Talking religion with my three-year-old

photo: catholicfire.blogspot.com

My three-year-old has been asking lots of questions about God. It all started with a discussion about angels; he wanted to know what they look like and where they live. I gave him the Sunday School description of Heaven — that fluffy, white place with winged cherubs and the whole lot. Telling him that made me feel a bit weird, I’ve got to admit. I felt that same surge of guilt as I do when I’m describing Santa Claus and trying to give detailed descriptions of elves and flying reindeer. I hate lying to him, yet I also want him to have the pleasure of imagining the surreal for a few years of his life; god knows, it doesn’t last long and I loved believing in it as a kid.

 

With God and Heaven, though, it’s a bit more complicated. He asked, “Where is God?”

“Well, God is everywhere,” I responded.

Being the quick thinker he is, he asked, “So is God on the other side of town?”

“Um, yes, I suppose so.”

“Can we take a bullet train to see God?”

“No.”

“What about a subway train?”

“No, no trains.”

“Does she have wings like the angels?”

This question put a big smile on my face. There had been no prompting from me on the choice of God’s gender, but he’d chosen “she” because obviously God seems more like a mother than a father. I’ll encourage his vision of Mother God as long as I can, because I also prefer that over an antiquated male figure. Fortunately the subject changed at that point and we moved onto an easier topic.

I don’t want to be scared of talking about religion with my kids, but to be honest, I’m undergoing a personal religious crisis. I don’t know what I believe anymore. I don’t want to go to church because I just don’t buy it. Religion is seeming more cultish and artificially constructed than ever before. As a result, I’m paralyzed with indecision because renouncing faith would be like renouncing an entire identity and the basis of my upbringing and Mennonite culture; hence, my loss of words when talking to my son. I have some deep thinking to do before this topic comes up again, because I want to be honest with him while also teaching him and giving him the foundation that was tremendously important in my upbringing.

How is it that a three-year-old’s inquisitive questions can trigger more confusion in my mind than a minister’s carefully written sermon? What have you readers told your kids about God and religion?

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13 thoughts on “Talking religion with my three-year-old

  1. I don’t have kids, so I can’t comment on how to communicate with children on this topic, but your personal struggle with faith hit me. I struggled with the same thing for a long time.

    One of the things that helped me with renewing my faith and finding a church that didn’t feel like a cult to me was simply talking and visiting. I spent many years just sitting back hoping the answers would come. They didn’t. I had to talk with people whose faith I witnessed in their actions. The people who I engaged in conversations on faith were people who I witnessed living lives that exemplified their beliefs and who also didn’t judge others to the pits of hell for mistakes. The people I spoke with would, along with their actions say, “I may not agree with their choice, but everyone makes mistakes,” or, “I may not agree with what they are doing, but that is something they need to take up with their higher power/God. I’m human. It’s not my place to condemn them.” Those people really helped me to look at God not as a punisher, but more as a loving parent.

    The next thing I did was visit churches, talk with ministers and things of that nature. The church that ultimately won me over has three ministers who were just wonderful. I actually had hit a point of crisis in my life and I went to them seeking some form of spiritual guidance. In my discussions with them, I spilled me entire life (I’m 39…so plenty of years of screw ups) to them. And when I say I spilled…I mean I spilled EVERYTHING. One of the things that was so wonderful with these men is they never, not once, judged me. They basically looked at me and reminded me of the parable of the prodigal son and told me that because I was repentant, because I wanted to do better, because I was seeking God…He would welcome me back into His home. It was a very powerful experience for me and helped me a great deal in choosing a church.

    I will say I do love the way you described God to your child and I don’t think there is anything wrong with him seeing God is a woman…a loving maternal figure. I think it says a lot to how you are raising your child because I have learned that many people shape their vision of God based upon their parents. Also…in allowing your child to see God as a woman, it is a reminder that all of us are created in God’s image.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. The account of your own struggle is inspiring and helpful, and I definitely agree with you on seeking out people whose faiths I personally admire for guidance. Communication is key, and as reluctant as I feel to talk about religion and God and Christianity, I know that bringing these topics out into the open, sifting through their complexities, and airing the doubts I feel in my heart is likely the healthiest way to go about “fixing” anything — whether it’s recommitting myself to the church or leaving it behind. Regardless, I do need to stop wallowing in the middle and start learning, talking, educating myself.

  2. I think I will tell him what I know and I will tell him also that he is the one to decide later. It is all about faith – very personal.

    1. Sounds good to me! It’s such a complex balance. Kids need to learn their parents’ traditions, yet we as parents need to be relaxed and understanding enough to accept their changes and choices. At the same time, I don’t want to let down my parents and grandma by perhaps ultimately making a decision that’s greatly at odds with everything they believe.

  3. I plan to teach my children about all religions and explain that many people believe in different things, and that no one religion has ever been proven either wrong or right. It will be up to them to decide what their own particular beliefs are. The important thing is to teach them morals and them how to interact positively with other people in a community setting – you can do this whether or not you go to church. Blindly allowing yourself (or your children) be defined by the strict rules and rigid beliefs of one particular organized religion is a very passive way to live your life. It’s healthy and normal to ask questions and to do some philosophizing of your own. As far as spiritual guidance goes, I don’t see how any religious official is more qualified to provide support than your family and friends. If you want to grab a coffee and sort through some of your thoughts, give me a call.

    1. Yes, blind following is always bad, whether religious or not. Adhering to a religion/faith that one has considered and analyzed critically is okay, I think (but not necessarily what I’m wanting now). And YES to asking questions!!! Passive acceptance of what leaders tell us is what creates so many problems in the first place. People, especially kids, need to learn to question, ask why, consider alternatives, look at the big picture.
      To be honest, talking about this stuff in person terrifies me half to death, but it would probably be a good expert, as another commenter said. I’d be up for it if you are 🙂 Conversations about faith need to start somewhere, and likely talking to friends, from atheist and religious, and church leaders is all part of the journey…

  4. Qatar is a fairly conservative Muslim country, but by law everyone living here has the right to practise their religion freely. At the same time, it is against the law for anyone to evangelise or try to convert anyone to their religion.
    For me spirituality is a personal issue and I want my boys to make their own decisions on this, so I do kind of fudge the issue when it comes to my own beliefs,. I try my best to explain the different ways people worship God/Allah/Jehovah or their gods, and also that many people don’t believe in a divine power but science. What I don’t fudge though is the importance of putting good into the world with our words and actions, and making the right choices that sit with our values as a family.

    1. Hear, hear! Teaching values has no replacement. I like your phrase about “the importance of putting good into the world.” It makes a good image in my mind. This world needs so much more good in it, so continue doing what you’re doing and I’ll think of that phrase when talking to my kids!
      That’s interesting that Qatar allows free religious expression. I’m surprised to hear that. Does it stick to that law in practice, I wonder?

      1. Well, you’re right to question the actual practice as the religious freedom we have as expats is less flexible for Qatari nationals. A Qatari man can marry a non-Muslim as long as she is ‘of the book’ i.e. a follower of Christianity or even (in theory) Judaism – this is because although their religious practices differ, these religions all worship the same God. A Qatari woman however, can only marry a Muslim man.

        Qatar has more mosques than any country in the world, but there are chapels and churches too. Also, all the Muslims I discuss religion with are happy to share their beliefs, answer my many many questions very candidly and seem just as interested in and bemused by our beliefs. My Arabic teacher is a very devout Muslim, but he’s also very worldly and has a wide circle of friends from around the globe – Muslims, Christians, atheists and agnostics.

  5. The problem is when religion, especially christianity, becomes merely one (of many) aspects of a person’s upbringing and culture – the weekly tradition of attending church. Traditions are important for many reasons, but all too often the tradition (attending church every Sunday) continues even when we’ve forgotten (or never knew?) the reason for the tradition in the first place (to model your life after the life of Jesus Christ). That’s why when our kids start asking about the traditions and the reasons for the traditions, we don’t have a good answer.

    For many of us, church was a Sunday morning tradition that our parent’s insisted upon, but that had little or no bearing on the rest of the week. The tradition was there, but the meaning was missing. Unless our “christian” upbringing takes us back into the bible to be reintroduced to Jesus with adult understanding, then christian tradition is all we will ever have, and it is all we will be able to offer our children. But kids are smart and they’ll see through it. They know it’s too hollow to be real. Adults know it too, hence the personal religious crisis.

    As parents we like to have all the answers, and we don’t like when our kids expose chinks in the armour of our belief system, or what we thought was our belief system. Perhaps a more comfortable answer to questions about God is: “I don’t know, let’s find out together.” God’s okay with that.

    A vision comes to mind of a possible future: A mother and son curled up together on the sofa, bibles in hand. The boy with his storybook bible has his first encounter with the living God, and embraces Jesus with all the wide-eyed wonder and innocence of childhood. The mother reads her bible (I recommend getting a copy of ‘The Message’ version of the bible, translated into contemporary, understandable language), perhaps for the first time as an educated, analytical adult. Something inside her begins to stir. “Could this be what Jesus is really like?” He is everything she always hoped He would be. Truth begins to grow, like the first crocus of spring, pushing its way through the misinformation and hypocrisy that has tainted God’s image in the world and in her heart. The change doesn’t happen overnight, it is only the beginning of a long journey. The traditions that were tremendously important in her upbringing finally make sense, finally have meaning. It’s finally real.

  6. Hello!

    I realize you may be Mennonite, but I urge you to consider reading Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. It is a good overview of the common core beliefs of Christians and really did wonders to my faith. If anything, it is an interesting read written by a former atheist.

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