It really doesn’t matter if you are a theist, deist, pantheist, agnostic, or atheist—as a parent you will inevitably face a myriad of questions about God. So what do you do when your child professes to have a belief in God that is absolute? Or wants to know what you believe and you really don’t know?
Some parents can be dismayed, feeling as if somehow they have failed in their attempts to teach freethinking and skepticism to their children. However, the reverse may actually be true.
Young children cannot help but develop an idea of an anthropomorphic deity. The “proof” seems to be all around them in the adults who talk casually about it (Grandma says God loves me), in the programs that air on television (The Ten Commandments), and in many other aspects of their world (pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving thanked God for their bountiful food).
Even if songs, movies, and television programs don’t raise the issue of God—often with confusing imagery and misinformation—our children’s playmates on the playground or in the daycare center will. And because children once viewed their parents as all-powerful, it is not hard for them to make the leap toward understanding an all-powerful God as a parental figure.
What we can do is stretch their idea of what God is and what the concept of God means. We can let our children know that God has meant many things to people in different times of history. We can share alternative images of the divine with them, like a Mother-God, the Universe-as-God, or many different Gods to express different ideas. We can let them know that some people believe that God is nature itself or that the spark of divine is in all of us.
In his book, When Children Ask About God: A Guide for Parents Who Don’t Always Have All the Answers, Rabbi Harold Kushner advises parents to teach children that the idea of God is difficult even for adults to comprehend. We can let them know that answers about God are tough to determine because of our limited capacity to know everything about the world. And when we emphasize that our ideas about God may change as we grow older, it may not limit their questions, but it will engage their young minds in the challenge of eventually developing their own beliefs about the world.
What we do not want to do, however, is inadvertently teach our children that questions about God are off limits. If we appear uncomfortable or give a short answer that limits further conversation, we communicate that this is a subject we are unwilling to talk about. When we do that, we not only teach our children that questions about God are bad or wrong, we also send them away to seek their answers from others. And those others may be more than willing to share their ideas about God with our children.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).