I watched as the 3-year-old boy scraped his knee on playground equipment.
I watched as he ran to his mom, who was chatting with a couple of other moms. When he jumped into her arms, she said loudly before turning back to her friends, “No pain in Jesus’ name!” He was sent back to the playground, crying.
In that phrase, she made two things abundantly clear to her son and to anyone who was watching. First, that she didn’t want to be bothered with his needs. And second, that she believed what so many religious parents believe — that the spiritual needs of children transcend the value of their other, equally important needs. Most notably, their emotional needs.
I’m a Christian parent myself, but you will not hear me utter an insane phrase that punts the relational work of parenting to a God that my child cannot see and does not yet understand. Look, I love watching my kid as her eyes sparkle with wonder when I tell her Bible stories. Her entire understanding of Jesus, however, is that he died and he liked to fish with his buddies. That’s as far as we’ve got, because she’s 3. She cannot and should not be expected to fill her emotional needs with prayers to a dead fisherman. Of course, I know there’s more to the story, but the point is that she doesn’t understand it because she’s in a phase of development that is a strange mixture of concrete reasoning and magical thinking. She needs me to parent, more than she needs me to pray with her or send her to church.
Sadly, religious parents will stunt both their child’s spiritual and emotional development if they rely on prayers and the church to meet their child’s emotional needs. For instance, I vividly remember a time in my own childhood when I went to my mother with an emotional concern about a friendship. Her response was to open her Bible and religious materials to quote back the church’s stance on my problem. I remember thinking, “I don’t want the opinions of the church. I want my mom.” Not only that, the whole experience left me feeling angry and distrustful of a God who appeared to take my concerns so casually, since I was expected to rely on God for an answer, but that answer never came.
Religious development can be a wonderful asset in a child’s life. But parents, it cannot take precedence over the other needs of our children.