How to Answer Your Child's Big Questions

All these years, I've been listening to your questions more closely than you can possibly imagine. They are my questions, too. Like you, I have been asking them all my life.
07/07/2016 04:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Several years ago, my son asked me what religion we were and I blurted out, "We're nothing." I'd long ago left the Christianity I grew up in and my husband had left his Jewish faith. We weren't religious anymore, but what were we? I knew instantly that I needed a better answer for my son, my family, and myself. I began to explore how we could create a sense of meaning and belonging outside the traditional framework of organized religion, an exploration that resulted in my first book. The epilogue of the book is this letter to my children:

Dear William, Jessica, and Anne,

For years you've been asking me the big questions. Like miniature Greek philosophers, Catholic theologians, or Buddhist monks, you walk up to me as I wash dishes or unpack groceries or sit paying bills and toss out one of your big questions: What is God? Who named everything? Who were the parents of the first people? What happens when we die? What's the meaning of life? Why are we here?

I take a deep breath and narrow my gaze. There's so much to say, and I fear I know so little. Then I tell you to go brush your teeth, read a book, or get ready for bed. And I promise we will talk about it all later, when we have more time. This letter is that "later."

All these years, I've been listening to your questions more closely than you can possibly imagine. They are my questions, too. Like you, I have been asking them all my life. Every time I've given you that confused look or shunted you off to some chore or activity, I've been buying myself time to come up with better answers. But maybe that's been the problem all along: trying to convince myself that I could find the answers and share them with you. I can't. The truth is that I will never have clear answers for you about life's big mysteries.

What I have instead--after nearly five decades on this planet, untold hours pondering these questions, and several years actively researching and writing my book--are some ideas about life and how to live it. They are influenced by religion, humanism, science, literature, culture, society, the experiences I've had, and the people I've met. They are the silt caught in the sieve, the bits of wisdom I most want to share with you. I hope you will use them as a starting point along your own search for meaning.

1. Your life is a privilege. Live it well and seek to help others live well, too.

2. Find your people. Find friends who share your values, though not necessarily your beliefs. Welcome people of all faiths and no faith at all into your life. Grace comes in many forms, colors, and creeds, with and without God, and connecting with others is one of our greatest sources of meaning.

3. Learn the religious stories. You don't have to believe them, but they are a part of your heritage and history, whether you embrace religion or not. Be curious about them. Figure out what they may have meant to your ancestors and what they mean to people today. See if the values they embody apply to your life in some way.

4. Study the rich history of nonbelief. Learn about the doubters and atheists and secular humanists who have likewise shaped our world, often at their peril. They, too, are part of your heritage.

5. Mark time with ritual. Celebrate Passover and Hanukkah, Christmas and Easter, Kwanzaa or Eid, or all of them. These rituals help us feel connected through time to those who've come before us and those who will come after. Create new holidays--solstice parties, harvest festivals, weddings, baby-namings--that speak to who you are and who you want to be.

6. Open yourself to awe and wonder. Visit art museums, walk through nature, read great poetry. Pay attention to the mundane: Notice the cracks in the sidewalk, the green of the leaves. Marvel at the full harvest moon low in the autumn sky, the two-week-old baby in her mother's arms, the bursts of playground laughter piercing the air across the street. Don't get so busy that you forget we are all living in a mystery.

7. Never stop seeking more knowledge. Science discovers new things about the world every day. Artists and writers create works that inspire us. Learning is one of life's greatest pleasures. You can never know everything, but adding any new dimension of knowledge makes our lives more complete. Challenge yourself to think about issues from all angles. Treat your own skepticism with curiosity. Learn more about the very things you are most apt to dismiss.

8. Connect to a larger purpose through work that is bigger than you. The documentary film you are making in high school is really about good versus evil. That novel you are reading teaches you how to connect to others. Someday you will choose a career. Pursue not just what you love and are good at but also something that has a bigger message, that matters to the wider world.

9. Contemplate death. We don't know why we are here, but we do know we will die. We all have a finite time on this earth. Don't be afraid of death. Instead, realize that it gives life urgency and makes each moment matter more. We can soothe our fear of death, through acknowledgment and acceptance, through our own rituals, and through knowing that our mortality is what makes life valuable.

10. Create your own grace. Christians believe that it is God who grants us grace, but I believe we create it for ourselves, through persistence, awareness, and clear-eyed reflection. Grace comes from knowing that to be alive and conscious in this world is a rare gift. If we are open to it, we can see that there is grace all around us, with or without God.