Ron L. Deal
"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."
One challenge of faith training has always been how to minimize the world’s influence upon our children. Sometimes, however, the “world” is another 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.”
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, you must find other ways of influencing your children. Here are some suggestions.
First and foremost, 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 your time with your children.
Influence your 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 your judgment. Ironically, it also diminishes your influence as they react defensively against your 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."
You may have to endure seasons of prodigal living as your children try out the values of the other home. This is a truth that many parents fear. 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.
Pray daily for the strength to walk in the light and introduce your children to Jesus at each and every opportunity. Your model is a powerful bridge to their personal commitment to Christ. Do all that you can to take your kids by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master (Eph. 6:4).
Ron L. Deal is Founder and President of Smart Stepfamilies, author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family, and a licensed marriage and family therapist. His Building A Smart Stepfamily conference is presented in churches throughout the country. This article was originally published in HomeLife magazine, July, 2008.