Religion is definitely a difficult topic to discuss with teenagers.
While I’m generally open about it, discussing it with my daughter, Zoey, 14, is daunting.
When talking about religion with someone else, I’m just sharing; there’s nothing on the line. When the conversation is with my child, I have a huge responsibility and myriad goals. This includes everything from explaining my beliefs to balancing my expectations with Zoey’s freewill.
At such times, I want to be quiet and truly listen to Zoey’s ideas and questions. I want to be honest. I want to be open-minded. I want to be realistic. I don’t want to be a hypocrite, and when I am, I want to own that behavior. There’s a lot I want for Zoey, too: good experiences and to be spared bad ones; a sense of freedom; and an understanding of my chosen religious practices (more on that next week).
Perhaps most parents worry about how to impart beliefs and values without complication or misunderstanding.
We can explain our religious upbringing, but it doesn’t necessarily match present practices. According to studies by Pew Research Center and Gallup, many parents don’t regularly practice specific beliefs. How do we explain this to our children?
According to a recent Gallup poll, only 39 percent of those who describe themselves as Catholics attend Mass (down from 74 percent in the 1950s and 60s). These “lapsed” Catholics continue to identify as such, though 21 percent said they left the church. Meanwhile, Protestants who stop attending church as adults select “none” for religious affiliation.
The same is true for most religious groups in the United States. This includes Americans raised in Islam; 23 percent stop identifying as Muslim when they’re adults, according to Pew.
Explaining all of this is tough but not impossible. It’s also important — as big of a deal as sex, alcohol or bullying. Such conversation topics can and should intersect. The information we can share takes priority over our discomfort.
My best tough talk venue is the car. We spend a lot of time there. The lack of direct eye contact is beneficial, too, cushioning some awkwardness.
Of course this dodginess has never fooled Zoey, but she has been kind. Sometimes, she even starts a conversation.
When I picked her up Wednesday afternoon, she declared, “I’m glad you don’t make me give up stuff for Lent!”
My initial response was lame: “You have friends whose parents do that?”
“Yes,” she said. “I don’t understand the point of the whole ‘give something up for Lent’ thing, anyway. You give something up, and then after Lent, you go right back to it? How’s that help anything?”
I asked more questions: Do friends’ parents pick what they give up for Lent? No, friends choose; their parents just make them pick something. Are the friends who must give up something for Lent from one particular religious background? No, they’re from several.
I was elated; she’s talking about this stuff with her friends!
Eventually, I blurted out a multi-part, eye-roll inducing question: “Consider what have you learned about Lent; do you remember talking about this practice of giving up something during that time? Is the thing you might give up always a behavior you’d return to? Can you see why someone’s mom might make them do it?”
Thankfully, Zoey answered thoughtfully and carefully. She reflected aloud about things she’d learned in Confirmation classes and Sunday school, the pros and cons of making a Lenten sacrifice and other related practices. There were points where we aligned as well as disagreement.
How do you encourage talk about religion and faith? Are there specific conversations you wish you had handled differently? Do you have advice for parents who want to broach religious topics with their teens? Send me an email or write me in care of The Courier, and your comments may be used in a future column.