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The Apologetic Parent: Training Children to Live the Faith

by Jennifer Pinch

When I was young, my mother used to say, “When you grow up, I hope you have a child exactly like you.” Her intention was not to give me a blessing. I was a strong-willed child who questioned absolutely everything. You couldn’t make me do anything. I needed to be persuaded. At the time, it was difficult for my mom to understand my continual need for reasons. She was satisfied with deferring to authority and she is, by nature, a peacemaker who avoids conflict. My dad, however, has always been able to see through my behavior to the heart of the matter. He knew that my challenges were most often a genuinely felt need for information and not just to provoke drama. Being a mother myself, I can now empathise with my own mother’s frustration and disconnect because two of my three children are just like me.
God is good. He knows what we need despite our “stiff necks” and willfulness. Parenting has taught me more about myself than any other life lesson. When my first daughter was born, a good friend sent me a book by Gary Thomas called Sacred Parenting. At the time, I was quite confident that I knew everything and that the book would be fluffy anyway so, logically, I put it on the nursery shelf and mostly forgot about it. When my strong-willed daughter was six years old and the illusion that I was going to be the perfect parent was thoroughly broken, I reached for that book. What I read caused in me a mix of sorrow and hope. The author said, “When we don’t understand the purpose of parenting, the process becomes tedious.” As I continued to read, I began to understand that my child needed me to look beyond behavior modification, which, in retrospect, ought to have been obvious. I needed to engage in a sacred journey that would not only “train up a child”, but shape my own soul in the process. God was warning me that it is a grave danger to be satisfied by raising a little Pharisee when He has given me the responsibility to shepherd her heart. His purpose for parenting is to enable my child to know God and glorify Him.
My parents always prayed that my strong-will would be a virtue, not a vice. They never sought to break my will, but to bend it toward the Lord. Their desire was that my God-given intensity, passion, and fierce determination would be used for His kingdom. How can we empower our children to be strong-willed for the Lord? I believe that the answer is in Deuteronomy 6:5-7, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” As parents, our love for the Lord should be evident throughout all of life. When our Christianity becomes something we do rather than someone we are, our children will be the first to call our bluff. My prayer for each of my children has become that they would love the Lord with all of their hearts and all of their lives; and God has commanded me to lead by example.
Many parents mistakenly assume that church attendance, Christian children’s programs, and isolation from secular culture will keep their child in the faith as they reach adulthood. According to research by The Barna Group, the most critical need in a child’s spiritual development is for a family to engage in faith together at home. Parenting must be intentional and faith must be genuine, because you can’t pass on what you don’t possess. The most influential apologists in a child’s life are his parents. Proverbs 22:6 tells us to “train up a child in the way he should go.” This means our children need the truth, found in sound biblical theology, first. Biblical truth is the foundation from which effective apologetics are built. When I worked in retail as a cashier back in high school, I remember being taught how to identify cash forgeries. By knowing how a real fifty dollar bill looks and feels, I was assured that a forgery would be easy to spot. Why didn’t the manager show us a forgery first? In short, there are a multitude of forgeries and only one which is real. I needed to be completely familiar with what was real before I could spot the pretender. Likewise, if we teach our children the truth of the Bible first, they will become equipped to spot the religious forgeries.
As a Public Health Nurse, I am a strong advocate for immunizations. I have spent more than ten years inoculating children in a preemptive strike against disease. It is important work, but training our children in apologetics does something significantly more important. It inoculates them from spiritual attacks that are inevitable. Once our children are equipped with the truth, we ought to be the ones who first introduce them to the objections to the Christian faith. This accomplishes several critical purposes. First, it teaches them critical thinking skills: rather than being afraid to question and invoke doubt at the smallest criticism of their faith, a child who has been trained to think well will calmly examine the evidence. If we hold that the Christian worldview is objectively true, then we can have confidence that our faith can withstand the challenges. Second, training our children in apologetics removes the element of surprise when they enter the secular culture as young adults. In studying Mormonism, something I have noticed time and time again is the feeling of betrayal that ex-Mormons suffer when they come to the conclusion that their religion is false. The Mormon people are warned not to read or listen to anything that casts doubt on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They label all challenges to the church as anti-Mormon. As a result, those who are courageous enough to look at the historical, theological, and scientific problems of Mormonism begin to feel wounded. They become suspicious and think, “What else have they not told me?” The resulting distrust for spiritual authority is exceedingly deep and understandable.
As the primary apologists in our children’s lives, we ought to be transparent. Our honest dialogue provides a safe place to question that is invaluable. We need to be bold enough to present the arguments against Christianity, not in a straw man form, but in a way that is direct and fair. When we seek to provide reasonable answers and defend the faith, we will focus on the purpose in parenting: helping a child to know God and glorify Him. What better way to know God than to walk in relationship with Him and include our children in the conversation as we “walk by the way”? The parenting journey is an obligation with eternal significance.
When we think about the biblical mandate to “train up a child” it is helpful to differentiate training from teaching. Teaching is the sharing of information in order to impart knowledge. Training is to make the child prepared for the practical application of knowledge, in other words, to cultivate wisdom. J Warner Wallace defines training as “teaching with a goal at the end.” If the goal is for our children to love the Lord with all of their hearts and all of their lives, then training must be intentional and genuine. One of the things I have found to be a very useful tool with my own children is role play. We have regular deep conversations about whatever topic comes up in their everyday lives and then we literally role play the conversations in preparation for subsequent challenges. Attending a public school gives them an abundance of opportunity to practice Christian apologetics, even at the elementary ages.
Just a few months ago, I was highly encouraged and somewhat surprised to see the informal dialogue we have in our home resulting in the tentative first steps at a defence of the faith of my ten year old daughter. Bursting in the back door, she threw her backpack on the island and began talking while putting away her lunch bag and homework.
“They are so annoying!” she said, exasperated.
“Who are annoying?” I asked.
“Samantha, Ellie, and Nyah. They were saying that I am stupid because I don’t believe in science and the Big Bang. They were all like, ‘You think God created the universe. My mom says you’re just a Holy Joe.’”
“So, did you answer them?”
“Obviously. I said that I do so believe in the Big Bang! A Big Bang needs a Big Banger!”
I tried to conceal my surprise as I asked, “You said that?”
“Yes. And then they were all like, ‘If God created the universe then who created God?’ So I said, ‘He doesn’t need a creator. He is the uncaused first cause. Otherwise all the causes would go back to infinity. God is the only thing that is eternal. Everyone knows the universe came into existence and nothing pops into existence out of nothing.’”
 “That’s really great Hayden. You stood up for what you believe. How did they respond?”
“They all just sat on the curb and started chanting ‘Atheists! Atheists! Atheists!’ It was dumb. They just heckled me so I went and played with Kira.”
It was an insightful interaction on many levels. After I took the opportunity to teach her the fallacy of an Ad Hominem attack, I was struck by the reality that our society truly is changing rapidly. The fact that my ten year old was using a simple version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument was encouraging. At the same time it made me consider the fact that at ten years old I would have been totally unprepared if I had been pushed so directly to defend my faith on the playground. It made me realise that involving my daughter in everyday apologetics training has made an impact. She is becoming equipped for what will not be an easy road ahead. We should not be satisfied with teaching our children shallow, behavioural religion. Os Guinness refers to Augustine, who talked about the thought through life. He argued that Christians think in coming to believe, and they believe in thinking. When faith parts company with reason, it’s disastrous. It is not proper Christian faith. My desire is to raise my children to be strong-willed with the right motivation: to question everything with a heart that is teachable and seeks God above all else. I am no longer placing my confidence in my parenting efforts, but in the truth of Scripture which is “God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).