Explaining Religion to Children

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How to explain religion to my almost 4 year old?

April 2014

Dear BPN,

I'm hoping you'll have great suggestions for me! My husband and I were raised in a catholic family although our parents never had us attend to mass unless in was for wedding etc. The other day, we were passing by this gorgeous church downtown Oakland and my 3 1/2 yo asked me what it was. I told her it was a church. She said: Is it a place to go for lunch? And then... I tried to find the words to explain that some people go there to think about loved ones that are gone etc... Too complicated!!!!

Our view on spirituality is that we are non-religious persons believing that there is something or someone out there but we don't really know what/who and that religion were the answers to human about everything we couldn't understand or to control population. How to explain this? So far, we've managed Christmas (family holiday), Easter (Spring holiday) etc...

But the church thing I didn't know what to say...

Thanks for your helpful comment on this!
Non-religious Mom

I wouldn't make a big deal about the church. Show your child a mosque, a synagogue, the Friends' meeting house in North Berkeley, the Thai temple in South Berkeley, the zen center, the Buddhist church in Berkeley or SF. I read Greek myths to my kids when they were very young. Not all of them....some are pretty violent for a four year old. when my son was six he couldn't identify a church on a speech test which used pictures. I thought that was funny. It didn't particularly bother him because it didn't bother me. There are great collections of Norse myths, Japanese folk beliefs, and Irish mythology, etc. We presented religion as a set of beliefs like all kinds of other beliefs and myths. There is a wonderful Dorling Kindersly book titled children Just Like Me that describes real kids from all around the world: what they eat, their families, where they go to school, what they like to do, etc. It doesn't specifically address religion but the idea of differences between people with the similarities we all share as human beings. In that kind of context, beliefs are part of the landscape. good luck. love the Greek myths

As a non-religious person and a parent of two children, know that this is the first of many questions you are going to get about religion. Check out the book Parenting Beyond Belief, which address this and many questions about raising kids without religion or structured belief system. Shannon

Consider simply explaining, as matter-of-factly as you can, what the church is for. I was not raised Catholic, but I married a fairly observant Catholic woman. So I do go to church with her (and now our daughter) fairly regularly, but I have a pretty secular view of religion (similar to yours). I would try something like this:

''Church is a place where some people go to think about how they've acted toward others. They think about whether they've been nice to people or not nice to people, and they try to remind themselves to be nicer to everyone. They also think about all the good things that they have in their life, and they think about how lucky they are to have those things.''

If you're not ready to talk about the idea of god, then that might be a fair way to explain what church is all about. anon

Hi there! Seems like what you described to us about your beliefs would suffice just fine! It's pretty much what I've been telling my kids all along, too. I think it's important to express to our kids that we all believe different things, and that's ok! You can tell her that some people believe (insert word choice here...Divine? God? Creator?) lives in the sky. Some believe there is no God, some believe, etc... And that people who believe the same things get together to celebrate their beliefs. (BTW, A Universalist church might interest you.) I think being open and unguarded is key. She'll take her queues from you, so if you're open minded and open hearted, she will be too. preachers daughter

I'm a chaplain, so I get asked fairly often how I define religion and spirituality. In all my professional years, the best definitions I've heard came from Micheal Rabow, a Palliative Care MD at UCSF. Here's what he says... Spirituality comes from the Latin word for breath. It is intrinsic to being human, just like breathing. It is our natural human inclination to find the purpose of our lives, define the meaning of our lives, to figure out what is right and what is wrong, to experience love and connection with something/someone larger than us, to wonder about what happens after this life, etc. Religion comes from the Latin word meaning ''tied up'' or bound together. Sometimes, for some of us, our spiritual journeys lead us to answers (or our upbringing provides us with answers) that are similar to others' answers. In this case, we may bind ourselves together with these people and explore our answers together. This is religion. So, if it feels comfortable to you, I would explain these concepts in language your 4yo can understand, and then simply say that people of a particular religion go to a church to be together. Your answer can become apporpriately more complex as your daughter grows older. Hope that helps

As a practicing Catholic, it is very hard for me to read postings such as yours - I could be wrong, but you seem to nonchalantly blow off all religions as something that was used to explain things when we didn't have science, or to control population. Please don't pass those views onto your daughter; they're incorrect, as well as being pretty dismissive.

Instead, I would urge you to go the library and look under the call number 200 in the Children's section. You'll find lots of non-fiction books on various religions. Check a few out that seem to be at her level, and read them to her. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, even the much-maligned Catholicism. Then she can get a general idea of what different religions teach and hold sacred. She may never become a Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian, but she will be able to speak about them with respect, which is important, I think. So much of what most of us know about various religions are half-truths at best; at the very least, we need to educate our kids on the basics so they can learn to be more tolerant of various people's beliefs.

Thanks for hearing me out, and best wishes on your journey. Happy Catholic

If I were not religious I would tell my child at that age that many people believe in God, who they believe is a heavenly father who loves and created the universe, and that they go there to pray to him and ask for his help. Next question would be ''what is heaven'' and you could say that it's a beautiful place where people go when they die. You could say that you do not believe these things, and that is why you do not go to church (or temple, or mosque, etc.) Buddism is very different in that people are not worshiping a heavenly father, but are trying to better themselves spiritually. I dont think there is anything at all wrong or age inappropriate in saying this, and it's good to give a child honest answers when possible, and not hem and haw.

Since I am a Catholic, I told my children that there IS a God, not that there might be. But if I were not a believer, I would explain what other people believe, but hopefully not say things like ''they believe God lives in the sky'' or anything like that. God lives everywhere, according to the faithful. Also religion is a serious, deep, purposeful and soulful practice not merely an attempt to control people and populations. Please teach your child respect about different aspects of their lives that they will encounter, as you would teach them to respect gay people, if you are not gay. love innocent kids

5.5 year-old son is asking about God

Oct 2007

My 4.5 year old son has been asking about God. It started with ''how do you make trees, how do you make seeds, how do you make rain'', etc. Our conversations have led to talking about God and death. We are not part of an organized religion or church, however, I was raised Catholic. I want my son to believe in God and prayer, but he gets very frustrated when he doesn't understand how God can do all these things but yet not be an actual person. Does any one have any suggestions? I looked at the archives, but most responses seem to be related to explaining death, and our conversations have been about the more general questions of God. To complicate things, since it's near Halloween he is very interested in spirits and ghosts, and God seems to fall into that category for him. Thanks! Help!

Kids are smart and thoughtful, as you know. For me it worked best to skip the whole personification of God to begin with -- it's counter-intuitive, because I think traditionally have thought that it's easier to conceive of God as a person. But with a bright kid, I think it's better to talk about God as a power in the universe, the power that makes love and life (which in human experience are best imagined as linked) and light as well as darkness. God as energy, God as the thing that makes your heart beat and flowers grow and eyes see. My son had difficulty as he grew older with the conflict set up in our society between science and religion, but the power idea helped in that regard. Good luck in trying to explain the inexplicable! on the journey

Start talking more about Jesus with your son. Take him to church, where the focus of prayer and discussion is Jesus. As a Catholic, you understand that Jesus was an actual person, but also the Son of God. I suspect your son would not be 'very frustrated' with how a non-human God created all things, if he knew more about Jesus. You're very welcome in any Catholic church, regardless of whether you've been to Church in 20 yrs or more (no one would really care to know anyway). The practicality is, relatively few of the young and middle aged Catholics who do attend church attend regularly. Your family would be like many others, and as welcome as any! I do go to Catholic Church fairly regularly, but only since starting a family. For kids from ages 5, there is usually a Sunday-school like 'Liturgy of the Word' during mass, which they love. They learn about Jesus, prayer, the rites of the Church etc, prepare for Communion (2nd grade) but mostly about respect, family, love and the things we generally have little time to sit down and talk about with our kids. And they get to draw and read with other kids during the mass instead of having to sit still and be quiet. My two young sons really enjoy Church now, and through the Liturgy of the Word, they really get how the stories of Jesus and the activities of the Church are positive models for daily life.

I found some great children's books that address the concept of God and how it differs between cultures and faiths at the store Sagrada in Temescal. I struggled with the same issue especially because I was raised atheist/agnostic and my partner was raised Catholic. I didn't mind introducing the idea/possibility of a higher being but didn't want my daughter to end up w/ the image of God as a white bearded old man. anon

I think you need to find a nice little church! this being the bay area, I'll bet you could find a catholic church that isn't too overbearing or traditional. Or you could choose a less loaded version of the Christian religion. I've got a soft spot for Episcopalians, myself. Maybe you post again asking specifically for groovy churches in the area.

As a person of faith myself, I know it can be hard in this area to say ''I'm sending my kid to sunday school.'' People look askance, ask if you're brainwashed, treat you like a bible-thumping, Bush-loving automaton. Ignore their bigotry. Faith has nothing to do with politics. Just look at Jimmy Carter, Anne Lamott, and Stephen Colbert. Religious wingnuts, every one of 'em!

I have lots of ideas. One is that you share your excitement about it. Wow, it is amazing that God made the trees! I don't know how He did it either! And then you can go on and explain about biology and how it all works i.e. seeds, soil, rain, sunlight etc.. which of course God made as well. My son is really into superheros and relating God as the only REAL superhero works for him. He is just so big & strong & powerful that He can do anything! And no one really knows how he did it. Isn't that amazing? I also try to explain what is real & what is not real even though that concept takes a long time to figure out. Ghosts & goblins are just stories that somebody made up for fun but God is real. But He is invisible most of the time.

As far as prayer goes, I try to pray with my kids at meals and at bedtime. Mostly, thanking God for the day and the fun things we did but also for concerns, Daddy coming home safely, having a good night's sleep etc. You can ask him if there is anything he wants to pray about. Make these prayers very short & to the point & fun. I give my son a piggyback ride while we pray at night. We pray for other little children that don't get dinner-that they can get one tomorrow etc. Also,I would talk about God as a friend who loves us so much. In fact, saying that God loves your son so much that He gave him you---Mommy. I think focusing on how much God loves him is probably a good way to go. I hope this helps. If you would like to talk more please feel free to e-mail me directly. b.b

There's a nice book called ''Because Nothing Looks Like God.'' It's by a rabbi's wife but it's not blatantly Jewish. It just says things like - God is like the wind; you can't see the wind but you can see what it does. That might help him find a way to think about God. BTW, why not take him to church if you want him to have a spiritual life? Teaching little kids about these big ideas isn't so easy. Your priest or minister or religious school educator will know how to do it. I know a woman who is an Early Childhood Educator in the Jewish community and she described how kids learn spiritual concepts at various ages. At 4.5 yrs she would say he is learning thru stories.

If you find a like minded community it will be a lifelong source of support and affirmation for your child -- and you! Best of luck. a Jewish mom

I applaud you son for asking EXCELLENT questions. Sounds like a smart little bugger. Maybe you should try explaining that god doesn't exist since s/he/it doesn't exist, except in the realm of Halloween fairy tales. Explore your desire to want him to believe in god. Why would you want a child to believe in something that doesn't exist? Or use the santa claus stategy. Say he exists until your child is about 6 and then say, surprise, only kidding. Finally, because god did in fact not make trees and seeds, explain to your son some basic biological/natural facts and he will be able to grasp them because they are real. A little basic genetics will be good for him even though he won't understand everthing of course. Since god doesn't exist he will never understand god, as adults who mistakenly believe in god (or the green flying cookie monster or Thor the god of thunder) also do not understand god. They simply believe in god. They don't ever seek to ''understand'' god. Finally, if your son persist in not understanding your explanations of god, answer him honestly by saying, ''I don't really understand it myself honey.'' Or, ''Maybe god doesn't exist, buy many people believe he does.'' or ''No one has ever been able to explain how god could make a tree or the sun. He just makes them with god magic, although most rational beings do not believe in magic. Want a cookie, hon?'' sean

Keep in mind faith is very different from reason. Belief in God doesn't explain how the world works or how it was created. How do you explain love? Does it make sense? Neither does God, but we believe in love. Teach your child about God through wonder, awe, and love, and for those questions and seeds and trees and rain, get a good kid's science book. I like the DK series (Doris Kinderling). They have great pictures a 4.5 year old will enjoy, but he won't outgrow them for years. You can check out www.us.dk.com -- there's also a great selection at Dark Carnival on Claremont near Star Grocery. Fran

There many Kid friendly service of all kinds, A great book is on the Day you were Born. and There is a lovely spiritual book store with kid books on Telegraph in Temisal It starts with an S. That has really good books. I was raised Jewish and now practuse Wicca and my daughters father is a receiving Catholic and patcutse nothing. She has gone to everything and will continue to and she a two. God is everywhere and in everything. Do No Harm. Every-night We say the Divine Light invocation... I am created by Divine Light, sustain, protected, becoming, I am Divine Light and WE Om to release energy. She likes that lot. The most important thing I tell her is everyone has there own understanding of God and non are wrong. The Unitaternies in Berkeley are very open and love kids. I try them first. JewWitch Mom

Didn't grow up with religion, want to introduce kids to spirituality

April 1999

My husband and I did not grow up with any exposure to organized religion. I suppose we're both agnostics. We've been thinking a lot about how to introduce and integrate the area of spirituality into our young daughter's life. We're wondering how other parents who received little formal exposure to religion as children are handling this issue with their own small children.

Also, we're considering visiting some local churches/temples just to get a feel for them. We're looking for places that are as bias-free as possible (eg. we would not be comfortable with anti-gay messages). We are also looking for a place that has a good ethnic and cultural mix of folks (we're Asian). Any suggestions? Thank you.

  • Newman Hall: Holy Spirit Parish, corner of Dwight Way and College Avenue, Berkeley
  • Epworth United Methodist Church of Berkeley, 1953 Hopkins
  • Berkeley Zen Center, 1929 Russell
  • Montclair Presbyterian Church, 5701 Thornhill Drive
  • Siddha Yoga Meditation Ashram, 1107 Stanford Avenue (int ersection with San Pablo Avenue)

    Let me also recommend the book RAISING SPIRITUAL CHILDREN IN A MATERIAL WORLD: Introducing Spirituality into Family Life, Phil Catalfo. ISBN: 0-425-14954-4 (I bought my copy at Gaia Bookstore).

    To the person interested in exposing children to religion and/or spirituality. You might want to check out the First Unitarian Church of Oakland ....
    I grew up in a Lutheran household, though I am not attending any church at this time. One church that you might be interested in if you haven't been exposed to organized religion and are looking for more of the spiritual and community aspects of religion is the Unitarian Church in Kensington . The church sends out a newsletter from time to time, and I know a member of the congregation. What I gather from reading the newsletter and talking to the member of the congregation is that the church is more about bringing people together and breaking down barriers than it is about worshiping a god. I do not believe that you would find _any_ kinds of biases at the church. My impression is that it is church and community that embraces everyone.