By: Ron Deal, M.A.
Some suspect that Katie Holmes left Tom Cruise in part to protect her daughter Suri from Tom’s belief in Scientology. When parents are split between two homes, what can the Christian parent do if the other home is leading their children away from Christ (or if an extended family member is doing so)?
One challenge of faith training has always been how to minimize the world’s influence upon our children. When parents are separated or divorced, sometimes the “world” is the other parent or household. This presents some very difficult challenges to faith training since children internalize each parent and their values. It’s one thing to say “don’t listen to the world”; it’s another to say “don’t listen to your dad.”
As Judy put it, “I really want my two children to love the Lord, but when they spend time with their dad and stepmom, they are exposed to a lifestyle that goes against what the Bible teaches. What can we do? I’m tempted to discourage them from going to see their dad.”
Let’s first address Judy’s temptation to limit the contact between her children and their father. While the desire to protect the faith of her children is understandable, becoming a barrier between the other biological parent and their children is not recommended because it usually backfires. As children become aware of the parent’s hindrance, they usually grow to resent them and, ironically, shut out the parent’s value system judging it as hypocritical. In addition, when an ex-spouse feels cheated out of time with their children they may retaliate, exposing the children to more parental conflict. Instead of limiting contact, help clients find other ways of influencing their children. Here several suggestions:
Admit that you cannot control what is taught or demonstrated in the other home. Many of the battles between homes are essentially about power and control. Trying to control the environment of the other household only invites between home hostility. Stop trying to change your ex-spouse. (If you couldn’t change them in your marriage, what makes you think you can change them in your divorce?) Letting go of control forces you to let God manage what you can’t change and make the most of time with children.
Influence children toward the Lord with much intentionality. All parents need to model the Christian walk and impress on their children the decrees of God (Duet. 6:4-9); parents whose children are witnessing differing values will have to be even more intentional in their faith training. One useful strategy is utilizing spiritual inoculations. Medical inoculations are controlled injections of a virus; this allows the body to develop anti-bodies that can combat a live virus, if ever encountered. Similarly, spiritual inoculations discuss viewpoints that oppose the word of God and then teach Biblical concepts that help children combat them. For example, parents can discuss a TV program that glorifies greed and then present children a more godly view of money management and stewardship.
Children who have one parent not living a Christian life will need inoculations to help them deal with an environment that is hostile to their growing faith. It is critical, however, that parents remain neutral about the other parent; the inoculation cannot be a personal attack. A comment like, “Your father shouldn’t be lying to his boss—he is so self-centered,” pulls on children’s loyalties and burden’s them with judgment. Ironically, it also diminishes the parents influence as kids react defensively against the negativity. A more appropriate response is, “Some people believe lying is fine when it serves a purpose. But God is truth and wants us to be honest, as well. Let’s talk about how you can practice that in every aspect of your life.”
Prepare parents that they may have to endure seasons of prodigal living as their children try out the values of the other home. This is a truth that many parents fear, and rightfully so. Children may experiment with the “easier, less demanding” lifestyle of the other home, especially during the teen years when they are deciding whether the faith they’ve been handed (“inherited faith”) will become their own (“owned faith”). Lovingly admonish them toward the Lord (not “away” from the other parent), and be close enough to reach when they repent as many children and young adults will return to the wisdom of your values.
Encourage parents to pray daily for the strength to walk in the light and introduce children to Jesus at each and every opportunity. Parental modeling is a powerful bridge to helping children make a personal commitment to Christ. Help them to do all that they can to take their kids by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master (Eph. 6:4).
Counselor Extra: What to Say
Q: Ron, what should I do when sharing God’s truth with my children means that they might lose respect for their other parent? Our counselor said we should never say anything that forces our children to choose between us.
A: Your counselor is on-target in helping you to be sensitive to your child being caught in a values tug-of-war, yet sometimes truth needs a direct answer. One of the difficult realities of children moving between homes is that they are always forced into making adult-like determinations about whose preferences they like better, whose parenting style they enjoy most, and whose spiritual values they favor. It cannot be helped; children are in the middle. To say, then, that parents should never share their values in order to spare children from being in the middle misses the point—they already are in the middle. The challenge is to lovingly share truth in a way that doesn’t denigrate the other home.
When a child asks, for example, “Is it okay that mom is living with Larry?” answer with compassion, not hostile criticism, but give God’s truth. “I know you love your mom—as you should. Let’s talk about God’s opinion on your question. God teaches us that sex has a beautiful role in marriage, but it his wisdom that it be preserved for marriage alone. Sex is a very powerful force in relationships and can actually harm our relationships if used in the wrong way. I’m sure God wants more for your mom than her current choices will offer. Let’s pray about that for her and then let’s talk about how you’re going to handle her choice to live with Larry.”
The truth is sometimes hard for children to hear; it even hurts sometimes. Presenting the truth with compassion should be your goal.
How have you navigated the challenges of working with stepfamilies? Join the conversation by sharing your thoughts below. For more resources by Ron Deal available from past AACC Conferences, stop by our store. And, if you’re interested in more in-depth training, check out our Light University courses, Caring for Kids God’s Way and Caring for Teens God’s Way.
Ron L. Deal is president of Smart Stepfamilies, director of blended family ministries for FamilyLife®, a popular conference speaker on marriage and family matters, and author/coauthor of five books and DVD’s for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily, The Remarriage Checkup, and Dating and the Single Parent (Oct 2013). Learn more at www.RonDeal.org.