It’s been a while since we discussed how to talk with young children about God. Someone recently asked me to address this question. As always please feel free to add your thoughts at the end.
Even if we’re not raising our kids to believe, they will still hear about God. They’ll have questions. A lot. They’ll be curious. God is mysterious, just like monsters under the bed.
When our kids ask us about God, it’s good to ask them first what their thoughts are. “What or who do you think God is?” If kids are asking us questions, they’ve no doubt heard their friends—or perhaps a relative–talking about God.
“God is love” or “God made everything” are statements that a lot of young children will hear and repeat. We can ask our kids, “What does that mean, ‘God is love’? How do people show their love? How does mom and dad show their love for you? How does this God you hear about show love? Does it make sense that God made everything? Who made God?”
We want to keep it simple, yet help our children think through these ideas on their own. It’s best if we don’t make belief seem forbidden or mysterious. We want them to come to their own conclusions. Otherwise, like the preacher’s child who is drawn to what is prohibited, our kids may be drawn to religion for the wrong reasons.
We also want to be careful that we don’t give them language that they will then repeat to their friends. “My mom said that God isn’t real and that people who believe are stupid.” Although I’m sure some of us think this way on occasion, we don’t want our kids to alienate their friends or grow up intolerant of other world views. Young children often parrot what their parents tell them, and that’s why they’re so ripe for programming with dogma.
If your kids are like mine, they will continue with the God questions for many years because they hear a lot of things at school—things that are scary (about the devil or God’s wrath) and things that make God seem like a superhero (he helps everyone), which is an attractive concept for kids.
Kids might ask why people believe. The best response I’ve found is to tell kids that people believe because they want to or because they’ve been told to believe. Believing in God is a choice, whether believers understand this or not. It is a way that many people deal with the world and the fears they have. (“Relax. God’s in control.”) Just as children have blankets, stuffed animals and imaginary friends, sometimes adults use “God” to help them cope. They pray to God, which means that a person will say out loud or think thoughts in their head and hope that this “God” can hear them, even though there are billions of people in the world. You might ask your child how prayer helps to solve problems and if there are better solutions to prayer. (Here’s an interesting video about what kids pray for.)
Some people believe praying helps and some people do not. But everybody has certain things that they do when they get sad, angry or scared. It helps to share with kids what you do when you feel sad or afraid. Do you call your friend? Get a hug from a loved one? Go for a walk or a run? Meditate? Cry?
I also told my kids that I won’t tell them to believe in things that 1) don’t make sense and 2) have no proof to accept as true. Examples are: 4-leaf clovers bring good luck. It’s bad to open umbrellas in the house. Witches, goblins, monsters, angels, fairies (insert other myths) are real.
There is one thing that I stressed a lot to my kids. They knew that Santa was a fairytale from a young age while many of their friends believed St. Nick was real. I told my kids that they should not tell or argue with friends or classmates about these things. Their friend’s parents were bringing them up to believe in Santa and/or God. It’s not our place to tell them what to believe. God should not be talked about on the playground or in school unless it’s in an educational context, and even then it can be tricky. Regardless, we don’t want our children to have the nation’s religious battle on their shoulders.
Another question our kids might ask is, “Why do people go to church?” As we know, there are now some churches for humanists, atheists and skeptics, but the majority of our kids will know Christians. Here’s how we might address this topic: People go to church because they like to be around other people. Just as there are book clubs and sports teams, some people like to share their interest in God. In some churches, they listen to talks, they pray and they sing. When people pray, they hope for things–happiness, peace or help with a problem. It’s sort of like wishing upon a star. Again, we might also ask our kids: “What sort of things could you do if you have a problem? Talk to mom? A counselor? A friend? Write down what is bothering you? Ask others for help?”
These are my thoughts. Talking about God with our kids will not be a one-time discussion. It will most likely be on-going because, like a superhero, God is everywhere. We want to make sure our kids understand that just because a friend believes in something does not make it real or true. Skepticism and critical thinking will be important skills they’ll need for the rest of their lives.