It’s wise to pay attention to who your children’s close friends are, but don’t forget about the positive influence they can have on others*
With the new term looming, (some children in Scotland return on Wednesday 16th August) and a change of school for some children, parents will already have a lot on their minds. New uniform, new teachers, and what about new friendships? How concerned should we be about those our children befriend, and what can we do about it?
The answer, of course, is a continuum. Or a pair of continuums. Continua? The first ranges from ‘very concerned’ to ‘supremely relaxed’, and the second from ‘we can destroy the friendship’ to ‘not a lot’. It all depends, partly on the child, partly on their age.
It is easy to slide into a siege mentality, when considering the influences our children will face at school. For some parents, of course, there is no question of such exposure: they will seek out ‘Christian’ schools (by which I mean overtly Christian, not just Church of England aided) or they will opt for home schooling. I have friends who have chosen this, and the children have thrived. But it bothers me, and the question of worrying about their friendships bothers me a bit as well.
Well, because it doesn’t seem to be very Christian. I partly came to faith through a friend of mine, who I have known since we were both five years old. She became a Christian before I did, and put up with me teasing her, on our bus journeys to and from school. If she had been home-schooled, I wouldn’t have benefited from being challenged by her faith. Christian kids can have a great influence on a school, in standing for something else. Yes, they will get teased, maybe even bullied, and as with any kind of bullying, parents have to decide what to do and how to respond. Certainly it must be taken very, very seriously. But if we don’t encourage our children to face up to different worldviews, and don’t equip them with any tactics to use in argument, then we are not preparing them for the real world. And as eventually we are going to have to let them go, if the first time they encounter a different way of thinking is when they are 18, they may abandon the faith entirely, unable to cope with all the questions all at once.
The desire for protection
I do understand the desire, the overwhelming drive to protect our children from anything that might harm them. I’m a grandmother now, and the thought of anything hurting either of the lovely little people who we have been blessed with brings out all my defences. But the thing is, we cannot control what people think and believe, not even our own children. All over the world, there are regimes who try to make people think the same, and their methods are often barbarous. But they are also unavailing. Nobody can guarantee that the faith they hold will be carried on by their children. In my case, out of four children, only one has remained a professing Christian, and yes, he did have a small group of Christian friends who were very important to him. But there was more to be said in the loss of my other children’s faith: in fact, it was more as a result of going to church than of having non-Christian friends!
We belonged to a church that had a very active youth group, and all the children duly went along. The male youth leader seemed to be very good – a bit intense, maybe, but fine. We didn’t check up on what was said to the children when they came home. We were slightly concerned when the youth leader wanted to insist that our eldest son didn’t go to any other church youth groups, but we got that one knocked on the head. Our second son stopped wanting to come to church, but we let him make up his own mind. The other three were all baptised at their own request, and so it continued. We were pleased that they wanted to go to Soul Survivor: pleased that they wanted to go to youth group on a Friday evening …
… until the church leader took the church out of any kind of proper accountability to any other church. And until the evening that one of the children was in tears, terrified that Jesus might come back and be angry if they weren’t doing what He thought they should be. And I realised there was no one in the church I could call on who might put these fears to rest.
There was far more to it, and it isn’t the point of this. The point is that when we finally left the church, we talked to the children, now all teenagers, about what they had been taught, and we were horrified. ‘The Christian life is a tightrope - one false move and you will be lost for ever’ trumpeted the church leader. Except we didn’t know, because we didn’t check up on what they were being taught. Another child, despite being baptised, didn’t know that it was Jesus who died to save him from his sins. It wasn’t a matter of being good enough to go to heaven. Even later, long after we had left, the youth leader was arrested (the whole case history is in Escaping the maze of spiritual abuse, by Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys) and we discovered just how toxic the youth ministry had become.
So should you be concerned about the friendships your children make? Yes, you should be vigilant, but also be aware that influence goes both ways, and your children may make a great difference to others, for the good. And don’t think of church necessarily as a place where you can forget about any kind of awareness