When Kids ask about God

Dear Rachel,
I’ve got a “High-Holiday Unintended Consequences” dilemma. We love shul for the traditions, the community, and the special moment marking a passage and taking stock. But we aren’t God-fearing people; not even God-believing. I am in the agnostic range; my husband is an atheist. Our five year old came back from services this year full of God questions (at least he was paying attention!): Who is God? Why do we talk to him? Does He ever answer? What does God look like? Where is He? How can He hear us if, as one friend said, “He is up in the super high skies”?

We want to be honest about our beliefs but we don’t want to squash his…  What do we say?

Dear somewhere on the agnostic-atheist continuum,
What a great question! It reminds me of when my son came home from his first day of Kindergarten (at Tehiyah Day School) and asked: ”Who is this God? And why do they keep talking about him?”

Many thoughtful parents, up-to-date on all child development matters, would rather talk about where babies come from than about God.  Perhaps because the babies question they can answer with scientific facts, whereas the God issue is all a matter of belief.  Young children exposed to the idea of a loving God watching over them can find a lot of comfort in it (while for others it’s scary).  It seems like a natural extension of their family experience.  A close friend’s son was talking with my daughter about God and what they believed at age four.  He said: “I believe in a father, a mother, and a baby.”  And mind you, he was a 100% good Jewish boy!

As with every challenging topic, my suggestion is you start by finding out what your child already knows and thinks, and what and why he wants to know.  Let’s assume that it is, in your case, related to what your son heard in shul.   Is he wondering if there is someone “up there” watching him?  Is that reassuring - someone protect him? or frightening- someone sees his every move and secret thoughts?  Is this really about normal developmental anxieties about his safety or part of a developing scientific understanding that things exist if you can see and/or measure them?

Secondly, make it clear early in this conversation that this is a topic where different people have different ideas.  Since everybody agrees that you cannot see/touch/measure God (apologies to certain medieval Jewish Kabbalists), people have different opinions.  Explain the difference between a fact and a belief.

Finally, your child will most probably want to know what you believe and is likely to want to agree with you.  Stay true to your views without imposing them in a heavy-handed way.  I told my son (abbreviated here): “God is an imaginary being that some people believe in and think watches over the world, and some people don’t.  We don’t, but you can believe whatever seems right to you.”  Mind you, “imaginary beings” were totally real to him! Be they superheroes, evil magicians and wicked witches they lived vividly in his mind.

We also discussed other things that you can feel but not see, such as love, pride or fear.

My daughter, on the other hand, filled me in on her theology without prompting (after that conversation with her friend). She had a whole system worked out: when people died their bones became telephones through which they communicated with God and the living. The bones served those alive as well: you could talk with the dead through them, even though she knew perfectly well the bones were buried underground. You could also use them to find out anything you wanted to know and see your relatives and friends who were far away. She later dubbed it “Tele-bone.” Did she anticipate the iphone? Did we miss our chance for a patent?

Seriously, though, this conversation is very important! Do leave your child ample room to form his/her own beliefs, and do present your views in a way that does them justice. If your child shows a lot of curiosity, arrange for him to speak with a rabbi, preferably (but not all do…) one who believes in God.

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Rachel Biale - Parenting Counseling