When my children were toddlers, I installed childproof latches on all the cabinets and drawers within their grasp to keep them from ingesting dangerous substances. During the grade school years, I zealously guarded the shows they watched ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was banned) to make sure they didn't pollute their young minds.
When my girls reached their teen years, I realized that health and intellect weren't the only areas that needed protection. Spiritual dangers lurked in humanistic curricula, dehumanizing music and peer pressure. But how could I create a safe environment that encouraged rather than undermined their spiritual growth?
None of my daughters seemed interested in joining a convent, so I began asking the Lord for wisdom. He reminded me that where sin abounds, grace abounds even more (Romans 5:20). And He taught me that knowledge is a powerful weapon in spiritual realms.
Play with them, and pray with them. By careful observation, you can discern their spiritual gifts and subtle character flaws. Are they leaders or followers? Confident or insecure? This knowledge is essential as you determine what environments and relationships are helpful — or harmful — to their spiritual growth. Every child is different, and what's helpful for one is not necessarily the best for another.
For example, my youngest daughter wrestled with peer pressure when she was in high school. Candyce loved Jesus but made bad choices when peer pressure was too great. Her dad and I had to monitor her choices carefully.
Her older sister Danielle, on the other hand, never wavered in her faith — or her actions — when pressured by friends. Her beliefs were tested in the classroom. Knowing this, I made sure we had lots of discussions about issues that confused her. Her dad and I were able to be sounding boards as she learned to sift through truth and error.
Where do your kids spend the majority of their time? At school? The mall? Sports practice? Youth group activities? How familiar are you with their stomping grounds?
When my girls were in junior high and high school, they decided to start a Christian punk rock band. When they actually began booking shows, I was a little concerned about the venues — not to mention the clientele who would attend their concerts. So I went undercover and became their manager. I learned a lot about my daughters, their friends and the alternative music culture, which helped me to make informed decisions about concerts and parties they wanted to attend.
Here's an important safety tip: Just because a place — be it a school, concert, coffee house — has the adjective Christian somewhere in its name, that doesn't mean it's going to benefit your child's faith. My oldest daughter, Lindsay, attended a respected Christian high school and graduated with honors. She recently told me, however, that she found it more faith-numbing than faith-inspiring. Sure, some of the students were walking out their relationships with Christ, but in Lindsay's opinion, the majority of her peers had learned the fine art of schmoozing. They lived double lives and invited her to do the same.
There are no hard rules by which to measure the spiritual influence of any given place. Lindsay now works in the secular music industry. That spiritual environment is sketchy at best, but I've seen Lindsay's faith grow as she's been constantly challenged. Most days, she shines like a star "in a crooked and depraved generation" (Philippians 2:15). She's figuring out how to keep the faith in a godless arena.
The only foolproof way to know if an environment is going to be a help or hazard is to check it out yourself. Watch how your kids respond to the pressures around them. Volunteer at school and get to know their teachers and coaches. Help with the youth group or take your kids to see their favorite band in concert.
As Eddie Haskell so humorously illustrated in the "Leave It to Beaver" series, sometimes the veneer of respectability can overlay the heart of a rascal. Short of hiring a private detective to tail our kids' buddies, how do we know what kind of effect they have on our children?
"Since I spend a lot of time driving my younger teens and their friends to various events, I use that car time as a way to get to know their friends," says Jill, a mother of three sons. "I try to ask questions about their families and interests. You can learn a lot about a kid's character if you are paying attention."
Parents can also get a clue about their children's friends by regularly reading comments on their blogs and social media accounts. Don't hesitate to check out their friends' profiles. You might feel as though you are eavesdropping, but the reality is that unless their profiles are set to private, all that information is for public display.
Create an open atmosphere in your home, making it a safe haven for your kids and their friends. Encourage honest, lively discussions where young minds can express themselves without the fear of being judged. Our girls — and their friends — have learned that even if we don't agree on every issue, we will treat them with respect. Faith is built when there's freedom to speak frankly and wrestle with tough subjects — even if it makes us wince.
When it comes to assessing the spiritual impact of any environment on our kids, knowledge is power. Know your children, know their hangouts and know their friends. Empowered by this knowledge, you can help your kids keep the faith. And maybe you'll even keep your sanity.
This article first appeared in the October, 2007 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. Copyright © 2007 Shawn Alyne Strannigan. All rights reserved.