Is There a Heaven? Uh … How to explain God to young children even if you’re not sure what you believe.Susan Gregory Thomas
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?
Take the case of my friend, whom I’ll call Simone. Simone grew up a stone’s throw away from the West Virginian mountains, and her hometown was traditional United Methodist. But because it was also a college town, and her Dad was a professor, Simone always felt as though she got just the right dose of skepticism and faith. She wanted the same experience for her two kids, six and four years old. But not only had her perspective broadened with adulthood, life was also different for her children than it had been for her. For one thing, she was troubled about the church split over gay marriage. For another, her kids were born in Dallas, Texas – a far cry from small-town Methodism. Moreover, Simone was divorced shortly after the birth of her second child; the women of the church were mostly married, traditional. Ditto when she moved to Jacksonville, Florida.
There were uncomfortable moments, alienating periods. But Simone says that things worked themselves out because she and her church community were guided by what they’d been taught from childhood: love, tolerance, service. “It’s funny,” she recently wrote to me, “but when you’re raised on an idea or concept, all the answers to the thorny questions are answered when you need them to be.”
EXPERTS ANSWER KIDS’ TOUGHEST QUESTIONS
So, what are you supposed to say to your kids about God, exactly? Here are some tips from various religious leaders, gurus, and scripture itself on raising spiritually connected children. – Susan Gregory Thomas
WHY SHOULD I HELP OTHERS?: SpiritualParenting.com founder Mimi Doe says: “Kids long for connection with others more than another new toy, as hard as that might be to believe,” she writes. “What one kind deed might you do today with your child? Bake an extra loaf of banana bread for an elderly neighbor, write a thank you note to the bus driver for always smiling in the mornings, invite the child who is new in town over for a play date?”
WHY DON’T I GET WHAT I PRAY FOR?: James 4:3 responds: “You ask for something but do not get it because you ask for it for the wrong reason – for your own pleasure.” The idea is that we pray to get closer to God: to find out what we should do to be in sync with the flow of the spirit. If we ask for help, we will get it, though it might not be the kind we asked for. It might be much cooler than anything we could have come up with ourselves.
Continued on next page… Humiliatingly, my response is one of abject self-pity. How come I had to grow up with a black hole gnawing at the pit of my soul, and she didn’t? How come she gets to pass along the sense of tradition and answers to thorny questions to her children, and I don’t? Same thing with the case of another friend, Stacey. A mother of three in Glendale, California, Stacey grew up in Hawaii, and was active in Protestant youth groups, even as her Catholic-born mom dabbled in Buddhism. Throughout her twenties, she herself practiced Buddhism before she ultimately decided to adopt officially her husband’s faith, Judaism. But it was the richness of the Jewish family traditions – celebrating the Sabbath together every Friday night, attending temple as a family, Hebrew school for the kids – that compelled her to convert. Stacey’s connection to God, Lord of the Universe, Higher Power – all that – was already firmly entrenched in childhood.
So, here’s a question for first- and second campers: Is it necessary for one’s connection to God, and the spiritual/religious customs that one might adopt for the sake of family bonding, to be strictly intertwined? To the observant, this probably sounds like straight-up sacrilege. You can’t just swap out religious tenets because you feel like it! Otherwise, what’s the point of religion at all? But if erstwhile nihilistic Gen-Xers turned parents do, indeed, want to include a sense of faith and tradition in the raising of kids – but need it to feel real, authentic – then another point is: If you got belief, then it’s all good.
In the case of my children’s father, this point stuck hard, even as it backfired. A lapsed Catholic, he couldn’t countenance the Church of his upbringing. At the same time, no other religious tradition felt legitimate. Even when I joined an ultra-progressive, Protestant church whose mission he supported, he could never bring himself to go. “I know it sounds dumb, but it just doesn’t feel real without the Stations of the Cross,” he said.
You might think that his is an extreme example of a first-category camper: someone whose faith was stripped, left only with religious trappings. But here’s the interesting thing: of all my friends and family, he is perhaps the most grounded in faith. In fact, when I was in my twenties, and having panic attacks about life after death – wildly grasping at any answer – it was his sureness of the soul’s eternal nature that quelled my terror. For him, this was shoulder-shrugging territory.
What first- and second-campers have in common is that they’re bilingual, in spiritual terms. Even if they tinkered with, or scrapped, their religion of origin, they know the milieu of higher communion like they know English and another foreign language. They can pick and choose whatever customs and traditions feel good and right for their families, because their relationship with a Higher Power is already real and authentic. If the rest of us want real and authentic, we’ve got to train up before we go religious tradition shopping.
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WHY SHOULD I CHANT?: Shoba Narayan, the Beliefnet columnist of “A Contemporary Hindu,” writes that teaching children prayers that are specific to their needs is invaluable. This way, children learn how to use prayer as a familiar, comforting mode of discourse – just like talking. There are also practical benefits. “If your child gets scared of the dark, help her with a psalm or prayer that addresses her fears and to chant it every time she walks into a dark room,” she writes. “If nothing else, chanting will distract her from her fears.”
WHY SHOULD I MEDITATE?: In Buddhism, karma is the operating principle. In parenthood, this translates as a discipline strategy. One of the only recorded lessons Buddha ever taught his son, Rahula, was the law of cause and effect. “The single most important lesson parents can convey to their children is that every action has consequences,” writes author John Bullitt in Frequently Asked Questions About Buddhism. “Each moment presents us with an opportunity, and it is up to us to choose how we want to think, speak, or act. It is these choices that eventually determine our happiness.” (Think about that in your room for TEN minutes.)
WHY SHOULD I PRAY IF YOU DON’T?: The Talmud – that official record of rabbinic discussions addressing Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history – poses the question: What is a parent obligated to do for a child? It answers, essentially, nothing the parent doesn’t do him- or herself. If you mess up, admit you’re wrong, apologize, and try again. The point is not to try to be perfect; it’s just to try at all. Who do you think you are – God? At least, I feel like that’s how Martin Buber might have felt about it. Buber is one of my favorites from Philosophy 101, and if you’re feeling a little rusty in that department, the basic drill is this: Buber was an Austrian-Israeli-Jewish philosopher, and his seminal work, I and Thou, argued that most of the time, we relate to other people, things, and events in the world as “it” – that which is fundamentally outside of ourselves – which he characterized as I-It relations. In our communication with God, however, it is the deeply personal, mysteriously interconnected relation of I-You that is activated. We cannot pursue it because it is already within us; the only requirement for connection is the willingness to listen.
I find comfort in this, because I guess it makes me feel like: a) I have a shot at the God thing; and b) I don’t have to do, or grasp at, anything that feels unsettlingly false. I can just be open to the conversation as it unfolds. As it happens, it began with the birth of my first child. I’d always been a fourteen-hour-a-day working reporter and the essence of a non-believer. But the moment the doctor placed this child at my breast, and we gazed at each other, I was hit: This is the exact person I’ve been waiting to meet my entire life. When my second child was born, I thought: I have known you my entire life. And three years ago, when my King Lear-like father died, essentially, in my arms, I was hit again: There is nothing but love; the rest is only fear.
So, when my children and I talk about God, we talk about love. When we are mad and strike out, we are ignoring God for the moment. But we can always go back, and when we do, we feel better because then our hearts are restored to normal. When we talk about life after death, we say is that there is nothing to be afraid of. Our bodies are our bodies, and they are good and useful while we are alive, but the bigger deal is that we have always been together, and we always will be. And that feels real and authentic, because I just know, in my gut, that it is the truth.