Talking to Kids about God and Church

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.


28 responses to “Talking to Kids about God and Church

  1. Believing in god is a choice. Powerful words.

  2. My family and in-laws are both very religious. As such, it’s difficult to instill my “beliefs” (or lack of) with the kids. This gives me some good food for thought.

  3. Debbie, you are too modest to mention it but a simple statement would be: Read Debbie’s book!

  4. I’ve found this rather timely, our oldest (he’s 5) is getting curious about church and religion. A friend of my explained to her children “God is an imaginary friend for grown-ups” but with very devout grandmothers (both sides of the family) we’re not sure that’s the best line to take. Honestly, I’d rather deal with monsters under the bed, “God” has a cult following, books, TV shows, elaborate buildings, and a vast network of followers… the only monsters under our beds are dust bunnies and we a vacuum cleaner to deal with that.

    • @Kat @ kindism I know– you don’t want your kids repeating to the grandparents that “God is just your imaginary friend!” You might be able to tell your son, at least until he’s older, that god(s) are just something that some people believe in and some folks don’t.

  5. I hope I can remember these wise words if/when the subject comes up with my grandchildren. I was more than a little appalled when their mother opted to start taking them to a Catholic church (and my son joined them a few months later). Something about a higher power to help keep them in line. Now I’m very uneasy that at some point when I’m with the kids, the subject might come up. I don’t think very fast on my feet; I hope I’ll be able to be as thoughtful as you suggest. It’s not something I’ve had a chance to practice.

    • @PiedType I’m sure you will do exceptionally well with your grandkids, PT, from what I know about you on this blog and reading yours.

      When my kids were young, I was afraid that they would miss out on something if I didn’t take them to church. I did start taking them to a Catholic Church when they were very young. It didn’t last long. I felt like a hypocrite. But it can be confusing to parents–especially when they read these articles that say atheists are the least trusted, most despised group in America.

  6. Great advice, Debbie. I’m so glad I have that all behind me. My daughter jokes that she spouts Star Trek phrases in lieu of OMG, God bless you and such:)
    Perhaps, too,what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Christians dismiss other religions and gods as “mythologies” by saying that’s how the Greeks and Romans explained things they couldn’t understand when they didn’t know about the one true God. Maybe parents can take that line of thinking one step further, showing god stories are what people imagine when they don’t know the scientific facts.

  7. My son is 3. We live in southern Louisiana. He’s enrolled in what i thought was a secular Pre-K. He gets a new teacher and comes home saying “God is great, god is good, let us thank him for our food.” He thinks the Ninja Turtles are real, how am i supposed to explain that God is a story too?I was raised without religion, and it was rough here, still, I thought i had a couple years before i had to deal with this and I’m really stressed out. I would talk to the directress, but i’m fairly sure it would single my kid out as the weirdo in the school. So for now, we’re trying to ask him more than we tell him- Who is god? Where is god? Who cooks your food? As he gets older, my plan is to go with “it’s just a really popular story” and try to answer his questions rather than tell him the answers before he wants to hear them…I’m glad i found this site.

    • @iconicbluedog I think you’re right–your son is just repeating what he hears and doesn’t really understand yet. It is difficult when you live in an area that is so religious, but in the end, the community should respect the way you decide to raise your son.

  8. I definitely waiting for the day when Punky starts asking questions. Her older cousins are already voicing opinions on God and what their parents have told them. We are living with my believing mother-in-law with angels and crosses. The discussion hasn’t come up and she’s still little and whatnot, but I have been dreading the conversation. This was super helpful, thanks!!

  9. Excellent post, Deborah.

    I’m curious, do you have any words of wisdom for grandparents? I (and my then-wife) raised two boys to believe in the evangelical christian ways. And amazingly enough, when my sons grew to adulthood and asked some of the unanswerable questions, I came to see that what I had taught (and believed) was indefensible. It was at this time that I came to eschew religion.

    Yet, one of my sons married a Catholic, and my daughter-in-law, although not necessarily devout, does take my granddaughters to mass occasionally. (My son tries to abstain. But he does seem to acquiesce to his wife’s desire to remain in the Catholic faith.) I love my daughter-in-law, but I also realize that for her to turn against her faith (and consequently, her whole family) would be very difficult. I don’t see that happening.

    The upshot is that my granddaughters are being raised with serious ideas about God, from the Catholic perspective.

    I know I can’t violate my son, and daughter-in-law’s desires. I wouldn’t want to ever do that. Yet, when my granddaughter asks questions, or mentions God, do you have any suggestions as to how I might respond?

    • Hi Matt, Fortunately, of all the religions, I think Catholics indoctrinate their kids less so than most. So, it might be easier for your granddaughters to break away once they are away from home.

      It’s a tough spot you’re in. If you had brought your boys up without religion, and your parents were evangelical, you probably would not want them to talk God-speak to your kids. In order to keep the relationship good with your son and daughter-in-law, and also to respect how they want to raise their children, I would respond to questions about God with something like, “Not everyone believes the same things about God. You’ll have to ask your parents.” If your granddaughter asks why you don’t pray at meals–I would be honest and tell her that you don’t believe in God. If your son gets upset about this (and I know you would not want to jeopardize seeing your son or grandkids), you might want to tell him that his daughter is going to meet all sorts of people with different beliefs–or no beliefs–but honesty is one of those virtues that everyone believes in. This is just my two cents, but I know that religion is one of those topics that can alienate family.

  10. Like I told my nephew and niece when they asked me these questions: “Your mother told me I am not mature enough to have this conversation, so go read the bumper stickers on my car.”

    I would be way to blunt and forthright for anyone’s comfort. Seriously, I would simply say god does not exist and, thus, does not enter into my daily thinking. I have a hard time not saying theists are insane. This is why I save these conversations for adults.

    I am absolutely useless on this topic.

    • Derrick: I encounter some difficulty with my sibling on this topic, so I understand where you are coming from! You probably want to say, “Run! Run little ones before they brainwash you!”

      Yeah, so I guess it’s best that we save our remarks for those 18 and over.

  11. As always, Debbie, you’ve provided well-targeted and very useful insights regarding a subject that is more than capable of causing anxiety and even conflict within certain families if both partners are not on the same page. I would add – from my own experience growing up – that it’s not only useful but I might write ‘healthy’ to make sure children are not denied access to religious materials but are, rather, encouraged to dig in and see what’s there. I maintain that it was this very process which caused me to find the ammunition – within religious groups’ own arguments – to question authority as my parents always encouraged me to, without being disrespectful of authority or opinions in any way. I came to my own conclusions and am better at expressing, and backing up, my opinions on the subject to this day because of that approach. Make sure kids know as much as possible about writings in Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindi, and Buddhist books and don’t stop there. A person can’t successfully debate history or international politics very well without a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding. The same holds true with religion! To denounce elements of religious practice or teaching without reading and understanding them is no different than those fundamentally-religious people who can’t offer any explanation for their opinions other than “faith.” In addition to that very important discussion regarding any ‘supreme being’ and life in general, consider adding a robust understanding of the history of religion and what has been done in this world in the name of religion – the good and the horrible – to your conversation with children about religion! And thanks, Debbie – you continue to contribute the most lively and worthwhile blogging available anywhere! Rob P.

    • Rob P. Great advice. Kids should definitely be exposed to religion, so they can understand what they are rejecting and so that they can defend their stance. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

  12. I don’t know if belief in God is always a choice, since I don’t think unbelief is always a choice. I think some people honestly do believe this universe/world wouldn’t be possible without a God.

  13. Ms. Mitchell, I want to personally thank you for your words of wisdom and ability to convey your opinions in an unbiased way… I myself am a 26 year old agnostic male raising a two year old boy in the Bible Belt of America (Kentucky). Everyone in my fiancées and my own family are in some way involved in church activities. Believing in proof over faith I fear is soon to become a problem as my son ages. I look forward to any and all of your posts. Thank you for some much needed insight.

    • Hi Anson, Thank you for taking the time to comment. It is difficult to live in an area that pushes religion. You will find a lot of support here as others share the same struggles.

  14. Brilliant post! I was just starting to think about how to deal with the Santa issue with my 3-year-old and this has really clarified things for me. I don’t want to destroy his childhood or anything but we always said we didn’t want to outright lie to him on anything.

    My husband was also adamant he doesn’t want him to be “that kid” running around the playground breaking the bad news to all the other kids. But I think we will try now to find a way to deal with it honestly as he gets older and starts to ask more questions.

    • @humanistmum Nice to meet you. It is a delicate topic with young children because they’re little parrots of their parents at that age….

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