Questions and answers

Questions and answers

Michelle Richards
Asian child in front of chalkboard which has question marks on it.
© NI QIN/istockphoto


Dale McGowan estimates in his book, Parenting Beyond Belief, that children will ask approximately 427,050 questions between their second and fifth birthdays. That’s an awful lot of questions! And not all of the answers are able to be articulated, let alone explained in a fashion that can be understood by the mind of a young child.

When it comes to Unitarian Universalist parenting, this can be a real challenge. After all, at the very heart of our religious tradition is the idea of questioning, seeking, wondering, exploring, and even changing our minds when new things become important. Children have a natural curiosity about the world and about life. One of the most frequently heard questions is “why?”

Since many questions about the meaning of life, the nature of the universe, and why bad things happen involve abstract concepts, the challenge for us is to make the intangible tangible.

While it is tempting for us as adults to leap into logical thought and provide thoughtful “answers” to a child’s questions, many times those answers are too abstract for the concrete-thinking minds of our children and may only serve to quash that sense of awe and wonder they experience in the world.

For this very reason, one of the best books to share with preschool age children is Lawrence and Karen Kushner’s Because Nothing Looks Like God. While it does suggest a divine presence, it avoids anthropomorphizing while trying to make the abstract real for youngsters. Using metaphors children understand and can relate to—like cool breezes on a hot night and caterpillars chewing on leaves—the Kushners are able to do so well what many of us struggle with when it comes to making the abstract real for concrete thinkers.

While children in the elementary grades (kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade) remain concrete thinkers, they are more able to grapple with what is real and what is not. Children of this age are naturally curious about the really profound mysteries of life and are capable of being appreciative of the universal and enduring values that bring meaning to the world. Their curiosity can be revealed through lots of questions not only about what is real, and what is true, but also about what is fair.

They want to know not only “why” but also “how” about everything in their world. Children of this age want to keep track of everything, place things into categories, and classify all the newly acquired information. They may also insist upon proof of fact or be adamant about testing it out. At this point, children have a strong need to know not just what their parents think and believe, but why.

It also becomes increasingly relevant for girls and boys to begin understanding the specifics of what distinguishes their religion from others. The stories, symbols, and shared traditions of their religion take on a new significance. Their identity as a person of faith grows as they participate in rituals and can identify the shared stories of their religious tradition.

This is why an elated 8-year-old girl at my church (upon noticing my chalice necklace) got so excited and felt an instant connection to the jewelry. “It’s like the crosses my friends wear,” she said, instantly recognizing the symbol and its significance. Because she witnessed the lighting of the chalice in her church and in her RE classroom, she knew the symbol I wore and identified with it.

Unknowingly, I had just helped her to piece together the growing puzzle of her faith identity just by coming to church that morning and wearing my chalice necklace. Sometimes it’s truly amazing how we can give answers without even knowing there was a question being asked.