How to Help Kids Navigate Religion

One of the hardest things I struggled with was, “Do I tell my kids what I really think about religion or do I let them discover how illogical it is for themselves?”

I went back and forth on this because I thought, well, if I tell my kids that I don’t believe and point out the inconsistencies in religion, then they’ll never have a chance to believe. It’s like never giving them a chance to believe in Santa. Once you understand that religion doesn’t make sense, you’ll always understand this. I know, I know. There are folks who say, “But I *used* to be an atheist. And to those folks, I say, I *used* to believe in Santa.  After decades of understanding how the whole Santa thing works, you just cannot go back unless 1) you never stopped believing in Santa, or 2) you’re lying to yourself about what Santa and the Christmas machine really are.

So what *do* you tell your kids about religion? After a short time, I came to understand that I need to tell them, “This is what other people believe. I do not believe this because it doesn’t make sense.” I’d tell them why and ask them, “Does this make sense to you?” I’d use as examples Bible stories or other outrageous claims, such as “God saved me from getting on the plane that crashed.” Really, I’d say to my kids? Why was that person so deserving, and why didn’t God save the innocent children? Prove me wrong, I’d tell them. Help me understand something I do not understand, that doesn’t make sense.

Sometimes they’d try. Oftentimes they said, there was not a way.

On the other hand, you’re left explaining why smart people do believe. And this is something that I’ve also struggled with because even I can’t figure it out. I’ve told my children that people are afraid of many things, but especially of the unknown. They are afraid of dying and of not knowing what will happen to themselves or a loved one. They love the lives they have — and their families. This is all very understandable, and we should have compassion for people, but it doesn’t make them right. It only makes them human. Remember the comfort you got from your security blanket or your stuffed animal when you were little? Well, some adults need external “things” to comfort them when they’re scared. It makes them feel good to hold onto something, but you know that something—the stuffed animal, for example—can’t save you. Well, in the same sense, believing in God feels good and safe. But God—who has no corporeal existence and is just a wish or belief–doesn’t save you.

Now I know that this doesn’t leave much room for kids to develop religious beliefs on their own, but if you think about all the times you’d have to withhold information, tell your kids “I don’t know,” or outright lie about the existence of God, you’ll see that there’s a lot of deception that goes on in “allowing” kids to choose to believe.

Will I be disappointed if my kids one day choose to follow a religion? Of course not. I just won’t be disappointed with myself for encouraging them to follow some mythical rabbit down a hole.

This is what has worked for my family. If you can offer feedback on what to tell kids, please share your experiences.

 

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25 responses to “How to Help Kids Navigate Religion

  1. When my kids were little, and they’d say “Is there really a Santa?” my answer would be “what do you think about that?” and then, no matter what their answer was, my next question would be “and why do you think that?” Then we might discuss their reasoning. Eventually they figured it out on their own, and then I confirmed that they were correct.

    When they were small, I made sure that we read myths about the Greek and Norse gods, and that they understood that they were just good stories, but people used to think they were real. Then, when the pushy in-laws sent preachy gifts, we could look at them together, and again we had the “what do you think and why do you think that” discussions. “Is this real, or is this a story like Apollo and Zeus?”

    And I’ve also made sure they’ve had exposure to many different religions, as a vaccination against being caught up in any one of them. And we did a lot of learning about critical thinking as part of the process. And both my kids wound up atheists without my having to push them into it. So it worked!

  2. When asked, I always told my kids about what other parents believed in order to call themselves whatever. This helped them understand that other kids often believed what they were taught what their parents believed. That line of separation between kids and parents was something I thought was important to understand, that just because a child parrots a parent doesn’t necessarily mean they think they are stating fact but as a means to test these beliefs by what their friends might say. I always told the story about one of my classmates who had to hand out religious tracts every Hallow’een from his front door and imagine what that might feel like.

    It got interesting when they caught on that different religious beliefs sometimes had conflicting claims so that they both couldn’t be right, so when they asked, I told them what I do: ask yourself the honest question: is some religious claim really true AND how might we know if it is?

    I always spoke in general terms about me, that I was not convinced, that I did not think something was the case, or that my information right now led me to think otherwise… and so on. Always I modeled thinking for one’s self and making personal opinions personally pliable based on what seemed to be the best current information.

    Now, understand that I am now and have been since 2001 a New Atheist. Of course, they asked what this meant and so I explained that sometimes people think their religious beliefs should be enough to make rules that everyone has to follow and why this was unfair. My task as New Atheist was to argue why religious belief is a personal thing and should stay as a personal thing… rather than, say, forced on a child to obey and hand out religious tracts on Hallow’een.

    Kids are expert on fairness and so mine have achieved adulthood with maturity, responsibility, compassion, and a very strong sense of autonomy and offer dignity to all unless actions dictate otherwise. I think such people are not very good religious believers and it’s my experience that they usually feel little if any draw to become one… even if sex is used as a recruitment tool.

    So far, so good, but then living in Canada and going to public school with dozens of languages and ethnicity and religious beliefs present in so many children in so many classrooms tends to open children’s eyes to grasping that differences like these are 1) usually less important than similarities, and 2) that everyone IS different… and that’s okay. Religious belief is just one of many and no more defines a person than the colour of his or her eyes.

    • Excellent feedback, tildeb. Thanks. However, I do think that religious belief defines a person…

      • Well, there are those who don the identity but that doesn’t mean we necessarily have to go along with it. I think this is especially true for how we treat children: my philosophy is to treat them as children first – you know, real people – and not as the borrowed (or imposed) identity.

  3. Your brand of “atheism” is based on a particular theory of “god” that is commonly accepted by a large portion of the population in the world. I believe there are as many “religions” as there are people, because I’ve never met any two people who can agree 100% on anything, let alone their interpretations of inexplicable experiences they’ve had in their lives. I’d call it “anti-theism”. I haven’t found a religion I like; I’m not atheist, yet I don’t agree with the anti-theistic positions that most atheists take. Basically, I see atheists in two flavors: those who cannot accept what most religions teach, and therefore deny what they claim to accept; and those who essentially take a position like, “I cannot explain this myself, so it must not exist”. Well, humans cannot explain a LOT of things based on our own personal experience, yet they clearly cannot be flat-out denied as a result. Most animals have a much wider range of hearing than humans; many have much more sensitive eyes and can see into the infrared and/or ultra-violet portions of the spectrum, which we cannot. Many animals have olfactory senses that are many orders of magnitude more sensitive than what us humans have. The fact is, most animals exhibit many extraordinary attributes that many religions give to their “gods”, yet we deny what the religions say but accept that animals possess those same abilities.

    I was brought up by a mother who believe children should not be exposed to religion until they’re old enough to make sense of it. So she took us to a Unitarian Universalist Church, which is still a popular place for anybody into the trappings that a church offers but without much of the religious parts.

    I eventually found my own way, and it’s extremely difficult to explain to anybody. I found one “church” that does a good job at reflecting my beliefs, but I’m not particularly interested in dragging others into it. (I say “church” because the founder considered it a “spiritual philosophy” and was totally opposed to anything having to do with wrapping it up as a “church”, although he allowed that to happen simply for tax purposes, and because somebody else managed it.)

    Anyway, the question was … “what do you tell your kids?” Just ask them, “What are YOUR thoughts on that?” Don’t feel a need to drive them towards any kind of firm resolution. Just let them be with the questions. If they ask what you believe, well … explain it or don’t. But just be aware that explaining it can end up having just as much of a misguided impact as if you were explaining it from any other perspective. The point is. let them be with the questions. Let them make up their own minds when they’re ready. They may agree with you, and they may take up some other beliefs. That’s life! There is not just ONE “perfect” or “right” perspective! (Which is what most of the millions of religions on the planet want you to believe — that THEIR perspective is the “chosen” one.)

    • Interesting comment, David. Thanks for taking the time to share. I can agree with most of what you write, especially that humans do not know a lot (which is actually a great argument against religion, not just for), but I think it is harmful to allow children to believe that anything can be true. It *is* false that a man can live in the belly of a snake, that a snake can speak to a human.

  4. No one in my home belongs to a religion. We just believe in being good to self and others. But what do I do to promote our beliefs, I read your emails when they come along. They speak the our truths.

  5. This blog post couldn’t have come at a better time. My 8 year old daughter has recently been asking lots of questions about God and Jesus and Ive struggled with how to answer these questions without crushing her….curiosity. This post and the comments have helped a lot.

  6. I agree with anon.. We are expecting a baby girl at the end of August and this has been on my mind lately because my almost-4-year-old niece has brought up Jesus a couple times in the recent past. She’s not my child, so I don’t tell her what to believe or what not to believe or even what I believe, but I make it clear (as clear as anyone can to any 4 year old) that I don’t agree with her–and in a non-shaming way. Thanks again for your post!

  7. My son, 13, hears both sides as my husband is a believer. He’s basically in the middle. Time will tell what he ends up believing. I hope it’s not the nonsense that is religion.

  8. My son, 13, is stuck in the middle as he hears both sides of the coin. My husband the believer and me the non believer. Time will tell I guess what he ends up thinking. I hope it’s with me.

  9. Robert Partridge

    In the discussion regarding a parent sharing his/her views about religion with their child, there really should be no debate. The trust built over years of giving advice in the child’s best interest is put at great risk if one of the most substantial subjects ever to come up between child and parent is avoided. Relationship advice; freely given. Financial advice; freely given. Even discussions about sex; perhaps awkwardly given, but given! Parents are hesitant to let their children deal with these subjects on their own, with a ‘find your own way’ approach. While I would agree it is magnanimous – even honorable – to want to let the illogic of the subject of religion speak for itself, I contend it is an abdication of responsibility in not sharing what you’ve seen and learned on the matter throughout your life. And in this case, with me being an atheist, I wholeheartedly offer that same advice to the parents calling themselves believers. If children challenge authority and question the status quo at any level, that is fantastic and healthy. But they have to have some sort of relevant starting point to properly do so, and the vacuum of saying nothing does not provide that. In a way, it leaves them more vulnerable to the unknown biases to be found randomly within whatever sources of information they seek. In fact, any inherent bias included in a parent’s testimony will usually include ‘both sides of the argument’ quite well. Parents should not sell themselves short by assuming to stay out of the way in the process of discovery is the best course of action. Just my opinion! Rob Partridge

    • I really appreciate this comment! It makes total sense and is well-said.

    • Great response, Rob!

    • Robert, you assert that religion is one of the “most substantial subjects ever to come up between child and parent” and that to avoid giving direct advice produces great risk.

      Really? A subject with no object is one of the most important in all of child rearing? I can think of dozens and dozens of subjects far more important.

      Now, I haven’t read any advice here that parents should ‘avoid’ the topic if the child raises it; what I have been reading are varied ways of addressing it… in ways that do not set forth any hard and fast parental opinions that we know are likely to be copied rather than arrived at when presented this way.

      Wouldn’t you say that learning how to think well is far more an important subject than, say, listening to a parent give a strong opinion about religious beliefs?

      • I think what Rob is saying (not to speak for him but just IMO) is that kids will be preached to, that they will learn folklore, fear and the fantastical from others, and it’s up to us, not to give our “opinion” about religion, but just to dispel the myths. Help them to decipher fact from fiction.

  10. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been thinking about these exact issues a lot lately since I’m pregnant with my first child. I think you chose a great way to handle these questions & I plan on doing the same.

  11. kellystrickland@hotmail.com

    We chose to raise our kids without religion. We have neighbor kids that have begun “witnessing” to my 10 year old son. How do I handle this? Right now I am very angry.

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    • Hi Kelly – One thing you need to do is talk to the parents and tell them, unless they want their kids to have a short course on atheism, they better instruct their kids to keep their opinions to themselves. Ask your son if the things the neighbor kids say make sense (or is it just scary or fantastical like a movie?) Research outrageous claims together. Let your son know you’re there to help him discover the facts so he doesn’t have to be intimidated by people who try to manipulate him.

      There are a lot of people out there these days who make outrageous claims, so this is a transferrable skill!

  12. I was raised with no religion. My father came from an Eastern Orthodox family and my mother from a Jewish one. However we celebrated Christmas. I loved it as a child. As athiests we shouldn’t forget the true meaning of Christmas. The lights, the decorations and the merriment get us through what is the worst time of year for a diurnal primate whose main sense is sight. The Christmas nonsense was started by pagans trying to understand the world.

  13. My wife and I are confirmed atheists harbouring no doubt to the matter. We have two boys aged 5 and 9. So far, we have raised them as such with loose conversations about different faiths when questions arise. Never do I explain them away as wrong, as I find it better to tell them I simply dont agree with their contradictory truths. We’ve hit a wall in how to deal with a current issue. My elder son is quite fond of a girl in his class, and twice now has come home with invites to her churches’ events. They seem to be masked as entertainment for young kids, with all the accoutrement of sunday school culture. It feels like her parents know he is raised without religion and are attempting recruitment. I dont really know how to proceed tactfully as I’m annoyed in a few ways, but I want to be fair to my sons emotions, without allowing his head to be filled with falsehoods about the world and the people in it.

    • Hi Kirk – I would really sit down and talk with your son about what you do and don’t believe. You could start by asking him what he believes (if anything) and if certain belief systems make sense. (Why or why not?) Then you can share your views. When this situation occurred with my kids, I told them that, for the rest of their lives, people would try to sell them one thing or another (God, stuff, ideas, etc.). They have the freedom to choose what they want to buy. Just make sure to buy for the right reasons. Both my children went to church and church activities with friends. They actually came back with a lot of questions and observations of inconsistencies. So, in short, this is just the beginning for your son. You might want to prepare him now. Good luck. Let me know how it goes.

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