It happened a few months after she’d turned two. I was seven months pregnant with my second, and my then-toddler daughter, Zuzu, and I were stumping up to the park on an airless summer day. She spotted a dried-up earthworm on the sidewalk and wanted to know what had happened to it. The second I said that it had died – meaning, it was not alive anymore – I knew what was next: “What happens to things when they aren’t alive anymore?” Of course she wanted to know. Who doesn’t? Standing there, dumbly, I thought: a) you should have been rehearsing this moment since she was in utero; and, b) you have the next ten seconds to get this right.
Were I of a different background or generation – the kind that has fixed ideas on what to say to kids – handling this perennial ontological riddle would have been a piece of cake. Yet, I am of neither. I remember with excruciating clarity the moment I asked my mother that question. I was four, and was tucked into bed under my hippie patchwork quilt, with my Snoopy. My English professor mom laid out the standard secular humanist line (I grew up in Berkeley): No one knows, but some people believe that you go to “Heaven” (Oh); others think that you die for a little while but are reborn as some other kind of thing (Wha?); others are pretty sure that’s that (What?!). This launched a lifetime of existential fear and nihilistic dread. What really happens when you die? What is God, if anything?
I do know one thing: I am not alone. Many people of my age are dumbstruck by the whole God thing and what to tell their kids. Why? For a crop of parents so dishy and analytical about everything from nursing in front of their fathers-in-law to whether to introduce toddlers to Star Wars to “red-shirting” kindergartners, it seems weird that this should leave us so stumped. Maybe it’s one of those Generation X parenting foibles. That is, because so many of us spent our own latchkey childhoods witnessing the hypocrisy of the Reagan-era “family values” contrasting with our own or our friends’ split homes – not to mention the AIDS, crack and homeless epidemics churning outside – we became the generation that felt that everything was, essentially, bullshit. Then, we had kids; now, everything is important. And if there were ever a decidedly no-bullshit scenario, it’s talking to your little boo-boo head about God, Higher Power, the Afterlife – all that.
It’s not that we don’t want to. At least according to my own unscientific survey, most of us do want to offer our kids spiritual under-girding. But that survey also says that the spirituality confused and/or dissatisfied generally fall into one of three camps. The first are those who grew up with religion, but don’t feel particularly connected to the associated traditions and values. The second camp is conflicted about its religion of origin; the third never had one to begin with, and is lost. The bottom line seems to be that we want it, but it has to feel real, authentic. But how do you do that? What does that even mean?