I moved back to the United States over three years ago after a two year stay in the Middle East, and I daresay I’ve spent much of that time in my car. Whether it was commuting to New Haven for lectures or carting my school aged children to and from school activities and social obligations, I learned to find solace behind the wheel. If I’m honest, I came to savor the time in the car.
With my eyes on the road my mind was relatively free to wander. It occurred to me that I had become greedy with my car time once when I heard myself shushing the kids in the backseat. Why can’t they just leave me alone? I thought. What are they saying? I wondered. One day during a commercial break I decided to listen them to find out what was so urgent.
Car rides prompted my otherwise tightlipped teenagers to unload their burdens. I suppose it’s because the confines of the car seem like a safe space to do it, far from home where eavesdroppers lurk and 10 year-old little brothers threaten to blackmail. The cares of their worlds ranged from “I failed my geometry quiz,” to “I got left out of the lunch table and had to sit by myself,” to “I hate green beans and you’re ruining my life by serving them so often” (it turns out that teenagers are both sensitive and dramatic).
But sometimes the depth of their confessions surprise me. Recently one of them announced, “No offense Mom, I’ve been thinking about it and I really don’t believe in God,” just before slamming the door and running off to practice.
I was less shocked by the statement than I was by the realization that I’d never really had conversations with my kids about faith. They’ve grown up in the church, our family is active in serving our neighbors, and we make a habit of practicing prayerful gratitude at home. I just assumed they would make the connection.
I have a strict no-judgement, anti-intolerance, open-minded attitude about matters of faith so I treated this statement with the same respect, but it begged a deeper conversation. After all, I give plenty of air time to all matters of health including physical, mental, and emotional. How had I neglected their spiritual health?
So I decided to tune in instead of tuning out when we’re in the car together.
It took some effort to translate modern teenage-speak–a language I’m told I’ll never understand–but I soon learned the things that weighed heavily on my daughter’s mind. I also discovered what brings her joy. I was surprised that I didn’t already know. I just assumed I did as since we live under the same roof. I asked pointed questions to get an idea about what role, if any, faith played in her life. It was nothing like an alter call, or a come-to-Jesus meeting, but just open space for her to open up.
Ultimately my children will make their own choices about their faith or lack thereof when they are adults. In the meantime I owe it to them to be more than a passive observer in their lives. Active listening and meaningful conversations are how we nurture relationships with young people, and our example influences them to cultivate healthy relationships for themselves. Even if it means that my podcast must wait, I choose to be a participant along the short leg of the journey I get to walk–or ride–with them.
How do you talk about serious topics with the young people in your life?