This post is part 2 of a 4-part series on faith formation in children. It features editors and contributors to the newly released book Along the Way: Conversations about Children and Faith. Thanks to Dana Kennamer Pemberton, Ron Bruner, Ryan Maloney, and Suzetta Nutt for sharing some of their insights in this blog series.
With surprising energy the catamaran climbs the swelling wave; at the crest the boat sails gracefully through the air before splashing back down. With each flight, five-year-old Hudson leans out and yells joyfully into the crashing waters. His seven-year-old sister Kate struggles to ride out waves of nausea threatening to capsize her stomach.
Two children, my grandchildren—with similar genetics, environments, and breakfasts—react in very different ways. Both are vulnerable, yet one joyfully thrives amid that risk while the other struggles to survive with breakfast intact. Once they reach land, though, the weight of vulnerability shifts—Kate recovers and explores her environment like a biologist. All of God’s creatures are Kate’s friends; some critters outright scare Hudson.
One important theme emerging in Along the Way is the vulnerable nature of children. Contributors to the book assert that vulnerability is more than a childhood reality—it is a necessity for spiritual formation. Parents ought to protect their children from vulnerability leading to victimization, but those who overprotect may stunt their kids’ spiritual growth.
In contrast, parents who watch and listen carefully will discover that children intimately understand vulnerability. They can measure the extent of their comfort or discomfort with vulnerability, use spiritual coping methods, and communicate when they’ve had enough. Like the grandson in The Princess Bride, they might say, “I wasn’t nervous. Maybe I was a little bit concerned.”  If we’ll pay attention, though, children can teach us much about vulnerability. What are those lessons?
Vulnerability takes different shapes, and children are comfortable (or not) with those to differing degrees. Kate and Hudson’s story is illustrative. Both are vulnerable to nature—the ocean does not forgive mistakes. Kate bodily feels her physical vulnerability to motion sickness. Although animals are unlikely to attack Hudson, the idea that they might attack can be overwhelming. The challenge is to understand our children’s vulnerabilities and help our children flourish despite their reality.
Vulnerabilities to nature, physical suffering, and disturbing ideas challenge children, but vulnerabilities to other human beings may be the most trying. Vulnerabilities to others take two shapes: children can suffer from the careless or malevolent actions of others; they also suffer as they watch other human beings suffer.
Vulnerability is more than static defenselessness; it is the active willingness to hear, see, receive, sympathize, and suffer with another. Children haven’t learned to be callous to pain around them; they often intuitively seek to console and help the suffering. As solemn witnesses of adult behavior, they call nonresponsive adults out of apathy by their compassion, questions, and action. Since the spirituality of children is relational, they see their response to suffering as a spiritual matter, not just good manners.
Since children are natively spiritual, they intuitively connect their vulnerabilities to their theology. Children avoid false dichotomies like spiritual vs. mundane, significant vs. insignificant; in the same prayer, they might ask God to settle their upset tummy and bring global peace. When their circumstances—or a friend’s—become inexplicable in light of their understanding of God, they seek a way forward with profound faith, insightful theological questions, and a healthy tolerance of ambiguity and mystery.
Play travels the razor’s edge between safety and vulnerability. Childhood games simultaneously empower growth and bring risk. Shin guards and batting helmets can only do so much. Though growth and play are inextricably connected with vulnerability, discomfort, and potential suffering, that connection needn’t steal our joy or defeat us. “With children in play,” observes Bonnie Miller-McLemore, “we practice the freedom of the Garden and the laughter of the resurrection, imaginatively resisting the powers that seek to define, capture, and destroy us.” 
Fears about vulnerability are more often rooted in parental anxiety than physical reality. Because my mother feared guns, she vetoed my hunting quail with my grandad. Now that he’s gone, I miss that shared experience, that piece of a relationship that could’ve been. Parents sometimes worry about the suffering or danger their children risk in service or mission opportunities. They too often stifle their child’s spiritual growth for the sake of their personal comfort. Parents feel vulnerable, too, and these perceived vulnerabilities can unfortunately outweigh the benefits of practices empowering a child’s unique spirituality.
Years ago a family came to Westview Boys’ Home to serve as caregivers to at-risk youth. They knew their ministry of reconciliation would increase their own children’s vulnerability, but believed God could use this openness to others to shape their children into strong and compassionate people. “There is no safety anywhere unless God gives it,” they said. Their road was challenging, but God proved their confidence to be well-placed.
God understands vulnerability. God knows what it is like to send a child into harm’s way to rescue and reconcile others. Perhaps we can better understand the heart of God when we can watch our children step toward a compassionate vulnerability, conquer our fears, and let them go.