How do you deal with a curious 5 year old?
June 27, 2005 8:33 AM   Subscribe

How do you deal with religion and children? My wife and I are not really religious, I was bought up as a Catholic - but reached 13 or 14 with serious doubts and left religion behind, I'm curious and and understanding of beliefs and faiths. My wife is a confirmed non-believer, and had no religious upbringing - so struggles with explaining all of the questions. My five year old son however... at a school that is multi-faith, but seems to have given him a real curiosity for going to church (the local protestant/Church of Englang parish) and believing in God. He asks all the relevant and salient questions which I can field (do you believe in God daddy? did God make me?), but I'm not sure whether I should encourage him...he even wants to GO to church.

At the weekend we went to a wedding, and the Reverend at the church ended up hearing my sons school 'prayer', and encouraging him to come to church - which caused a minor issue when it wasn't possible on the Sunday morning (logisitically not morally - I'd be happy to take him to see it).

My wife and I had always planned to bring him up aware of religion and faith - and hopefully equipped to make a choice when he is ready - I'm not sure that 5 years old is ready. I don't want to discourage him, but I also don't want to lead him down a path I cannot support.

How have other parents/guardians dealt with the religious questions at home? Are there any good resources or books that will support either us as parents, or my son during this time.

He's 5 - and can read very well, which is useful if there is a good recommended book on this subject.
posted by mattr to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know how much this helps, but my mom is lapsed-Catholic/nothing. When I was your son's age and asked the religious questions, she would explain the various options (some people think X, some Y)--it seems your son gets this at school--and then ask me what I thought. When I tried to get her opinion, she just turned it back on me. When I wanted to go to church with friends or my grandmother wanted to take me to Mass, that was fine. I floated in and out of beliving in things, and somewhere in my teens made up my mind for good.

Generally, I think if you just let him explore and focus your discussions of religion on his ideas, things will work out fine. And remember, just because he has seemed to decide on something when he's five doesn't mean it'll mean anything when he's six.
posted by dame at 8:52 AM on June 27, 2005

I think you'd have a hard time finding books targeted at that age that don't have a vested interest in promoting faith in general and probably a specific one as well. In fairness, I doubt the most advanced five-year-old has the depth of critical thinking skills and discrimination to compare the values of various religions. If religion exists to inform and guide our daily lives, what would a kid know about what daily life even is yet?

At his age I expect the things really calling to him are the sense of community and belonging and the ritual. I think your trepidations are fair - you don't want your kid to get pulled into a group selling a certain belief structure that you don't agree with or be funding his e-meter sessions for the next thirteen years. (Un)fortunately I think your only solution may be to find something you find appealing and go with him.

If that puts you off, it's not as bad as all that. Religion has existed this long because it brings something of value to people's lives. The afformentioned community as well as some framework for people to live by. The trick is to avoid the jerkoffs and crap organizations. An AskMeFi thread earlier this month talked about the Quakers quite a bit or you can always go Unitarian (hear about the Unitarian hate crime? Someone stole the coffee pot.).

Perhaps some Joseph Campbell, either reading or the old PBS specials, would help you see some value in the process.
posted by phearlez at 8:53 AM on June 27, 2005

If he's looking for teaching and guidance, I'd say he's decided that he's ready!

You might look into your local Unitarian Universalist church, which is interfaith and non-dogmatic enough that it might be idealogically comfortable for and your wife.

(On preview, phearlez beat me to it...)
posted by desuetude at 8:59 AM on June 27, 2005

The book What is God? proved surprisingly helpful to us.
posted by youarejustalittleant at 9:03 AM on June 27, 2005

I wholeheartedly agree with Dame. I'm a non practicing Catholic married to an atheist. We have a 2 year old son that we plan to pretty much find his own way. He'll attend church with me (when I go) and we'll put him in Catholic school because the public schools here are pretty awful. I can answer a lot of his questions and the ones that I can't, I have friends of many faiths that can answer them.

Our goal is to give him all the information available (age appropriately) and let him make his own decision as an adult.
posted by hollygoheavy at 9:05 AM on June 27, 2005

My husband and I are fairly committed atheists, and his family are fundy Christians. Our three year old enjoys going to Sunday school with his aunts on occasion and can sing "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho". When he asks us questions, we say, "Well some people belive this and some people believe that". I think the biggest issue is to refrain from value judgements about the religion and try to make sure that he picks up on the good stuff-forgiving your enemies and whatnot.
posted by slimslowslider at 9:16 AM on June 27, 2005

Curiosity hits high gear around the first grade from our experience. I agree, being honest with your son's questions is a good thing. At this age, when your child asks you "Where'd I come from?" Parents usually stumble with the answer to the BIG question (when all he wanted to know is what city he was born in -g). What I'm trying to say is that simple and straightforward is best right now.

If you're looking for a good alternative to organized traditional religion you might try The Ethical Society.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 10:00 AM on June 27, 2005

Er... why not take a tour of churches. Go to a different church once a month. Maybe do some pre-study in the weeks before attending.

It'd be cool for him to find out how Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, etc. all worship, not to mention the gajillion variations on Christianity.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:21 AM on June 27, 2005

The important thing is to let your son work out for himself what he believes. It will take years or decades and he may change his mind along the way. Explain as honestly as you can what you and your wife believe and the reasons why you believe it.

Dan Barker is a former-minister-turned-atheist who has written children's books dealing with issues like these. I like Barker's writing, but I can't vouch for his children's books (yet, our son's just turning four).
posted by ldenneau at 10:22 AM on June 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

Parents usually stumble with the answer to the BIG question (when all he wanted to know is what city he was born in -g). What I'm trying to say is that simple and straightforward is best right now.

I think this is highly dependent on the kid, the same way questions of religion continue to be extremely personal throughout one's life, and there really are an enormous range of beliefs and understandings out there (it is definitely not just "yes" or "no" - even "no" has surprisingly many variations, and there are plenty of beliefs that come down much more in the "yes in this sense, no in that sense" realm).

Anyway. I have always assumed that death is the end of individual consciousness - I've never really understood how one could think anything different, and was confused as a child by the suggestion. My sister remembers me responding to her asking about what happens after death, when we were in elementary school; I somewhat dismissively explained that once you die you don't exist anymore, you're nothing - and this, she says, made her want to jump off the roof so she could find out what it would be like to not exist! So different kids will have different reactions to ideas and thoughts about these questions.

And I'll add, that even though I don't think individual consciousness extends beyond individual lives, that doesn't necessitate that I have no inkling for religion at all - I'm fascinated by philosophy & metaphysics, and certain spinozistic conceptions of "god" sit quite well with me, though I don't usually use the term because I think it confuses matters. But this is kind of my point, I guess, that this matter is quite confused already, just by the sheer range of possible interpretations...

I like fff's suggestion of doing a little browsing, personally, but it also depends how important this is to you, and what specifically he wants to get out of it (maybe he just likes the people or the songs at a particular institution). I would not worry that you'll be "leading him down a path you can't support" though - first of all, he's the one doing the leading, it seems; second, you don't have to support it - be honest about your own beliefs and let the reverends etc support the views they espouse; and third, he'll probably go in whatever direction he's gonna go whether you introduce him now or let him wait to do his own searching later... Details (jesus vs. krsna) will be different according to teaching, but a fundamental level of interest and degree of mysticism often seems to be a personality thing.
posted by mdn at 10:54 AM on June 27, 2005

No real ideas, I have two children ages 3 and 4.

My ex-wife is a non-practicing Catholic, and I was raised extraordinarily Catholic. I am a long standing agnostic myself. I do take both boys to church every week. If they ask questions, I tell them the fundamentals, but I don't believe myself, so it is difficult. I don't lie to them, but I know as a child, I found the ritual of Catholic mass comforting, and I still do.

I tried reading religious books during story time with my boys, but I found myself, just kind of choking on the words, I don't believe them, so why should I read them?

Why do I go to church then? Because I want my boys to reach their own conclusions on religion. Just like I did.
posted by patrickje at 11:11 AM on June 27, 2005

I am agnostic, my wife is an enthusiastic Episcopalian, our son is five. Our compromise is that she teaches the Jesus stuff, and I do not contradict her. The boy went through a very theological stage about a year ago--"Where does God live?" and etc.--and I retreated into transcendentalism. "God is in Nature," I told him. "So those trees are God?" "Yes."

This went well enough until one day in the car when he asked "Dad, was God's father a space alien?" I could not help my self. "Yes, he was," I told him.

My bottom line is that a compassionate, non-dogmatic version of religious faith is a good thing to have, especially when life gets tough, and I hope my son adopts my wife's faith rather than my own.
posted by LarryC at 11:33 AM on June 27, 2005

I think the biggest issue is to refrain from value judgements about the religion

My wife and I do not yet have children, but we've discussed this a bit. I'm not sure how one refrains from value judgments. Kids sense BS pretty well, and I think that if we took them to a church when we didn't believe it they'd get the wrong (right?) message. This is a hard question for me too, because although I am not a believer I know that there is some serious value to be had in the community aspects of church.

I also know that I loved books of Greek mythology when I was a kid but didn't have any illusions as to whether they were real or not. I somehow suspect that any child I have will get similar education about the modern myths as I did about the ancient ones.
posted by norm at 11:36 AM on June 27, 2005

I was raised in a household pretty much like what your son is experiencing. I don't even remember knowing about the idea of "God" until I was in preschool. Naturally, this made me curious, so I asked my mother to take me to some churches. We went to two or three different ones, and I was enthusiastic about it at first, but quickly realized what a complete load of bullshit it was. This was probably around the age of 6 or 7, and I've been an athiest ever since.

There's no reason to deny your child his curiosities. He will make up his mind when he's ready, and if he's got a good, intellectual role model like yourself then I suspect you don't have much to be anxious about. If I were in your position, though, I would make sure to talk to a prospective church's relevant officials about their philosophy on teaching religion to children- and if you get the impression that they stress the importance of fear extremely early on, keep your kid away!

It's also crucial that you teach your son the importance of science as soon as possible. If I was in your position I would take my kid to church, then take him out to lunch, and from there go straight to the science museum. There's a lot more wonder in the physical world of science than can ever be found in Christianity- and if you show that to your child, chances are in a year he'll be asking you to take him to see the dinosaurs instead of church.
posted by baphomet at 12:20 PM on June 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

Apparently the question of religion in childrearing was a big divider between my mom (Episcopalian) and my dad (agnostic/atheist). My mom would read to us from a children's book of Bible stories, but as far as I could tell, I basically saw the stories on the same level as the ancient myths, and God on the same level as Santa Claus. The agreed-upon compromise was that we could go to services along with any friends who invited us, so that we could learn what was available, but the only one I recall going to was at some scary fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist church, and I certainly didn't want to go again. Later, I did the usual early-20s questioning and cycled through Buddhism, Unitarianism, and Wicca, and now am back to being a big old atheist again.

That said, I think I would agree with a lot of the advice given above. Some people benefit from religion more than others, and it's fair to give the kid an understanding that religious expression is very important to some people, so long as he also is able to engage in critical thinking.
posted by matildaben at 12:57 PM on June 27, 2005

While people do decide not to be religious, it's a rare person who decides, in a reasoned what, to be religious. For someone who just keeps the religion they were raised in, there's no more decision to it than a decision to have blue eyes or brown. For someone who converts (including from an upbringing of agnosticism) its a lot more like falling in love. They won't be able to explain it in any way that makes sense for you, or that you'll be able to support in a truly unconditional fashion.

Now here's the hard part, and I've seen it happen: for the family of the prior (non)religion, the conversion doesn't come across like their daughter falling in love with the handsome doctor who says "yes, sir" and "no, sir" when he comes to take her out to the movies ... it's more like their daughter falling in love with the surly ex-con and STAYING in love with him after the first time he knocks her around a little.
posted by MattD at 1:11 PM on June 27, 2005

I know people have suggested UU and Quakers, both of which are excellent choices. If I were in the market, they would both be on my list.

However, I think that a 5-year-old might benefit from a more structured approach. I grew up Catholic but now am a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which is, for the most part, a pretty laid back mainline denom. (I say for the most part, because there is some variation between congregations, but I have had similar experiences on both coasts, the midwest and Texas.)

As a Presbyterian, I feel almost like a UU whose church has a baseline doctrine. I've questioned a lot of the basic assumptions of Chrsitianity such as the divinity of Jesus and the structure (and even validity) of the Trinity, and have been treated with understanding and respect in my search for answers. Even Presbyterians who accept the party line, lock, stock and barrel, will agree that questions of faith are healthy and lead to greater understanding.

My wife and I are raising two sons. The younger went through confirmation class about a year ago and joined the church at 14. The older one also went to the class- twice- and has chosen, for the time being, not to join. (He is more of a UU-leaner, maybe even agnostic.) He still attends regularly and is not treated any differently because he hasn't joined.

In our congregation, many of the members are like myself: raised in another denomination of Chrsitianity, but drawn to the intelligent, thoughtful and respectful approach toward faith of the Presbyterian Church.

A good way to explore different churches, if you're interested, is to take your son to Vacation Bible School at the various churches in an area (if they are popular where you live). You can meet the people and get a feel for what the church is like without any kind of commitment. It's getting late in the season for that here in Texas, but several churches still have VBS ahead of them this summer.
posted by Doohickie at 1:27 PM on June 27, 2005

For what it's worth, I'm an atheist who often wishes he was religious. It's not an option for me. This sometimes makes life hard -- particularly now when I'm at an age where I'm losing people. I know they are gone forever.

I have no idea (nor does anyone) whether I'm an atheist due to my upbringing or whether it's genetic (or a combination of factors). But I do know that my parents were dispassionate about God. God simply wasn't discussed much. There was no passion -- pro or con -- about religion. So there was nothing to follow; nor was there anything to rebel against.

I don't have kids, but if I did, I would want them to at least have the possibility of religious comfort. I think I would bring religion into my house. I would be honest with them, telling them I didn't believe in God. But I would still show them religion. I would show them the art, the music, the rituals. These thing can be appreciated (or hated) without belief.

Raise your kids with PASSION.
posted by grumblebee at 2:28 PM on June 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

When I was that age I found the myths of Christianity to be interesting. What I found was that the myths of other religions were so much more interesting, esp the very creative ones (Greek and Roman, in my case).
If that's a motivating factor for him, perhaps some exposure to other mythologies and maybe some good, light fantasy fiction will interest him.

Of course, if he's looking for 'answers' or community, the best places to find those are probably with his parents and peers.
posted by Four Flavors at 10:58 AM on June 28, 2005

I would cormmend that you find a Bible teaching church. What does that mean? Most of the major denominations add a layer of "religion" over what the Bible says. It is, I think, the main reason many people raised "Christian" do not continue in adulthood. What the Bible says and what most major churches do seem to be very different. A Bible teaching church avoids the rituals and entrapments of religion, instead concentrating on our individual relationship with God through studying His Word and prayer.
posted by y0mbo at 4:43 AM on June 29, 2005

"Bible" churches add their own layer of theological interpretation as well. And without checking stats, I suspect that Bible churches are no more successful in retention than traditional denominational churches.
posted by Doohickie at 6:04 AM on June 29, 2005

what you need is practical advice, not "how to raise your kid" musings..

So here's what I would do. Put him in (any Christian) Sunday school next september (if he's still interested).
That way:
- he gets the necessary someone to explain the "where we came from", "did God make me" questions.
- he comes to grip with the idea that learning about the Church is like going to school. He meets other kids, learns to socialise with a wider group of kids, does "group acctivities, and in general furthers his horizon.
- he gets outta your hair for the whole Sunday morning, a moment you will cherish from now on. *You* don't have to go to Church, just he to SUnday school.
- he actually learns something.
- some Sunday schools have cool giveaways (this would be my primary criteria frankly - the one I was in once gave a powertool set for Father's day.)

Hope this helps :)
posted by ruelle at 11:10 AM on July 18, 2005

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