One benefit of becoming a first-time parent at 33 is that you’ve had a lot of time to figure things out — to identify your own strengths and weaknesses and to grow comfortable in your overall worldview.
As a happily entrenched secularist, I never considered the fact that my daughter, Maxine, might someday hear about religion from some classmates at preschool and accept it without question. But that’s what happened.
At the time, I found myself wedged between competing interests. I wanted to disclose my own non-belief to my daughter and explain the difference between faith and science-based evidence, but I didn’t want to indoctrinate her into my way of thinking — or turn her against other ways of thinking.
I wanted to raise a critical thinker capable of seeing through religious gobbledygook, but I also wanted to raise a kind, considerate person who wouldn’t go out and call other peoples’ beliefs “gobbledygook.”
Those competing interests seemed paralyzing until I realized that my job was not to worry about what worldview my daughter would eventually choose, but to make sure that she knew there was a choice — and that it was hers to make.
Here are five of the “best practices” I have discovered about how to discuss God (and religion in general) with young children.
1. “Fact, Fiction or Belief”
First things first. There is no sense in talking to kids about religious belief if they don’t understand the concept. So try a game called “Fact, Fiction or Belief.” Define fact as anything that’s true, fiction as anything that’s made up, and belief as anything that some people think is fact and other people think is fiction. (For purposes of this game, all opinions, preferences, and tastes can be considered belief.)
Make statements and have your child label them accordingly. For instance, you might say: “The moon is in the sky.” (Fact!) “You like to eat rocks.” (Fiction!) “Pink is the best of all the colors.” (Belief!)
Remember: don’t try to make things too literal or complicated or to inject actual religious beliefs into your examples. Just keep in mind the point of the game — to see if children can grasp the concept of belief — and to set up some conceptual scaffolding for future conversations.
2. Don’t hide your beliefs (or lack thereof) from your kids.
Whether you believe in Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Brahman or nothing at all, be open about it. Nonreligious parents or those in mixed-religion families, particularly, may be tempted to remain silent about their beliefs out of discomfort, anxiety, or guilt.
But your beliefs give your child a reference point from which to explore his or her own feelings and ask important questions. Sharing your beliefs sends a strong message that all people are entitled to their own opinions.
There is absolutely no shame in belonging to a religious minority, or in marrying someone of another faith, or in being a non-religious person. Letting your child think otherwise would be the real shame.
3. Talk about all religions.
Being literate in religion doesn’t require a PhD in religious studies, but it does require a genuine effort. So find ways to engage kids on religious topics — children’s books and religious holidays are two great vehicles for religious literacy — and approach faith in general as something worth discussing.
Children can’t ask about things they’ve not been exposed to, and they’re not going to show interest in something you treat as irrelevant or uninteresting or “scary.” Religion, in all its forms, has had an enormous effect on our culture, government, and works of art, among a great many other things. Ignoring that does our kids no favors.
4. Use neutral language.
Think of your family as points on a grid, standing equidistance from one another. The goal is not to invite children to join you on your exact point on the grid (that’s never going to happen), but rather to encourage them to be comfortable and confident in their own unique grid points.
If you’re curious what your kid believes, ask in the most neutral way you can: “What do you think? What makes sense to you?” Don’t use loaded language or try to pressure your child into believing the way you do. It rarely works, and might even backfire.
Oftentimes, the harder you push, the more distance the child will put between you — until, eventually, she’s off your grid altogether.
5. Fight bigotry by teaching tolerance.
Stereotypes exist on both sides of the religious aisle. Atheists are “amoral and unhappy,” while religious people are “gullible and unintelligent.” These assumptions are as inaccurate as they are insulting.
Explain to your child that people have lots of different reasons for believing the way they do and that sometimes those reasons may not make much sense. But nobody deserves to be harassed or made fun of or talked into changing those beliefs. Sometimes, of course, it’s appropriate to speak out against certain ideas, especially when they involve doing harm to other people.
Just be sure that when you do choose to speak of religion (or atheism) in negative terms, you speak in specifics, explaining exactly what you oppose and why.
* * *
Giving children the freedom to choose their own beliefs may feel awkward to some parents, but it shouldn’t. The bet we make — that our children will eventually come around to our way of thinking — is a pretty safe one. Children are predisposed to believe the way we do. We set the tone for the rest of their lives, and it takes more effort for our kids to reject our beliefs than to accept them.
If we are kind and respectful, and have told our kids what we believe and why (without indoctrinating them), it is highly likely that they’ll grow up to view the world in about the same way that we do.
But if they don’t — if they choose a different path — they will still be our friends and treat us with respect because we have taught them, by example, to respect others for who they are. It’s the same thing that will steer them away from radical groups who hate, demonize, and even kill those who disagree with them.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.