(This chapter on parenting was originally written for Leaving the Fold, and will be included in the next edition.)
I try to think, are there any consequences for my children? One is, my kids don’t know anything about the Bible, because we didn’t go to church. I didn’t want to put my kids through that kind of thing. I didn’t want to find some non-fundamentalist church that still believes in the same God. And I wasn’t especially motivated to find some church that doesn’t even believe in the same God that’s Universalist or something or other, essentially a philosophical society, because I didn’t think that would do anything for my kids. Anyhow we didn’t do it, and so my children have no knowledge of the Bile. They haven’t been told its moral, ethical, and character-building stories, and I’m sorry about hat. I didn’t realize twenty years ago that the way we were going to live and the way it was going to be, there wasn’t going to be much replacement for that. – Ken, about his grown children
When you become a parent, a whole new reality enters your life. You become profoundly concerned with the well-being of your children. All of the questions about life and health take on added complexity as you consider how they pertain to your own children.
Because religion was at one time very important to you, and because to you can see that it plays a significant role in the world, you cannot simply ignore it. If spirituality is still of value to you, to will want to convey something about it to your children. This can be confusing. A number of questions arise, including:
- What should I tell my children about God and faith?
- Should I take or send them to church?
- What if they hear about religion from others and get confused?
- How will they learn any values?
- What about understanding our cultural heritage?
- Isn’t it worse to have no religion at all?
- Will they be vulnerable to proselytizers and cults?
- What do they need to know about spirituality?
- How will they develop meaning in their lives?
Deciding What to Teach
To begin with, it’s essential to clarify what you really want for your children. Most of us are primarily concerned with who our children become as people. We want them to be happy and healthy. We hope they will understand and love themselves, relate easily to others, and function well in the world. We want them to develop character, to have values and morals, and to know how to enjoy life.
Clearly many things go into helping children become such adults. Providing a strong, loving family support system is probably the best thing you can do. As discussed in Chapter 6, religious families are often dysfunctional because they abdicate responsibilities so completely to God and the church. In reality, parents must accept the responsibility to provide nurturance and guidance. It is no viable to send a child to church to find a loving “heavenly father” or a prescribed set of rules. In this regard you might want to check your motivation to see if you are expecting to avoid your responsibilities as a parent.
In many religious families, parents have been taught by their church to think that the primary responsibility that they have as parents is to pass their faith on to their children: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). For fundamentalists, this is interpreted as a religious matter of life and death, heaven and hell. If a child does not accept Jesus as personal savior, a loving parent is often in anguish and little else matters.
If your ideas of health and spirituality are now broader than this, your parenting responsibilities will be much broader as well. You will want to know about normal child development and ways in which you can support your children’s mental and emotional health. Helping children build a strong foundation of self-esteem is essential. This will include helping them cultivate the ability to think critically and have respect for their own feelings and ideas. There are numerous books on parenting in these areas.
It is significant to note that attending to the human developmental needs of your child—mental, emotional, and social areas of growth—will certainly diminish your need for religious education to provide all the answers. In rigidly religious families, everything is “spiritualized,” often to the neglect of leaning personal and social skills. Parents thus dutifully hope that their children acquire a conscience, develop positive character trains, learn to think “properly” and behave “well” with others, manage their feelings, respect authority, and so on, all from their devotion to their faith. More literally, this “learning” would equate to regular attendance to Sunday school and church. Missing church is considered a very grave matter, if not a sin. From a parent’s perspective, it’s understandably serious, since the child’s evolving identity, purpose for living, definition of reality, and behavioral directives all stem from this doctrinal training.
However, if your parenting has always included the nurturing of personal growth in your children, the necessity for religious education here will seem lesser. That is, is you can feel less pressured about your child’s church attendance.
Depending on how you see spirituality, parenting can still be considered a highly spiritual endeavor. Parenting is inherently creative, from the miraculous process of birth itself, to the daily influence that is required over the years to do well. It can require more from you than anything else will. I find that much of my effort in the family domain is assuredly spiritual, given the definition of spirituality proposed in Chapter 15. I am fulfilling important responsibilities when I teach my children skills for self-love, for connecting with other people and nature, for being present, for enjoying life, and so on.
When we thing about parenting in this broader sense, perhaps we can also have enough trust to “train up a child in the way that he should go,” but with very different ideas about that process. This includes much more than religious education. Parenting is a matter of faith, after all. Given who we are, we do our best to consciously provide for our children’s needs.
We also need to trust them. Children have their own spirits, their own strengths. When we give them basic building blocks, they are quite able to build their own lives. They often have amazing insights about life, perhaps a more unspoiled spirituality. Yet they do not exist in a vacuum; they live in families. When children show signs of spiritual insight, parents can feel good about their own contributions—“Maybe we did something right!”
The Importance of Self-Awareness
Naturally, one of the best teaching methods is by example. Your children watch you and learn constantly by doing so. Given your own criteria for personal health and spiritual maturity, you can examine your daily life to see what your children might be learning. Carla noticed the importance of her own example:
I want my daughter to have some kind of values. But how can I give her any values if I don’t know what mine are? How can I say “I want you to believe in God,” if she says, “But Mom, you don’t believe in God. The only time you mention God is when you swear!”
It will be easier to teach your children about religion if you are clear about your views about the subject. Many parents are confused about what to say and do because they have not done their own work. They do not know what they think about the Bible or church. They have not examined traditional theology and have no clear opinions, only deep wounds that have not been recognized or healed. Consequently, they may send their children to church out of guilt and anxiety, perhaps as safety measure, just in case it’s all true!
If you have attended to your own development, ho9wever, you will be on much more solid ground. Your child will recognize the integrity of your values, your practices, and your words. When you become confused in parenting, you can begin by examining the clarity of your own life.
Types of Spiritual Education
Even with the best parenting you can give, you still wonder if some kind of religious or spiritual education might be valuable to your children, and if so, what form it should take.
If you reflect on the positive things you got from your own religious training, you may have some ideas about what such education could contribute. You can then be creative about methods for achieving those goals for your children. These ideas might be based on your own experience, but reinterpreted in the light of your current thinking about spiritual matters.
The areas of potential benefit that I see fall into five categories: knowledge of religion, values, spiritual experience, philosophy of life, and social structure, which includes traditions and rituals.
Knowledge of Religion
Religion is as significant a domain of human activity as any other—work, family, art, and politics. The Judeo-Christian heritage is a central strand of our culture, and is therefore important to understand. The Bible can thus be seen as a work of literature and history that is a part of basic cultural heritage in much of the Western world. Many people attend church regularly in our society, and they constitute a large part of the social milieu. Thus, knowledge of Christianity can be considered important for anyone wanting to be an informed member of Western society.
Since many children attend church and Sunday school, a child who does not may feel left out. Hearing age-mates talk about God and Jesus, heaven, or Satan can make such a child feel confused and embarrassed.
Older children may wonder about the importance of what goes on at church. I have heard people describe feelings of having been cheated because their family didn’t go to church, others were simply curious and would periodically attend a service. A church can look attractive and mysterious—a group of people that band together regularly to affirm what they believe, to pray, sing, and sometimes even eat together. The music and sense of belonging can be very enticing, especially for adolescents! Parents who condemn religion outright or who forbid church may make that much more attractive.
Knowledge of other religions is also important, as a part of people’s cross-cultural education. There are many viable believe systems in the world, each with its community of adherents. Understanding other philosophies can help children overcome the ethnocentrism that is so prevalent in our society.
In addition to helping your child become a culturally sensitive person, knowledge of religion can enhance awareness of personal choices. All the major religions of the world—Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, among others—have made important contributions to society and culture, helping people with ideals about God, personal responsibility, meaning in life, inner peace, humility, compassion, courage, and ethics. There is much wisdom in sacred writings, and your child will undoubtedly ask some of the same questions that have been posed by truth-seekers over the centuries.
Helping your child gain knowledge of various religions is relatively straightforward. It does require some awareness and effort, however, since the subject (including Christianity) is not adequately covered in school. Some choices you have include the following:
- Read the Bible, preferably a modern English version such as The Living Bible. You can also read a condensed account of Bible stories, which gives the basic content without all the “begats” and multiple telling of the same events. You could read with your child, or let your child read and then discuss it with you.
- Attend church occasionally and discuss your children’s reactions afterwards. As mentioned in Chapter 6, the family can serve to mediate the effects of any church teaching. Thus, your children can become informed about various church doctrines, while you can retain some influence over their values. By encouraging your children to express their own thoughts about any particular service, you can convey something very important about everyone’s right to make their own judgments.
- Attend a variety of religious services, letting your children experience the diversity that is available in your community. They will come to understand very concretely that there are multiple paths and that dogmatic thinking makes little sense, You can have fascinating talks with your children about what they found valuable in each group.
- Read scriptures from other religions and/or watch television specials (or rent videotapes) about other religions.
- Attend a class in comparative religion.
It is a sophisticated skill to glean what is personally useful from a particular source and leave the rest. This attitude reflects abundance and humility rather than judgment.
In Journey of Awakening (1978), Ram Dass suggests that we not cling to any one teacher or thought system as if it were the answer for all time. We can be open to learning and even make serious commitments to a certain path for a time, but when we have received the benefit, we need to have the confidence to move on, to trust our intuition to find the next step in our own development.
Most parents want their children to grow up with solid values. We want them to have character, or, as people used to say, “to know right from wrong.” Today, the world is complicated, and little is black or white. But, while avoiding the dichotomous thinking you may have learned in your religion, you still need to help your children make important value judgments on a regular bases. With all the unhealthy pressures in modern life and the shallow values that abound, you will want them to have strength and integrity.
Your own church experience may have been, among other things, a source of values education. Many of us remember lessons in Sunday school about giving and sharing, about inner beauty and vanity, about the dangers of materialism and worldly fame. We were taught to seek a deeper satisfactions, to be kind, and so on. Many parables of Jesus were guidelines about basic values.
The question is, do you need to send your children to church to learn these things? Again, you can think more broadly and creatively about achieving this goal of parenting. Attending church or Sunday school is one option, and you mediate the learning through discussion. There are also other things to consider.
Live your own values. First of all, your children are learning values all the time. Just watching how you live is a source of daily information for them. Therefore, the foremost question to ask yourself on this subject is, “Am I living the values that I espouse?” This is important to examine regularly and frequently, for their sake and for yours.
Modeling values may not be as obvious as you might think. I was surprised one time when our family was talking about time spent “goofing off” with friends. Our children, then aged 13 and 10, declared that they needed to do a lot of it now because there wouldn’t be any time when they were our age! As we talked, I realized they were getting the idea from watching us that adult life was always a lot of hard work. They didn’t think we were having much fun. My husband and I were very concerned about this “lesson” and set about making some changes. We would rather teach them that life is to be enjoyed!
Articulate your values. Since we teach in so many ways without realizing, a very useful step is to verbalize the learning that does occur. Your child can benefit from hearing details about the lessons you have learned instead of always trying to interpret from watching you. For example, you may want to help your child learn to handle mistakes. One simple way is to let your child see what you do when you make a mistake. Another simple approach is to say something brief when your child makes a mistake, such as, “Don’t worry about it.”
But to address the subject in a more complete way, you can share more about your own thinking, such as, “Yeah, I know it’s not fun making a mistake. You can feel disappointed. But you know what the good news is? Making a mistake is a great way to learn something. When you look at it that way, you can feel better. For example, one time I put too much salt in the spaghetti, and it was awful. After that, I knew to put in just a little, and then let people add more later. Until I made the mistake, thought, I didn’t really know what would happen with salt! So when you make a mistake, you have a choice about how you talk to yourself. Like, right now, you could say, “What a jerk I am! Look at the mess I made spilling my milk!” and feel really bad. Or you could say, “Whoops, I poured too much milk. Next time I’ll be much more careful about how I hold the jug.” If you said that, you would feel okay because you learned something and you know that nobody’s perfect anyway.”
Many values can be expressed more clearly for children. For example, talk about the joy of appreciating nature instead of just taking the children for a walk in the woods. Rather than simply telling children to write thank you notes to relatives for their Christmas gifts, explain the importance of acknowledging other people. Along with arranging a visit to an art show, share with them why you include art in your own life.
As you make an effort to articulate your values to your children, you will be forced to clarify them for yourself. A good exercise is to write a list of your most important values. The goal setting exercise in Chapter 14 can be useful here. Then, on a regular basis, with each of your activities, you can ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Children love to ask, “why” and when then do, this way you will know what to say. You may also discover that this kind of communication creates a deep level of intimacy. You are sharing essential information about who you are, and children want that closeness.
Have family discussions. Church is not the only place for addressing moral and ethical issues. You can have spontaneous discussions about events in the news (a legal decision that resulted in riots, “surrogate mothers” cases, environmental disasters) or everyday issues (recycling, saying no to a friend, spending money, relating to a homeless person).
You can also structure times for addressing topics of interest. One approach in our family is to have “home church.” In our family, we decide on a topic on a topic and express it ourselves. We might read something and react, we might write or do some art, or we might honor a special occasion with a activity. It is always important to give the children equal voice. They sometimes take the lead on picking the subject, and they always contribute their own thoughts and feelings. They learn that views count and that critical thinking is important.
Make sure that reading, TV shows and movies, and toys reflect positive values. In choosing bedtime reading with children, you can pick books that broaden their awareness and teach values; for instance: Sounder, The Yearling, The Little Prince, or The Velveteen Rabbit. Many children’s stories are available that teach lessons, including fables, educational books, and actual Sunday school lessons. Find ways to encourage reading as an alternative to TV. Take your children to the library and purchase books as prize possessions.
Steer away from violent fare and shallow commercialism in movies and television. After a thought-provoking TV show or movie, take the opportunity to discuss the ideas that emerged. You can use a show like Little House on the Prairie to raise issues. Nature shows and certain TV specials can provoke wonderful discussions about the environment. For the older child, the Joseph Campbell series can be a terrific catalyst. On the big screen (or on video) you can watch Dances with Wolves, My Left Foot, or even E.T. The possibilities are endless.
When you buy toys or help your child chose toys, consider the values that are being learned. Do you want war toys or games that teach only conflict between “good guys” and “bad guys”? In terms of active learning, you can chose toys that involve the child, like puzzles, science kits, or art supplies, instead of passive objects. Another values issue is sex-role stereotyping—give dolls and “homemaking” toys to girls and trucks to boys. Perhaps both genders need to be nurturing and both need to be active.
Help select and participate in their activities. Children also need some leadership in finding valuable activities. You can be a great resource in getting information, materials, or contacts for a wide variety of involvements, such as classes through your local parks and reaction department, sports leagues, gardening, music, dance, children’s theater, and hobbies. The time you take to teach and share actives can also be greatly appreciated. These include sewing, car mechanics, cooking, carpentry, model building, and photography. Even doing the housework, laundry and shopping together can be time well spent.
Take the kids along when you act on your values. If you believe in being physically fit, include them in your games or workouts. If you value helping the needy, find a way to let them participate. Going to art galleries, learning to play a musical instrument, writing letters to the newspaper or to Congress, and so on, an often include your children.
Share your thinking with them. As you make daily decisions, much of your thinking is inevitably quite private. One valuable contribution to your children’s awareness would be to allow them to hear about your process for evaluating alternatives. You can share with them the way you decide to call a friend who is sick, to reorganize your recycling bins, to apologize for a slight, to save some money, or to cut down on sugar. They can find out that values are very personal, that they are not always easy, and that there are alternatives.
Trust your children to learn life skills. Many of us do not learn ordinary human skills for self-awareness or relating to others until adulthood. Yet children are open-minded and adept at learning important principles for life. You can expose them to materials and learning experiences as well as sharing the things you are learning. Lorna was pleasantly surprised at what her sons, ages six and nine, were picking up:
Everything I learn, they just soak up so fast. It’s amazing-things like using “I statements” and talking about our feelings, and having family meetings, and sharing things. I’ve seen so much positive come through. They’re able to express anger, which I’m still struggling with. My husband think it’s terrible that they yell at me, but I mean, they’ll deal with it. They’ll get angry and say “I hate you” and get it out, and ten minutes later they’ll be back saying, “I didn’t really mean that, but I was real angry.” You know, just to be able to do all those things that I can’t do, is just wonderful. To make choices and be able to say no and mean it and things like that—it’s been wonderful for them.
In my experience with my own children and with children in therapy, I have found that they easily understand and use the metaphors of inner child, adult, and idea monster. Even when my son was as young as five, he was able to use his Big to take care of his Little when he was frightened. These concepts provide us with a language to communicate easily and be helpful. It was easy to point out to Ryan that it was his idea monster criticizing his performance in a baseball game, so he was than able to clarify his feelings.
Religion provides for many people a context for spiritual experience. Regardless of the attendant problems, certain practices can be spiritually helpful. Consequently, as discussed in Chapter 15, you may want to retain some method of worship, meditation, prayer, music, or ritual behavior that you find personally useful. If you yourself experience inner peace, a sense of meaning, a closeness to God, connectedness with life, or something else you value as spiritual, you probably want your children to have a similar opportunity. However, without the structure and language of a codified religion, this kind of learning may be more challenging.
Nevertheless, you may want to teach your child some skills and offer some options for spiritual practice. Some of these could include:
- Knowledge of meditation methods. You could demonstrate and do this together or find other sources for instruction.
- Appreciation for a connectedness to nature. This can include a myriad activities, from taking a walk in the woods to extended retreats. This might mean encouraging your child to go on group outings or other events.
- Music, dancing, chanting, or drumming.
- Artwork and art therapy.
This aspect of parenting calls for both sensitivity and courage. In order to help your child develop and strong sense of self-awareness and responsibility, you will need to always respect your child’s choices. As with any other domain of parenting, you wouldn’t want to force a certain spiritual practice. Rather, you should offer choices and support decisions your children make. Just as you might encourage, but not mandate, music lessons, artistic training, or sports, you need to respect your child’s wishes. This is important because, in the final analysis, your want your child to have the confidence to do his or her own thinking and feeling.
Yet courage is also a part of this picture, because it would be all too easy to avoid the area of spirituality altogether. If you had a poor experience with indoctrination and you are skeptical about all religions now, teaching your child may feel very uncomfortable. Yet if you believe spirituality to be an important skill, your child deserves some information, guidance, and support.
Think of it like teaching good eating habits. It all you wanted was for your children to like you, you could let your children live on snack food. Instead, good parenting means providing good food and encouraging children to appreciate a variety of foods. Ultimately, you trust them to grow up and make their own healthy decisions about their eating habits. In a similar way, you can offer options about spirituality and trust your children to make their own decisions.
Philosophy of Life
Everyone has some kind of worldview. Your children will also construct attitudes about life and the world. They will develop ideas about themselves, other people, the meaning of life, and so forth. Even if it is undefined or not thought through, each of us has a construction of “reality” with which we live our lives. Throughout the ages, religions have contributed greatly to philosophies of life by outlining many of these attitudes. You can probably identify aspects of your previous faith that you still value as part of your philosophical system.
Exposure to religious ideas can therefore contribute to your child’s life by offering options for a coherent and healthy philosophy of life. Again, however, there needs to be support for personal responsibility in making choices. But letting your children know about what other people thinking simply gives them that much more information. Such exposure can take some of the same forms outlined above.
Religion has always been useful in providing structure in people’s lives. A church group can serve important social functions. Traditions can give a group a sense of continuity with previous generations and therefore a feeling of rootedness and connectedness. Rituals can make times of transition in a person’s life (such as baptism, infant dedication, marriage, death) and help bring family and friends together. Many holidays have a religious tradition and context that provides deeper meaning for people to celebration. In all faiths, rituals and traditions provide marking points for reaffirming shared values. In essence, they promote a sense of community.
The structural and symbolic aspects of religion are more difficult to replace when you leave an organization. If your spirituality is personal and individual, you do not have a built-in church system that fives you community. Your choices to provide for some of your children’s needs in this area must be conscious and creative. You do have various options.
Create your own traditions and rituals. This can be fun and exciting. This is a time in our society when many people are question old traditions and creating new ones with deliberate intention. For example, a special event in my life occurred shortly before my daughter was born. Friends created a “blessing way.” It was a moving ceremony in which they expressed their thoughts and feelings about the birth and the new child. There was poetry, music, dancing, gifts, candles, flows, a massage, and a shared meal. Our whole family was involved, including the two older children.
A ritual can be a one-time event like the one just described, or it can be a regular tradition that you initiate. Either type can be private and family oriented, or it can be observed in some larger group context. A starting point is to notice the occasions you already have, such as birthdays, the change of season, the beginning and end of the school year, the traditional holidays, and so forth. Then allow yourself to evaluate the usual expectations for such an occasion (for instance, cake and presents on a birthday) and consider your own additions or modifications. For example, in our family, we have used birthdays to “review and preview.” We review the highlights of the past year in a person’s life—enjoyable and tough times, lessons learned, changes made—and preview the expectations for the coming year. It creates a thoughtful and intimate ritual for the family to share. It helps us to slow down and notice what is really going on in everyone’s life.
So much is possible in this domain, enough for another book! Use your imagination and realize that you don’t need to give up every aspect of your religion. You’ll have to make more effort, but you’ll also find that it’s well worth it.
Keep some past traditions and rituals. You can take part in any events in your community you chose. For example, you might want to take your children to a local church for The Messiah or got Christmas caroling. You could also continue your own traditions, such as rising for an early sunrise on Easter. Rather than performing these things in a rote manner, you can enhance any occasion by talking with your children about its significance. This will also provide an opportunity to offer your own interpretations and to facilitate discussion.
Affiliate with a religious group part-time. There may be a church with an open-minded approach to spirituality that you can attend occasionally. If it is a group that does not insist on an agreed dogma, you can recapture a sense of community when you do choose to participate. Some people still want the music, others the occasional inspirational message, and others the church picnic on July 4. If you know such a group, even slightly, you can use it for a special even in your life, such as a wedding or funeral. You won’t have to search for a place to be comfortable.
Organize your own group. You probably don’t want to start a new cult, but you can still belong to a small group of friends that get together for meaningful activities. It might be a book club, a creativity support group, a discussion group, or a group that gets together to meditate, draw, hike or make music. The fulfillment you get will depend on the commitment you yourself have and the depth of real communication in the group. You can decide to get on your goals and objectives.
For the benefit of your children, you might help them create their own groups or include them in yours. Groups of families can make a commitment to mutual support.
Take part in diverse groups. Without a church community that provides for a wide range of needs, you can use a patchwork approach for social support. You or your child can belong to different groups for different purpose—for intellectual stimulation (a class, a book club), for physical activity (a softball league, a gym, a swim team) for creative growth (an art class, a writing group, a community chorale), for spiritual support (a mediation group, a church youth group), for social action (an environmental group, peace group, or political campaign), for volunteer work (a homeless shelter, a youth center, summer camp), or just for fun (a bowling league, Girl Scouts, a gourmet club). The truth is that there are many ways of getting support and community from others.
Tapping into existing groups can be especially helpful for your teenage child. As children get older, they become less focused on the family and more focused on others, particularly peers. Importantly, their values and behavior patterns are still forming. Thus, it is good to help; your child find a positive, growth-oriented group of peers. For example, if the church you like has a youth group, than this can be a constructive place for your child to discuss emerging questions about life. You do not need to do all the work by yourself. In fact. If you try, you may meet a great deal of resistance.
This is a difficult stage of parenting. Your teenager will rarely be as attentive to your opinions as before. At this age, children want to know what other people think; they want very much to belong. You can be helpful by facilitating membership in groups that have healthy values and promote self-esteem.
Talking With Your Children
Sometimes parents treat the subject religion the way they do that of sex. That is, they hope they won’t have to talk about. It feels uncomfortable, and they think someone else will teach their children anyway. If a question about God does come up, parents often find it easier to give their child something to read. OR they might say “It’s too complicated, you’ll find out when you get older.”
In actuality, children have a natural interest in God, especially at certain ages. They hear about God and religion from others and will eventually for their own conceptions. Thus it is better to have an open communication here—just as it is concerning sexual matters.
Again, this will be easier if you worked through some of your own questions first. You can then at least share your ideas as well as information about the way other people think. In his book, When Children Ask About God (1978), Harold Kushner offers sample answers to a number of common questions for parents of a fairly liberal religious orientation. The discussions are within a Jewish context, but they apply broadly. For example, Kushner addresses the following:
If God isn’t a bearded old man in the sky, what is he?
How do I know there really is a God?
Who made God?
Does God care about me, or what I do?
Other subjects Kushner addresses include suffering and evil, death, “acts of God,” reward and punishment, life after death, the Bible, miracles, and prayer. He describes God as “a Power that makes things possible, such as the growth of a flower, the healing of a bruise, the ‘smiling inside’ feeling of gratitude or self-satisfaction.”
Kushner explains that a young child will not be able to understand very abstract or complex ideas, so the parent will need to adjust. A child’s view of God will often be concrete and anthropomorphic. This can be an acceptable developmental stage (analogous to the belief in Santa Claus), especially if the parent helps by dispelling negative ideas such as God’s punishing people for making mistakes. As the child matures, you can begin to discuss notions of God and spirituality that are less literal.
Your responses to your child’s questions do not need to be definitive answers. You can respond with openings like “one way to think about that is…” or “Some people think…” or using a young child’s simplistic image, such as “It’s a little like that, but not exactly.” You this leave the door open to further exploration. Also, you don’t have to know everything or be able to explain everything. You can say “That’s a very good question and I’m not sure myself” or “I can explain a little to you but I think you’ll have to get older before you can understand.” Children are quite receptive to this kind of communication. They also enjoy giving their own ideas and getting support for working through their own questions.
Your children will probably find about your religious history and wonder why you left your faith or made the changes you made. This will be important to explain carefully, even though it may seem like unnecessary past history to you. Otherwise your children may fill in the blanks themselves and come up with very inaccurate or negative conclusions.
Sharing your story with your child can also be a good experience for you. Using simple terms that a child can understand will help you summarize and clarify your own journey so far. You can see whether you describe your past choices with the compassion you deserve and whether you explain the actions of others with due empathy as well. IF you are in a process now of formulating new ideas of spirituality, you can share these with your children as well. They will appreciate knowing how you feel and something about your own plans. One critical lesson you can teach is that personal and spiritual growth is an ongoing evolution, not a set of pat answers. By watching you, your child can learn the humility and patience involved in becoming the kind of person your really want to be.
One day when Ryan was seven, he asked me about religion and God. I told about various views, and I remember saying that some people think God is love.
Suddenly Ryan rushed off and got a piece of paper and made a drawing. (He likes to do art, and he experiences many things visually.) Then he said ‘Well the God that I acknowledge…” and proceeded to explain his drawing. There was a big cloud, which he said was a cloud of love, and right in the middle was God himself, shown as a guy with a beard. “And this cloud of love is also in the people,” he said, “and the spirit of Santa Claus is in there too…and there are the other saints…and some women too, like Kindness.”
I was so struck that Ryan thought he could just do this for himself. I hadn’t asked Ryan what his ideas of God were, so this was profound for me, that he would assume that his notion of God was just as valid as anyone else’s, as any of the major religions’.
Three years later, Ryan had given the matter of God some more thought. He had heard a lot more about religion and had been to various services and places of worship. He spontaneously offered the following:
I think that God is in all of us. He is what we want him to be. He is not some guy saying “This is right and this is wrong” or “Since you are a nice person I’ll give you this miracle.” God is something that you make. He is different for everyone. Some people’s God is love, some people’s God is power. And for some people, what they want is a daddy watching over them, so they create God as one big person watching over everyone. There are many Gods and there are no two Gods that are exactly alike, Your own God is usually really hard to put a finger on. But it’s always there.
I think that my God is several things—a combination of love, understanding…
and I’m not sure what my God is yet. I’m still a kid and it’s too early to determine.
I think that a real miracle made by God is something like a neighborhood where all the kids play on the street and all of the people in the community pitch in one hour a day and make a playground. That’s a real miracle.