My princess is newly three but yet has the ability to come across much older in her conversation. She is articulate beyond her years, and although she often exhibits age appropriate behavior (less tactfully spoken -- she can throw major tantrums and fits with the best of them), in many ways raising her feels like raising a child years beyond her biological age. At bedtime tonight I was rocking my little princess and she was chatty and engaged. I decided to broach a subject that I have never before addressed with her: the existence of God.
I knew the day would come and it isn't that I have been dreading it, per se -- I have just been delaying it. I think the concepts and explanations of a deity can be incredibly complex. As I have previously written, I am very opposed to the practice of early childhood indoctrination. Nonetheless, sometimes life situations force us to face things that we would much rather avoid. Over the holiday we visited our family in Northern California. Before the family dinner everyone held hands and bowed their heads to pray. This is customary in many families on holidays, devoutly religious or not -- but in our little family of four... it simply is not. Naturally then, when instructed to bow her head to pray, my 3-year-old broke the reverent silence loudly: "Mommy! What are we doing?!" she hissed.
Well. If they didn't already know we are heathens, they did right then.
Couple that instance with the upcoming visit of my mother who is so devout she has practically attained sainthood -- I knew it was time to take the plunge.
"Sissy. I need to talk to you about something."
"Okay, Mommy," she said, shifting on my lap.
"You know how I told you that saying 'Oh my God!' hurts some people's feelings?"
"Oh yes! We can say 'Oh goodness!' instead. That doesn't hurt people's feelings, right?"
"Right. Do you know why saying 'Oh my God' hurts some peoples feelings?"
"The reason why saying 'Oh my God!' hurts some peoples feelings is because some people believe in God. I mean... (pausing to collect my thoughts. I really should have thought this through more before I blurted it out.) The reason why saying 'Oh my God!' hurts some people's feelings is because some people have an invisible friend who they call God. Well, some people call him other names too, like Jesus or Allah. Do you know what invisible means? Invisible -- in other words, 'it cannot be seen'."
"Oh, yes, invisible." She responds confidently.
"You know how we can't see the wind, but we can feel it blowing our hair, or we can see it moving the palm trees? Watch, (blowing on her hand) you can feel the air blowing on your skin, but can you see it?"
"No! I can't see the wind, Mommy!"
"Right, Baby. That's because the wind is invisible. You can't see the wind but you know it's there because you can see and feel it. That is what invisible means."
"Yeah. Invisible... Like if I stand behind that wall and you can't see me, I am invisible. Right Mommy?"
"Right! Very good, Sissy. That's right. If I can't see you, you are invisible."
"Ok, Mommy. Let's try it. I am going to stand over there and you can't see me, and we can practice invisible." She hides behind her bed.
"Where is Sissy?! I can't see her! Okay... So, some people have an invisible friend, in other words -- a friend that they can't see, and some people call them 'God,' or 'Jesus.' Some people believe that the invisible God is real and some people do not. Some people believe that God is pretend just like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny is pretend."
"Yeah. Santa Clause isn't real Mommy. Santa Clause is just pretend. He's just a fun part of Christmas."
"That's exactly right, Baby. And you know how some kids really, really believe that Santa Claus is real? Well, some people also believe that their invisible God is really, really real."
"I have an invisible friend, Mommy. Her name is Alice. Alice is right there." She points across the room speaking with confidence about her favorite invisible companion.
"Yes. So is Alice real or pretend?"
"Alice is pretend, Mommy."
"That's right. Alice is pretend. But some people choose to believe in their invisible friend named God, and some people do not. Mommy does not choose to believe that the invisible friend, God, is real, but some people do."
"Yeah. I choose to believe he is real, Mommy."
"Okay, Baby. That's okay. You know who else believes in God?... Your Grandma."
"Yes. Grandma has an invisible friend just like me!"
"When someone talks to their friend God or Jesus, they call it praying. When they want to talk to their invisible friend, they pray. (pausing) Sissy, what does 'invisible' mean?"
"Invisible is like Alice."
"That's right. And what does 'pray' mean?"
"I don't know."
"Pray means that someone is talking to God, or Jesus... or Allah... there are lots of other names that people call him. Or her. There are lots of names for their invisible friend, and when they talk to them, they are praying. And so, when Grandma comes to see us, she is probably going to be talking to her friend Jesus a lot. Grandma believes in her invisible friend, God and Jesus. Mommy does not. But you know how some people choose to eat meat and some people do not? Well, Mommy does not chose to eat meat, and that's okay. Some people choose to eat meat, and that's okay too... Some people choose to believe in God, and that is also okay. Do you understand?"
"Yeah! Grandma has an invisible friend like Alice!"
She's a genius. I swear, my daughter is a genius.
As I walk through this parenthood journey, I have decided that I would rather my children be free thinkers. More than being atheists, more than being vegans, more than being anything else -- I want my children to develop the ability to think. The age of three is an awfully early age to pose such in-depth concepts as the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception, but my daughter is certainly mature enough to start grasping concepts of real vs. pretend, and belief vs. non-belief. Most importantly, she is never too young to start instilling tolerance into her lens of life.
There are many views in this world, many beliefs, many convictions, and many ways of thinking. I look forward to exposing my children to different trains of thought, at age appropriate moments and intervals, and as they are prepared to grasp them. I have given a lot of thought to my sole purpose as a parent. Is my intention to turn out plant-eating atheists? Would I love them any less if they were Bible-believing omnivores?
No. The answer is indisputably and firmly no.
There are enough of us already that carry an overwhelming amount of guilt for not turning out to be exactly as our parents planned and programmed us to be.
Instead, with my children, I wish not to teach them what to think, but rather how to think. I want my children to grow with a healthy awareness of the facts, and I want them to ask questions. Oh, do I want them to ask questions! I hope that "why" is their mantra, and that "how" is a path that leads them on a journey to discovery. I pray -- if a plant-eating atheist can borrow the expression -- that my children turn out to be great thinkers who never take a fact at face value and who, after leaving no stone unturned, can stand confidently on their own convictions. Raising children such as this would truly be life's greatest work.