Several years ago I was speaking to a class of schoolchildren in Dallas. I began my talk by asking them, "If after this class, you went home and asked your mother what she thought about God, what would she say?"
A little girl in the first row leapt to her feet, waving her hand. I called on her.
"Ask your father!" she said.
Her answer reflected the insecurities of many parents in teaching about a subject they never learned about themselves. Teaching about God is a subject so large, so looming, so easy to get wrong. Parents who tell their children that you can ask them about "anything" (which, in parental lingo, usually means sex and drugs) change the subject when children ask about God. And they do ask.
"Who are God's parents? Why is there evil in the world? Does God hear my prayers?"
The questions are the questions that parents ask. Are we satisfied giving our children an intellectual but not a spiritual education?
Questions about God are among the most urgent in our developing view on life. What do we wish our children to believe -- that they are accidents of ancient chemistry or sparks of the divine? What becomes of them after death? Is there an overarching purpose to the world? Whatever one's philosophy on these matters, we owe our children an honest and searching discussion.
Children are taught they are important -- but why are they important? Ask your children why they matter. I have asked thousands of children, "Why are you important?" The usual answers are: "I get good grades"; "I am good at sports"; "I have a nice job" (or boyfriend, or girlfriend); "My parents love me." All these answers spell trouble, because are all based on something human, and everything human can change. Are we always going to be the brightest in the class, or have that boyfriend, or feel our parents' love? Do you really want your child's self-esteem to be based on your emotions? Is there no unvarying basis for self-worth?
What if we could say, "All those things are wonderful, but beyond all that, you matter because you are made in the image of God"? What if we could say, "There is an essence in you that is only yours -- your divine spark. That never changes." Not only have we given a constant basis of self-esteem -- but a non-comparative basis. If I am important because my parents love me, what does that teach me about the child whose parents do not love him, or who has no parents? But everyone is a unique, sacred spark.
Teaching children about God is a way of giving a firm footing to their spiritual life. Below are a few guidelines for initiating a conversation that can be as intimate as any between parents and children:
1) Ask. Studies show that almost all children by the age of six have some developed concept of God. Ask them. Do not allow your own preconceptions to determine the range of their curiosity -- let them think, speculate, dream, imagine. Children will grow in their understanding, but only if we do not cut off conversation by dictating the "truth" or by evading the issue.
2) Tell stories. Stories encourage children to form concepts of character. To learn about God, tell the stories of the Bible, the midrashic legends, incidents from your own life. Children are less adept at manipulating abstract concepts than they are at understanding concrete operational ideas. Along with stories, use descriptive language: Rather than "God knows everything," try to be operational: "God is the one who helps us to grow."
3) Bring God into everyday life. Tell your children that God loves them. Explain that the world is filled with the bursting wonder of God's presence. Prayer is a way of expressing connection and gratitude.
4) Do not be defensive at challenges. Thinking children -- especially once they enter into adolescence -- will challenge our religious ideas. That is a sign of thoughtfulness. When we are angry or defensive, we show our own insecurities, our unease with the religious ideas we profess. Welcome the challenge -- recognize that there are many good reasons to doubt God's existence or benevolence. Engage in a dialogue, not a diatribe.
5) Learn good answers. There are no definitive answers to difficult questions, but there are good ones. Try not to fall into the trap of giving facile answers that may satisfy a six-year-old but which will be transparently unacceptable when the child is older and more sophisticated. It is better not to be understood yet than to misrepresent the complexity of the issues. Still, in many cases hard questions can be addressed very early: "If God dwells everywhere, is he in my pocket?" The appropriate answer to this is to explain the difference between physical and non-physical objects. The wind is invisible, but physical. Love is intangible. Ask a child, "Where is love?" You cannot point to it, but you can feel it. The same is true with God.
Difficult questions about God have been discussed throughout the centuries. Not all of the answers will satisfy, but our aim is not answers but spiritual growth. Allow yourself to be open to the directions that spiritual exploration can take you. Once again, as so often, through teaching our children, we learn.