Being sick can be scary, especially for children. Dr. Scott James has a passion for showing both kids and their parents that God is right there with them in their time of need, even in the middle of a pandemic. Scott is a pediatric physician. He serves as an elder at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, where he and his wife, Jaime, live with their four children. Scott wants to remind us that we can not only trust God to take care of us, but we also have the privilege of imitating him while caring for others.
Scott’s new book, God Cares for Me: Helping Children Trust God When They’re Sick, helps parents and caregivers talk with children about illness and how to keep themselves and others safe when sick. Scott was kind enough to answer some of our questions about how parents can talk with their children about sickness.
Q: We are a year into the COVID-19 pandemic here in the United States, but there are still so many unanswered questions. How old are your children, and what kind of conversations have you had at home with your kids as COVID started to spread?
We have four children, ranging from nine to almost sixteen years old. Depending on how you look at it, having an infectious diseases doctor as a dad during a global pandemic is either a fortunate or a very unfortunate thing. On the positive side, as the pandemic ramped up and then hung around, my kids always had someone they could come to with questions.
They ask profoundly good questions, and we’ve had the opportunity to process things out loud all year long. We’ve talked about what makes this virus unique, how seriously ill it can make people, how it has disrupted so many people’s lives, what we can do to slow the spread and help people in need, and how sad it makes us that people want to fight about that.
The downside of having an ID doctor as a dad during all this is that the nature of my work on the frontlines has put a certain amount of stress on our family. Because I am knowingly exposed to the virus every day, I’ve had to be very cautious about not spreading the infection to my family, our church, or our community. We’re not on lockdown or anything, but we make it a point to be consistently careful about how we go out and how we gather.
In a year when many people have gone on with life as normal, my kids have missed out on a lot. That’s one reason I was interested in writing God Cares for Me—though thankfully we have remained well so far, I saw it as a good opportunity to talk further with my kids about how God is near, he loves to take care of us in difficult times. He gives us the privilege of helping him care for others in their time of need as well.
Q: As parents, how do we talk about not only keeping our own bodies well, but making sure we keep others safe from getting sick too?
Even as we’re helping our children trust in God’s care for us amid this pandemic, we also have the opportunity to help them see that God calls us to care for others, too. With an infectious disease circulating in our communities, one way to look out for the good of others is to help slow the spread of infection by consistently practicing interventions such as masking and social distancing.
When doctors and public health experts recommend these practices as a way to protect other people, I think that following their guidance is a reasonable Christian response. It’s one way we can love others and seek the good of our communities (1 Corinthians 10:24). To be clear, it’s certainly not the only way to love others, and I believe Christians should refrain from codifying such practices as moral law, as if the Bible says, “Thou shalt mask up.” These behaviors are a way to love your neighbor—a very good and timely way, I would argue—but we shouldn’t act as if they are a foolproof litmus test of Christian love and faithfulness.
Corollary to this, if our faith is motivating us to look for ways to love our neighbors and help others stay safe during this pandemic, we would do well to consider mental and spiritual well-being as well. Christian faith is marked by fellowship, hospitality, and deep community—we are not wired for social isolation or physical estrangement from the body of Christ, and there are profoundly negative effects to this season of separation.
Even while we are trying to protect others by social distancing, we have the opportunity to help our children think about how to proactively and safely pursue the fellowship we so desperately need. We may need to get creative with the ways in which we gather, but we’re still called to live in community with one another.
Q: I’m sure you saw an even greater need to write God Cares for Me because of the pandemic, but the book isn’t just about COVID, is it?
Certainly not! I think of this book as COVID-relevant but not COVID-specific. The broader theme of helping children walk through times of pain and suffering is central to my role as a pediatrician. It is something I often think through from a pastoral perspective as well.
God Cares for Me follows a boy named Lucas through a sick day and a scary visit to the doctor’s office, but the bigger story is how God provides comfort and care all along the way. My prayer is that whatever illness a family might be facing, this book will be a reminder that God is a trustworthy refuge and fortress (Psalm 91:2).
I hope this book will spark ongoing conversations within families. The back section, “Talking with Kids about Sickness,” gives parents a few suggestions on navigating those conversations. I encourage parents to approach these difficult topics in a way that acknowledges the hard reality of what it’s like having to deal with pain and suffering but consistently points to the comforting truth that God has not left us to manage on our own. God himself is with us every step of the way, and he also surrounds us with a community of people called the church—people who love us in Christ and are present to bear our burdens alongside us.