s and out’s – they only want to know that God made them, cares for them, and provides for them. Those are my main concerns, too”

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Rob Davis

posted August 30, 2010 at 4:58 pm

I think one of the biggest problems is assuming that we must only pass on a specific body of knowledge to our kids. I really think the future will be better if we are able to expose our children to a lot more than those of us raised in more sectarian homes were. But, that means letting go of a lot of control – which may actually open our kids up to things that we cannot prepare for. This is extremely difficult, but I see a much more realistic (rather than naively optimistic) future for my own kids (my wife and I have two boys, 11 and 10).

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Jason Boyett

posted August 30, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Thanks for pointing out the classical Greek teaching method. That’s a great way to think about religious instruction, and I echo Matt in saying you’ve described a pretty helpful blueprint. And I can echo you, too, on the excellence of “The Jesus Storybook Bible.” (Just as a teaser, Sally Lloyd-Jones will be writing one of the Voices of Doubt guest posts in a few weeks!)
If doubt can be passed along so easily to someone else, wouldn’t it be selfish of me to surround myself only with Christians of total conviction? Because though their conviction could “pull me up,” wouldn’t I also be subjecting them to my doubts? In the process of protecting my own fragile mind, wouldn’t I be putting them at risk?
(This may come across as me being cynical or snarky — if so, my apologies. But your position is a curious one, and I’m trying to understand its logic.)

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posted August 30, 2010 at 5:05 pm

what is that saying about a variety of things being “caught not taught”?
i generally answered my kids questions with questions and let them teach themselves how to logically find answers. when they had hard questions i felt free to tell them i did not know.
i grew up feeling ashamed when i had questions. i never want my children to feel ashamed for asking hard questions.
all that being said…. they grew up being active and regular in church… seeing their parents serve….
my kids are adults now…. they still love God. they are both geeks… they both went to college on full scholarships. they grew into adults who are less about religion and more about relationship. my son is active in church…. my daughter is a theatrical costumer and currently finds it more difficult to find a church that meets when she can go.
remember “caught not taught”

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posted August 30, 2010 at 5:22 pm

I can’t tell if Jeannie’s post is intended to be parody.
If someone’s faith is that fragile, they should probably just abandon it and embrace the Dark Side. We’ve got delicious pork roast and fine beer here.
On a more serious note, no one in their right mind wants their kids to grow up sheltered from hard questions and real world. Once they finally enter that world, they’ll be completely unprepared to deal with it. It’s not all black and white out there.

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Bryan R

posted August 30, 2010 at 6:46 pm

What is being discussed here as “doubt” is really just the normal thinking process intruding where faith has typically dominated. Faith is many things, but as a process for understanding a claim (such as the doctrinal claims of a religion) it is guaranteed to affirm, even when the claim is false. Who wants that? Who wants that for their children?
We can’t learn anything without thinking critically about it. The very best thing we can teach our children in church, in school, in any subject, is to think critically even if it makes you doubt something you wish were true. Because if you do that, then whether you come to accept or reject the claim, you can do so with integrity and confidence because your conclusion is built upon stone, not sand.

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posted August 30, 2010 at 6:51 pm

That’s the bad part of this doubt business. At some point, we have to acknowledge some concrete truth. The trouble is, God doesn’t seem to concerned about our need for clear cut answers and theories wrapped up in a nice neat bow. He is mysterious. “My ways are not your ways” and all of that.
So I wonder what to tell my kids. Unfortunately there are many times when I have to just shrug my shoulders and say,”God is.” And leave it at that.
I try to understand as much as I can now, and pray that the rest will be a surprise in the new world to come.

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Jessica Renshaw

posted September 8, 2010 at 1:14 am

Jason, did you grow beyond the truths you were taught–or just away from them? And do you feel superior because you doubt? Just asking.

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Jason Boyett

posted September 8, 2010 at 7:29 am

What a loaded question! Definitely I have grown away from much of what I was taught as a child — especially in regards to two things:
1) The primacy of “the sinner’s prayer” in a Christians life and as the apex of Christian spirituality
2) The innerrancy of the Bible
Because I no longer believe those things, does that mean I’ve grown BEYOND those “truths” or AWAY from them? I guess that’s a case of semantics, or a little of both BEYOND and AWAY being true, but I don’t believe #1 and #2 anymore because (I think) my theology has deepened. And my knowledge of the Bible has deepened.
Does this make me feel superior to anyone? Nope. Though moving beyond #1 took a load of stress off my childhood shoulders, losing #2 has brought it back. Sometimes I wish I could return to the days when faith was easier.

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posted September 5, 2011 at 10:16 pm

I struggle with this same subject. Have 3 young children – 6, 5, 3 – brought up Catholic, now at a point where not sure I can say Jesus is my Lord & Savior – but still like to think there is a higher-level GOD out there for us. At what point do you pick a religion that matches mostly what you believe? HYPOCRISY is my issue – some people feel you need to expose your children to something – but to do it with them – makes me MORE of a HYPOCRITE.
We currently work on how to better serve people around us – delivering bread to food pantry, picking up trash in public places, being kind to others, reading the Children’s bible weekly – me too – sort of JOURNEYING with them. They have been exposed to a Lutheran Pre-school which is great – but again – so much emphasis on Jesus our Savior. But I have no problem with my kids learning about Jesus – he’s a great role model – just as Mr. Rogers & Mother Teresa & Gahndi.

So much struggles – I feel your pain. Hopefully we can all find the best solution…

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