My husband and I are atheists. My husband’s parents are devout Christians. My three year-old daughter loves spending time at her grandparents’ house reading their countless old books. Recently she discovered the old Sunday school books filled with childish versions of Biblical stories. She loves sitting on her grandmother’s lap and listening to these stories – as any story she gets to hear in her grandmother’s lap. She has not yet asked any questions about what she reads, but I am anxiously trying to decide how to answer the inevitable question, “What is god?”
My husband and I hope our children will one day discover their own truths about god, based on all sorts of different exposures – when they are old enough to weigh information and make educated decisions; not through indoctrination. How do we explain to our young child this concept we adamantly don’t believe in, without potentially offending her grandparents?
– Are You There God, It’s Me Mommy
Dear Are You There God,
One of us was recently involved in a conversation with parents about this very issue. How do you talk to a kid about god (we’ll go lowercase here, out of respect for your beliefs) when you don’t know whether you believe in god yourself? Or when you know that you don’t, but don’t want to force your ideology down your kid’s throat? A lot of thoughtful discussion was had, and there were no easy answers. Is it as easy as saying “This is what I believe, this is what other people believe, you can believe what you want . . .?”
It’s a bit much to expect a three-year-old to understand this abstract choice. She doesn’t even know what or who god is, let alone whether to hitch her horse to his (or her or its) cart. One mom suggested parents should play shrink, dodging any personal inquiries by lobbing questions right back. We like this idea, if only for exploratory purposes: You want to know why this is coming up now. What has she heard? What does she think? But if she’s anything like our kids, she’ll eventually demand a direct answer on your own beliefs. Avoiding her curiosity won’t be much help. As parents, your beliefs matter. At this age, it’s fairly likely that she’ll follow your lead.
When we read your letter, we were struck (and impressed) by your openminded attitude. Not every atheist (or anything-ist) shares your views, namely, that it’s ok for not everyone to share the same views. And therein lies the answer to your question. It seems like what you’re looking to teach your daughter is not what to believe, but how to respect different beliefs.
When (“if” is not a realistic expectation) your daughter asks you about god, we suggest you tell her a simple version of your truth. And follow up with some context, including the fact that other people she loves have other ideas . . . and how that’s ok with you. In terms of how exactly to talk about it, there are lots of ways. Sometimes people frame religion like a story that some people believe is true and others don’t. You can also tell her feelings about god are a little bit like feelings in general; unique to each individual. So there’s room for everybody’s own ideas about god; yours, Grandma’s, and eventually, her own.
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