The reality is that children not only want to know what their parents think, they need to know it. Children naturally look for guidance from parents as they form their early beliefs about the world. Even youth who are eagerly testing and discovering ideas for themselves look for guidance from parental figures they respect. So why does communicating about life after death send up big red flags for so many parents who are able to talk comfortably about sexuality and other tough issues of morality?
Parents are not generally vague when it comes to sharing other beliefs. After all, a mother wouldn’t tell her children that, although some people think stealing is wrong, others think it may be okay depending upon specific circumstances so they should decide for themselves. Yet when it comes to theological beliefs, parents will present vague and confusing answers as they dance around the subject and attempt to avoid making an unequivocal statement of personal belief.
Sharing personal religious and spiritual beliefs with children is not indoctrination; it is offering the guidance they eagerly seek until they are developmentally ready to decide for themselves. If children receive vague and confusing answers time and again when they ask about spiritual and theological issues, they’ll eventually stop asking and start looking for answers elsewhere. But many of the other people your children may encounter in life will not be so hesitant to pass on their religious beliefs, opening up the possibility that the vacuum you’ve left will be filled by others who are seeking to indoctrinate them.
Since children learn a basic sense of morality, ethics, and responsibility from the words parents use and the examples they set, they also internalize ideas about faith, religion, and spirituality from their parents. Their faith development will evolve throughout their lives, but they need a solid foundation to build upon. And this means parents are continually challenged to examine their beliefs—for they not only influence thinking and motivations but communicate deep truths to children.
If you feel uncertain about your personal theology, it can be doubly intimidating to think about articulating those beliefs. But doing so doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated. Simply taking the time to honor spiritual yearnings, wonder about the world, and reflect upon what is meaningful in life offers an opportunity to not only enrich your own faith but to share it with your children.
And what if after all this searching and self-reflection, a parent discovers that he or she just really doesn’t know? It is okay to tell children that some things just are unknowable and that people have been trying to answer these questions since time began. They can handle a certain level of ambiguity. What they have trouble understanding is why their parents can communicate their ideas so confidently in some ways but stammer and act evasive when it comes to questions about theological issues.
What topics have you found it hardest to discuss with your children? What do you wish you had said? And for those of you raised as Unitarian Universalists, what was helpful and what was not? Please share your experiences of how and what your parents shared as their beliefs.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).