Ten Commandments for Talking About Religion With Kids

Kids ask parents over 300 questions a day. Every two minutes 36 seconds, on average. 105,120 questions a year. That’s the finding of a recent survey in Britain involving 1000 moms with children between ages two and ten.

Can you believe it? (I can hear weary voices out there agreeing….)

Questions like, “Why is water wet?”

“What are shadows made of?”

“Why do we have to go to school?”

Even: “Why are you so old?”

But perhaps the most awkward of all are religious questions. As in,

“How did the world come to be?”

“What will happen to us when we die?”

“Why are we here?”

“How should we behave?”

These are questions people have asked forever, and the answers go on to be the basic building blocks of all the great disciplines of culture.

But the questions are awkward because we might be wrestling with the very same ones ourselves. The kids want answers but we’re still thinking, we’re not done yet. Or, we’re not sure how to be honest about what we think and, at the same time, ensure that they have room to decide for themselves. Or, it’s not so much the kids we’re worried about as other conservative family members and their answers, which they would love to impose on us. And so on.

Thus today’s sermon: 10 commandments for talking about religion with kids. Now, I know we are Unitarian Universalists, so maybe it’s more “the 10 suggestions.” Whether commandments or suggestions, I believe they can provide helpful guidance in this awkward place in lots of people’s lives, all to the end of children learning how to engage the world more creatively and to not get stuck along the way, intellectually and emotionally.

We want them to be free.

So here is the first commandment: Thou shalt tell, because “don’t ask don’t tell” is a disaster.

Between 2005 and 2007, sociologist Christel J. Manning interviewed 60 couples on their parenting strategies around incorporating religion into the lives of their kids, and by far the most common approach was silence. Saying nothing. Nada. The result is the word “God” coming up all the time but that word never makes an appearance at home or, if it does, anxious silence descends and the message sent is that religion is scary, wrong, and bad. Another result is kids growing up not knowing (for example) that Easter is a religious holiday, but then they hit college and that’s when the scales fall from their eyes and they feel betrayed. Yet a third result is that kids simply go elsewhere for answers, and all of a sudden you have liberal parents whose kids have been religiously hijacked and are now are worshipping at the fundamentalist church.

Parents who practice “don’t ask don’t tell” have their reasons, of course. They’re too busy with other things. They don’t want to be put into a position to lie or verbalize things that might get them in trouble. Or maybe they think religion is no big deal, not worth the trouble.

But is that true? Religion not worth the trouble? Wendy Thomas Russell, in her wonderful book Relax, It’s Just God, says, “Religion is everywhere we want to be. It’s in our art and architecture, music and literature, plays, poetry, and movies. It fills our history books and guides our politics. It’s the reason we get our weekends off. It’s on our money.” Religion is everywhere. For so many bad things (wars, racism, sexism, and on and on), we can blame some kinds of religion. But then there are other kinds of religion, and from those kinds, down through the ages, we have received wonderful things, beautiful things.

Religion IS a big deal. That’s why it won’t serve kids’ health to grow up neurotic about it. Being left in the dark won’t serve them well. Wandering off to fundamentalisms to get their questions answered is not something we want.

Thou shalt tell. The first commandment.

But now the second: Thou shalt answer honestly.

It’s important for kids to know that, at home, people can talk openly and respectfully about tough subjects. But parents can struggle when it comes to religion. One reason has to do with the unrealistic expectation that the nonnegotiable requirement is already having all the answers to life, the universe, and everything. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut.

But don’t we want our kids to be good question-raisers, rather than quick answer-givers? It means that in a Unitarian Universalist household, here are some perfectly acceptable things to say when the child asks the parent a question like, “What is God?” and the parent doesn’t have an answer ready to go. Say this: “I too have wondered about that.” Or, “I’m still working on that question. Here’s what I think so far.” Or “I don’t know, but it’s important, let’s find out together.” What this honesty accomplishes, by the way, is far more than kids feeling like they can trust parents. It’s also kids learning that religion is a lifelong search for truth and meaning. Let them see the seeker in you, and they will be seekers all their days.

Which leads to the third commandment: Thou shalt draw out what is already in kids in seed form.

The impulse to seek is already in them. Parents and religious educators don’t have to stress about putting it in there. My colleague the Rev. Victoria Safford illustrates this. “When I was nine or ten,” she says, “I found a dead deer in the woods. I saw the flies feeding on her open eyes and felt the silky roughness of her coat, forgetting all those warnings to never, ever touch a dead animal, not even with a stick. A child is made for wonder, not for hygiene. I pressed my living hand against the stiff carcass, smelled the black blood, lifted up the heavy hooves. I thought about death and how deer run, how they stand among spring trees, glance up, and disappear. That afternoon I learned as much about the sacred as I did in all my later classes in theology.”

No one’s religious life starts at zero. Kids very naturally have a sense of the sacred and a sense of paradox, a sense of curiosity. Five year olds wondering, “But who made God?” So the focus is on drawing this out, not introducing obstacles and complications but extending it, giving it voice.

And so the fourth commandment: Thou shalt answer creatively.

One of the best ways to draw out the seeker in kids is through books like Horton Hears a Who. Remember that Dr. Seuss book? In it, we meet a kind-hearted elephant named Horton, who lives in the Jungle of Nool. Horton’s a totally easygoing guy. He’s open to all kinds of stuff, so when he hears a tiny voice calling out to him, he doesn’t freak out. Instead, he meets the Whos, a whole city of people that he can’t exactly see, but he can certainly hear them. (Those big ears are coming in handy.) Just one problem. The other animals can’t hear the Whos, so they think he’s gone completely cuckoo. They mock him endlessly and threaten to snatch up his clover puff and destroy it. Not okay. In the end, Horton stands up for the Whos; the Whos make a huge ruckus allowing the other animals to hear them; their existence is finally verified; and it’s a happy ending for all.

Read a book like this, and both your mind and that of your child are creatively engaged. That’s what we want. The opposite of boring. Books like Horton Hears a Who make key religious questions effortless. When you know something, how do you prove it to someone else? Can you (should you) believe something that you can’t see or touch or even hear? Do you believe something like that? Is it right for others to act in hurtful ways towards someone who believes something they don’t agree with?

Philosophy and theology don’t just belong in college classes. They can happen on the living room floor with the right book and a willingness to follow the questions. They absolutely can.

But now the fifth commandment: Thou shalt answer respectfully.

Here we want to consider yet another children’s picture book, entitled No! That’s Wrong! By Zhaohua Ji [JOW HUA GEE] and Cui Xu [TSWE HSU]. The book tells the tale of a bunny who finds a pair of underpants blowing in the wind and determines they must be a hat. After all, his ears fit perfectly through the little leg holes. He’s hopping around the animal kingdom, underpants on his head, and his animal kingdom friends think it’s great. But now he hears a voice: “No! That’s wrong!” And that voice comes from US, the readers, for in this book, there’s no wall dividing the fictional animal kingdom and the real world of the reader. Little bunny hears us and we peer pressure him into putting on the underpants correctly. His tail doesn’t fit, the underpants are uncomfortable. His animal kingdom friends think he’s getting it all wrong. After looking at himself in the glassy surface of a lake, the bunny takes off the underpants and puts them back on his head. “No, I was right!” he says, hopping merrily along. “It’s a wonderful hat!”

There can be significant reasons, in others words, that people hold different religious beliefs. Whatever those reasons happen to be, if the result is something irrational or hateful or harmful we are absolutely justified in speaking up and protecting ourselves and others. But beyond that—to name call, degrade, dehumanize—this is when, as parents and religious educators, we stumble. For one thing, nasty language serves to indoctrinate our kids. They get the clear message that if they don’t believe as you do, they’re next. For another thing, they become agents of indoctrination themselves, bullies. This is not freedom. This is not true to our values as a freedom people.

Which leads us to commandment number six: Thou shalt teach a “no one left out” vision.

I love how Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, articulates this through his focus on empathy education. “Empathy,” he says, “is the ability to understand how someone else feels — and, by implication, to care. It is the ultimate sign of maturity. Infants are, for their own adaptive good, entirely self-centered. But as we grow, our circle of concern and understanding enlarges, including first family, then one’s own community. But having developed empathy for those who are most like us, we too often stop cold, leaving the empathy boundary at the boundary of our own nation, race or creed – a recipe for disaster. […] Continually pushing out the empathy boundary is a life’s work. We can help our kids begin that critical work as early as possible not by preaching it but by embodying it. Allow your children to see poverty up close. Travel to other countries if you can, staying as long as possible until our shared humanity becomes unmistakable. Engage other cultures and races not just to value difference but to recognize sameness. It’s difficult to hate when you begin to see yourself in the other.” That’s Dale McGowan. His take on our “no one left out” vision as Unitarian Universalists, which is also our ARAOMC vision.

But even as we affirm that, we must also affirm the next commandment, Thou shalt teach boundaries.

“No one left out” is an ethical and compassionate stance that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all people. But in no way should it be misinterpreted to mean that we cannot take active steps to get out of harm’s way. And what’s abundantly clear is that for too many of us, we experience harm in the form of family criticism. They are hardcore in their belief if you don’t believe as they do. So they say such things as “Why do you hate God?” or “You’ve broken your mother’s heart” or “What did we do wrong?”

Even if it doesn’t get that bad, it can still feel difficult when a relative discusses their belief with your child. Even if the discussion simply reflects the honesty our Commandment Number Two affirms.

Wendy Thomas Russell has some important pointers for us here, which emphasize both respect for the other and taking care of one’s needs. “Often,” she says, “we see religious exposure and treat it as religious indoctrination, or we hear words of faith and interpret them as acts of war. Shed your armor. Adopt a loving posture instead of a defensive one.”

Also this:  “give your child a context in which to hear about Grandpa’s religion—or Cousin Suzie’s or Neighbor Bob’s. (An example: “Many people say that if you believe in Jesus, you will go to live with him in a place called heaven after you die. Grandpa believes that, which is part of the reason he wants you to believe what he does.”) Just be sure to encourage your child to share what he is learning with you; that way, you can keep track of what’s being said, correct misinformation, and balance things out as necessary.”

Wendy Thomas Russell also counsels parents to lower expectations; avoid religious debate (“especially when liquor is involved”), and, if all else fails, cut ties. It is regrettable, but sometimes it needs to happen. “No one left out” does not mean that you will allow yourself or those you love to be beat up. That’s not what “no one left out” means.

And now, we’re nearing the end of the commandments: number eight: Thou shalt show as well as tell.

Religion is caught more than taught. Light a candle and hold hands for a minute at night before bed. Have a moment of quiet or share something nice that happened that day. Rituals regularly engaged-in are so powerful in the spiritual nurture of children. So is walking in nature. I don’t know if you know how to pray. But when you say to your child, “Do you see that? Do you see the trees, the clouds, the flower, the animal, the lake, the sky, the sun? Do you see that, and isn’t it beautiful?”—when you say that, you are introducing your child to the age-old spiritual practice of praise, and by this all good things are magnified, and it IS a kind of prayer.

Commandment number nine: Thou shalt always bring it back to “does that make sense to you?”

We do want our kids to be good question-raisers, rather than quick answer-givers. And for the answers they do arrive at, we want those to be arrived at freely and thoughtfully.

So your kid comes home crying, saying that a so-called friend at school told her she was going to burn in hell for not believing such-and-so. After you hold your child, soothe her, and she’s ready to talk, this is what you say: “If someone is a nice person, and only does good things for other people, or tries to, do you think that person will go to some horrible place after he dies? Does that make sense to you?”

In critical thinking is freedom. Again and again, bring it back to “does that make sense to you?”

And now the final commandment, which is: Thou shalt always bring it back to Beloved Community.

Remember how kids ask parents over 300 questions a day? Every two minutes 36 seconds, on average? 105,120 questions a year? And lots of them religious questions?

That is overwhelming. No wonder the “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy is so tempting!

But the tenth and final commandment reminds us that we don’t have to go it alone in our parenting. There’s a larger WE possible, that supports us as we seek to follow the other nine commandments. That’s what sermons like this are for. That’s what religious education for all ages is for. That’s why we’re implementing the SuperCharged Sunday initiative starting in January of 2017, so we can expand our religious exploration offerings for adults.

We need the larger WE. Right here.

The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed puts it like this: “The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is to narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength is too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens, and our strength is renewed.”

Doesn’t matter what the questions turn out to be, or how many.

Together, we’re up to the task.