Tactics and Tools

If You Want Your Kids to Own Their Faith, Teach Them to Think Critically about Their Faith

Author Tim Barnett Published on 09/17/2019

I take my job as a parent very seriously.

It’s my responsibility to teach my kids how to act. This starts early with a lot of “do’s and don’ts.” Don’t talk with your mouth full. Don’t talk back to your mother. Don’t hit your sisters. Do be kind. Do say please. Do share.

But right behavior is not my only goal. I’m also deeply committed to teaching right thinking. In other words, it’s not only my responsibility to teach my kids how to act; it’s also my responsibility to teach them how to think.

What to Believe Versus How to Think

Now, I’m not merely talking about teaching them what to believe. That’s an important part of parenting. But teaching your kids what to believe is not the same thing as training them how to think.

A great way to teach your kids right beliefs is to get them to memorize a catechism. A catechism is a summary of core Christian beliefs in the form of questions and answers.

Catechism is important. It helps our students know important theological truths. But it’s not enough. One of the ways I illustrate this is by asking students the question “What is a unicorn?”

The responses are usually all the same. A unicorn is a horse-like creature with a large horn on its forehead. So far, so good.

Next, I asked them Question 2 of the New City Catechism—“What is God?”

This is a more difficult question to answer. However, those who have memorized the catechism will answer, “God is the Creator and Sustainer of everyone and everything. He is eternal, infinite, and unchangeable in His goodness and glory, His power and perfection, His wisdom, justice, and truth. Nothing happens except through Him and by His will.”

At this point, we have described two different entities: a unicorn and God. Just as the students are able to describe what a unicorn is like, they are also able to describe what God is like.

Here’s where things get interesting. After getting each description, I ask, “How do you know that God is real? After all, how do you know that God isn’t like the unicorn—not real?”

When I ask this question to a room full of Christian kids, there are usually many puzzled faces. Many kids who have grown up in Christian homes have never entertained the idea that God is not real. They’ve never had to give a reason for why they think God exists. They’ve never had their beliefs challenged.

Unfortunately, we are so focused on teaching our kids what to believe that we can forget to train them why to believe. Teaching the what without the why is like building a house without a foundation. It may stand for a season. But when the storms come, the house comes crashing down. Likewise, a faith that doesn’t understand why it’s true will not be able to withstand the challenges and doubts of life.

Getting Your Kids to Own Their Beliefs

I think this is one of the reasons why many Christian kids grow up and abandon “their” beliefs. For many of them, those beliefs were never theirs in the first place. They were their parent’s beliefs that the kids were taught to memorize and regurgitate, beliefs the kids were never challenged to think through for themselves.

So, how do we do that? How do we get our kids to think for themselves about Christian truths? Well, it’s not complicated. We need to stop only asking the “what” questions and start asking the “why” questions.

Here’s how this practically works itself out in three simple steps. First, be on the lookout for when your kid makes a claim or states a belief. I’ve trained myself to be extra watchful when we’re sitting around the dinner table or when we’re on the drive to school. These are the times my girls love to talk about spiritual things. It may be different in your house.

Second, if you think that they can reasonably articulate the belief, then they are ready for a “why” question. Here are some examples that have come up in my own house.

  • If your son says, “God is a Trinity,” you respond with “Why do you believe that?”
  • If your daughter says, “The Bible is God’s Word,” you ask, “How do you know that?”
  • If your grandchild says, “Jesus is God,” you reply, “How did you come to that conclusion?”

These starter questions will lead to fruitful conversations. I promise.

Third, if your child doesn’t know the answer to your question (or is really struggling to give an answer), model for them how to think through the answer. Don’t just tell them the answer. If you do, then you’re right back to teaching them what to believe. Remember we want to train up critical thinkers.

To recap: Watch for belief-statements, ask why-questions, and model right-thinking.

It’s good to teach your child what to believe. But that’s not enough. We also need to teach them how to think. Simply put, if we want our kids to own their faith, we need to train them to think critically about their faith.