By happenstance, I found myself in a rather peculiar position. I could feel her little hands shaking. I kneeled down, stared my distressed child in the face and promised her with conviction that everything was going to be alright. Confidence stiffened her posture, a sign that she blindly trusted my word.
For most, the idea of being able to afford to enroll their child in a private, Christian school is something some may dream of. For me, it was a nightmare. I opened the doors of the school and was met with an oil-based painting of “White Jesus.” Although my child hadn’t bothered to take her eyes off of me, I knew this would soon be an image she would be met with at the beginning of every school day.
I cringed as I relived my childhood experiences.
I stood in the hallway of the school and as my daughter tugged at my hand to proceed, I couldn’t help but to worry that the same experiences that pushed me away from the church as a teen would one day be hers.
The righteous walk is a hard one. One that we impress upon children entirely too early in life. For a long time I—like many other Black youths who were exposed to church at a young age—battled with my relationship with God. I have watched adults battle with their faith for a lifetime, yet we somehow expect children to fight a spiritual battle before they can even truly process the difference between right and wrong.
At seven, I remember experiencing what I can now label as anxiety. My Sunday school teacher told us that God could see everything we did. From then on, I became a very rigid and uptight child. I was scared God would catch me being bad or thinking wrong and he would hate me. At eight, I was introduced to the red monster with the pitchfork, horns and a tail that drew fire. I didn’t want to burn in hell.
This spiritual torment only progressed as I entered my pre-teen years. Shame became the primary emotion. I felt embarrassed whenever I acted in a way that was not of God. The guilt was even harder to deal with. In my immature mind, I felt like I should have enough willpower or that my love for God should be strong enough to help me conduct myself in a way that was appropriate for a young Christian girl.
Knowing that I was a disappointment to God caused sadness and discouragement. Eventually, the pressure became too much, so I rebelled. To hell with it. In my mind, I was clearly incapable of living righteously, so why keep trying? I became another young person to “backslide” and slip through the cracks.
Fast forward. As a mother, I have come to understand the undeniable importance of instilling morals and values in our children. I understand that those who were charged with teaching me truly felt they were doing me and the other children a service. In their minds, they were saving us. However, the state of our youth is proof that we are becoming more and more disconnected from their needs. While religion has been the go-to device for rescuing Black people, to be effective in our households and in our communities, we can no longer use religion and God as an instrument of fear.
Instead, here are some readily available alternatives to teaching our children how to behave and thrive in this world.
Never Forget You Serve a Loving God
Dependence on a higher power to not only advise your steps, but to serve as a guiding spirit for your child(ren) can be a beautiful experience for both you and your family. When you are teaching your child to love the Creator, remember to teach them that God is loving, understanding and kind. This is of the highest importance. If your child fears God in a way that keeps them from blossoming spiritually, there is error in their understanding. Be sure that disruption is not you.
We Talk More Than God
You have chosen to pay reverence to a someone or something bigger than you because you believe it to be divine, noble and virtuous in character. Instead of preaching to your children about how they should behave, show them who they should be by being a decent and upstanding example of the type of man or woman they can model themselves after. If you are in fact living a life based on what you believe, they will naturally follow suit.
The same principles of love we use to govern our personal relationships should also reflect how we tend to and nurture our offspring. Love is patient. Many of us are still learning to navigate through this world and we are well into adulthood. Children are not equipped with the ability to reason, nor do they have the knowledge and resources we have access to. In our attempt to prepare them for the world, we must give them space to make mistakes without fearing punishment. Brutal chastisement is not only cruel, but it is detrimental to your child’s confidence and peace. Instead of resorting to issuing out consequences, seek out empowering ways to teach them life lessons from their mistakes.
Provide Your Children with REALISTIC Expectations
When we give children goals that are essentially unobtainable, we trick their psyche into believing they are predestined for failure.
Ask yourself, am I…
…teaching my child to obsessively purify their mind and heart in ways that make them afraid to make normal mistakes? Do they fear punishment so much to the point where they cannot share or open up to me? Am I challenging my child’s natural inquisitiveness by not allowing them to ask questions and gather their own unique understanding of God? Have a hijacked their ability to build a personal bond with God?
Ministry and Mentorship Make for a Powerful Collaboration
When I was a teenager, I wasn’t looking for a woman to tell me that if I had sex before marriage I would shame God. I went to church in hopes that someone older would help me transition into womanhood. I wanted a Christian woman to tell me that it was normal that my hormones were raging and that the crush I had on the church boy was not dirty. I was confused and instead of being mentored, I was preached at and still ended up sinning. There must be an intersection between ministry and mentorship. We must connect with our children and be open to sharing what life was like before we found ourselves. Once they believe you are trustworthy and your investment in them is genuine, only then will they be receptive to hearing what teachings you may have, Biblical or not. This by far is one of the most powerful ways we can both teach instill morals in our children and young people without losing the connection to God.
Jazz Keyes is a clinical psychologist, poetess and a nationally certified Life Purpose and Career Coach. She has devoted a great deal of her time and energy on mastering the art of communication in order to create healthy, dynamic, long-lasting relationships. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @jazzkeyes.