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My Six-Year-Old Is Having an Existential Crisis

Image Source: Michelle Horton
Image Source: Michelle Horton

He was looking out the window intently, deeply, his tiny face resting in his hand. The backyard was tucked under a thick blanket of fresh snow, untouched and glossy from the morning frost. My son, home sick from kindergarten, seemed to be entranced.

“Whatcha looking at?” I asked, joining in his window gazing.

“Look mom, the snow is sparkling!”

And it was. The early sun was hitting the bright white snow in such a way that the yard seemed to be coated in wet glue and glitter. So surreal. So sparkly!

“Wow,” I said, genuinely. “That really is beautiful.”

The two of us quietly stared out the window, watching light dance on the slippery surface, until he broke our silence.

“What’s the purpose of all this?” he asked, eyes still on the snow. “Why are we alive?”

The question landed with a thud.

Here we go, I thought. This conversation again.

***

For someone born six short years ago, he’s certainly nailed the Big Questions:

“What happens when we die?”

“What’s the point of being alive? Why are we here?”

“Who makes people, and who makes the person who makes people?”

He asked that last question when he was just 3 years old, sitting on his potty ring (where much good thinking gets done). It was said with such innocence and stark naked curiosity, as if he were a newborn discovering his hands. As if he’d been fumbling around for a light switch, and it just flipped on.

The questions might be easy to answer, right?

“You go to a place called Heaven where everything is perfect and lovely, forever and ever amen.”

“To love one another, and to leave the world a little better than when we came.”

“God.”

I tried the easy answers, but fumbled over the heavy words and definitions, chronically uncomfortable and wishy washy. Something about explaining the Big Questions to a child made me realize how simplistic our explanations are. It challenged me to dig into my own beliefs, directing the questions inward. I brushed up on Scripture, downloaded some Buddhist-leaning podcasts, pulled out a children’s Bible in search of easily digestible stories. I read Rumi’s poetry and watched The Dalai Lama on Netflix, hoping to absorb some wisdom (and, let’s be honest, to ease my own existential crisis that’s been brewing since childhood).

I lacked conviction, though. Kids don’t just want answers; they want to feel safe and secure, like they can trust in something bigger than themselves. Yet every conversation started with me saying, “Well some people believe … ” and ended with a shrug and a smile. I couldn’t hold up to his scrutiny. Every answer led to five more questions, and the truth is … who knows?!

But that’s when I realized: Maybe he never needed answers.

Maybe he needed me to ask more questions. (“What do you think? What makes sense to you? Why do you think that?”)

Maybe he just needed me to listen to his fears and ponderings, and tell him I’ve had similar thoughts. Share stories, not dogma. Share possibilities and ideas — simply nod my head and whisper, YES, that’s a great question. Keep asking those questions! Keep that insatiable curiosity burning!

Maybe all I had to do was match his wonderment. To peer through his unfiltered perspective. To strip away the cultural conditioning and mask of authority, and admit the truth: I don’t know. I don’t know, and I’ll likely never know, BUT LOOK AROUND YOU. Look at this orchid in our living room, coming and going with graceful confidence. Incredible! Look at the caterpillar that dissolves in its chrysalis, reassembling as a butterfly. Wild! Look at these bodies we’re in, breathing and thinking for themselves. Magnificent!

Isn’t this all so impossibly, breathtakingly exquisite? We can trust in this, whatever is happening!

If I can’t answer his questions, I can at least fan his curiosity and wonderment. I can join him where he is, and simply say, “WOW.”

***

The questions still come, but he tends to fill in his own blanks. (“If life ends, then Heaven probably ends, too. I think we get born and die over and over, and it never ends.”)

He’s being playful with our impermanence and embracing the uncertainty in a way I never did. He’s finding comfort in his observations. Trust.

He’s watching light sparkle across snow, but sees a mysterious universe twinkling through, teasing us with clues, daring us to keep asking questions.

And my God, I hope he never stops.

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Article Posted 5 years Ago

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