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A Questioning Teenager

Nathan Schneider in Providence, RIFor the last few months I’ve been playing around with this article for a popular (and rather self-helpy) religion website. The editor has stopped returning my messages, so I figure the deal is dead (this happens sometimes). So I sez to myself, why not share it with my Row Boat friends? It is more of a friend-thing anyway.

According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, almost half of Americans claim a different religious affiliation from the one with which they were born. Today’s world is a bustling marketplace of spiritualities that compete for our attention and our faith. For many people, the toughest questions arise during the volatile teenage years.

I know about this first-hand. Starting when I was seventeen, questioning hit me like a tidal wave. Within a year I had signed up for a new religion and explored several others: flabbergasting my father, running circles round my mother, and saddening my grandparents. All the while, I was so immersed in my journey that only later could I stop to realize what all their fuss was about. And wonder if maybe they had been right.

Looking back on those years, I am amazed by my family’s lessons in love and openness. We made it through all right. These ten suggestions come straight from my parents’ and grandparents’ quivers. I hope what I learned from them can help transform this challenging experience into an opportunity for you and your family to grow.

1. Remember That Questioning Is Natural

You and your child are not alone. Teenagers in particular are ripe for exploring new ways of being, and during that time almost everyone begins questioning vital assumptions. Venturing into unknown territories, as questioning forces us to do, is a valuable and necessary part of growing up. When I began my exploring, it came like a force of nature, restless and resolute. As time passed and my curiosity became satisfied, the restlessness quieted down.

Whatever you do, she or he will probably question. Try to swim with this inevitable tide rather than against it.

2. Trust Your Child

I began my questioning just before moving away for college. As I look back on it, doing so was inseparable from moving away from home, making a new life, and the rest of it. Recognizing that, my parents left the decision up to me as an adult, even if I didn’t always act like one. As they soon realized, I was off on my own and they didn’t have much choice.

Learning to trust the person who has trusted in you so completely is not an easy reversal. But by questioning his or her faith, your child is declaring independence. You are still the parent, entitled to trust and respect from your child. Increasingly, however, there are limits to what you can control.

3. Don’t Feel Betrayed

Though it might seem otherwise, his or her reasons for questioning your faith may have nothing at all to do with you. Resist the temptation to take doubting personally. Whether it is about you or not, trust means letting go of feelings of guilt or betrayal. When my Jewish grandparents learned that I was going to be baptized, they felt as if I was rejecting them. Learning of this, I was completely surprised. Like most teenagers, I was so absorbed in myself that how others might react didn’t occur to me.

Soon after, when my grandmother was near death and unable to speak, I sat by her bed and tried to explain through my tears. I didn’t mean to do anything to hurt her, I tried to explain, however it might have looked.

4. Assume the Best of Your Child’s Instincts

Recognize that, even if you believe he or she is making a mistake by doubting, there are good instincts and desires behind the doubts. Probing questions about faith usually arise, deep down, out of a desire to address life’s most important questions for oneself and to be part of a supportive community.

In our conversations during that time, my parents focused on these aspects of what I was doing, the ones they could understand. My mother, for instance, assured me she was glad that I had undertaken a spiritual path at all rather than ignoring that part of life completely. She was always eager to meet my new friends and, for the most part, she liked them.

5. Ask Questions and Listen Carefully

Believing in someone’s good intentions makes it much easier to listen. Ask questions about his or her doubts and listen carefully, trying not to let your own ways of seeing the world lead you to misinterpret theirs. Not having your experience to draw on, your child probably thinks about faith in surprisingly different ways than you do.

I wanted so much to have everything figured out, and I wanted to be listened to. My mother and my aunt were particularly good at asking and asking and asking, as if there was real value in what I was saying. Doing so helped me trust them and, in turn, listen to what they thought about it all.

6. Be Open About Your Experience

One summer while I was in college, my father and I went on a road trip for a few days in our home state of Virginia, making up the route as we went. Along the way, we passed the headquarters of a famous psychic and decided to stop for a while. When he was younger, I learned, my father had been attracted to people like this. As we spent an afternoon going through the exhibits and testing our ESP, he told me about his explorations. It all seemed wacky to me, but also familiar. It became harder to assume that my father didn’t understand what I was going through.

Be open about your own encounters with faith and doubt. Rather than treating such exploring as wrong or strange, recognize that it is an inevitable part of life. For both you and your child, recalling what you have been through will make questioning seem less threatening.

7. Draw Lines

This is what many parents think to do right off the bat, but it works better if you try these first six suggestions first. Inevitably there are genuine dangers that your child can wander into without knowing it-drug use, violence, and commitments that are hard to escape. My father was particularly worried that I would enter a monastery for life and end up regretting it. Not an unreasonable concern at the time! The night after he came to see me baptized, showing in every other way his patient support, he insisted that I not take that extra step and explained, based on all he knew, why.

I listened to him only because he had trusted me this far. He had earned the right to make demands. I cooled it about monasticism and am glad I did.

8. Don’t Expect to Get Through It Alone

Chances are, no matter how much you know about your faith, you don’t have all the answers your child is looking for. As teenagers learn to think for themselves, advice from parents tends to be the last thing they want. Offer what help you can, but don’t assume that it will be enough.

Gently encourage your child to find trustworthy adult mentors and friends their age who they can bring their questions to, especially questions they might be uncomfortable bringing to you. Don’t demand reports from others, but respect your child’s right to a confidential ear.

In many respects, my parents were spectators. Among the most decisive people during those years were a college chaplain, an uncle, and a handful of friends who would to stay up all night talking in the dorms. All my life I had been hearing from my parents. This was my big chance to learn what others could teach me.

9. Be Willing To Learn

After my grandmother died, my grandfather, who had never been very religious, began attending synagogue. All of a sudden, he was delving into the most basic spiritual questions just like I was. Even though the traditions we probed were different, we had much to share with each other over cross-country phone calls. After coming home from an exciting Bible study, he would call and tell me about it. Seeing him as a fellow-traveler in this way made me begin to wonder if I had been too quick in writing off the traditions I had inherited. Both of my parents also evolved in their relationships to spirituality during that time, and they shared the experience with me as they did.

Without getting too much in the way, treat your child’s questioning as something you do together. His or her doubts can be an opportunity for you to broaden your mind and your faith as well. Try to sympathize with the doubts and wrestle with them as if they were your own. You might find that, in fact, they are.

10. Be Patient

Monica, the mother of the 4th century North African Augustine of Hippo, was a model of parental patience. She waited for decades as her son sampled philosophies and religions before finally becoming, as she was, a Christian. Later, in his Confessions, he celebrates her loving endurance and her trust in him. Whether or not he had finally adopted her faith, she would remain a saint in her own right for these things.

A few years ago, without planning it, I found myself on the same cliff in Tunisia where Monica had stood to watch her son depart for Italy. While he was away, just when she thought she had lost him for good, he ended up finding the faith he was looking for. Standing at that spot, I was filled with gratitude for my family’s patience. As time passes, I try to listen to all of them as best I can, carrying on in myself the faith each had shared with me and had in me.

One comment on “A Questioning Teenager

  1. re: “Monica, the mother of the 4th century North African Augustine of Hippo”

    Perhaps we should petition Benedict to create a new category for Church Mothers.

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