“Mommy, What’s an Angel?”

By Wendy Thomas Russell | February 3, 2014 | 3 comments

From Leonardo Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks AngelShortly before Christmas, I got a text from a friend:

“What’s an angel?” she wrote. How do I explain this to a 3yo from an agnostic POV? I told him I had to get back to him!

In mixed-faith and non-faith families, the simplest questions can jam up our thinking. Even the most straightforward answers can cause massive confusion.

“According to the dictionary, honey, angels are spiritual beings believed to act as a messengers of God, conventionally represented in human form with wings, a halo and long robes.”

Um, like, no.

At the same time, we kinda gotta say something.

That’s why, beginning this week, I’ll be running a new series, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas in a non-religious way.

Miracles, sin, salvation, dharma — they’ll all be covered in the coming months. Please feel free to suggest concepts to explain, or to share how you have gone about explaining these things.

In each segment, I’ll start with the most basic, abbreviated answer — the one appropriate for my friend’s three-year-old. Then I’ll add some context. (How much explanation is appropriate depends on the age/maturity of each individual child.)

Sistine Madonna, detail

“What’s An Angel?”

The Short Answer:

An angel is like a person with wings, kind of like a fairy.

The Long Answer:

Angels are a part of many religious legends and stories. They are said to live with God and do only “good” things. That’s why people might use the word “angel” when talking about a person they think is very good. (Parents sometimes call their children “little angels.”) Some stories say God has special angels, called “guardian angels,” who watch over the people of Earth and help keep them safe. Some religious people believe human beings become angels when they die. 

Some people think angels are real. Other people think angels are fun to think about and read about, but that — like fairies — they don’t really exist. 



  1. Chris says:

    Good idea, Wendy. Looking forward to the future posts!

    Can I be “that guy” for just a sec, though? Maybe change the “nonreligious kids” part of “… straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas to nonreligious kids” to something like “kids in a non-religious way”. That avoids typing the kids as religious or non-religious, which is good/proper for all the many reasons we already know about.

    One more without trying to be even more of “that guy”? In the “Then” section, you say “…angels are said to live with God and do only good things”. But, later, in the “And Finally” section, when talking about fallen angels, “…angels who have been cast out of God’s company for being bad”. If the kid is paying attention (we can hope!), they’ll ask, “but if they can only do good, how can they be bad?”.

    Other topics to consider in addition to the four (great!) ones you listed: heaven, hell, prayer and (maybe) baptism.


    That Guy

    • Great suggestions, Chris! I made some changes based on your comments. Thanks again.

      • mistakesweremade says:

        I think you’re missing out if you don’t go into the Celestial Hierarchy. Angels are completely fascinating! For example, most people today think the Cherubim are cute little curly-haired toddlers with tiny, fluffy wings, but they are supposed to be represented as four-faced monstrosities with eye-covered wings. See what I mean? Depending on the age of the child, it may be hard to describe angels without causing nightmares, but sticking to the overly sweet current view of angels as happy dead people with white robe, wings, and harps is really missing the best parts. Like that they have free will, or that only the lowest forms of angels are base enough to be understandable by humans, or that because they are made up of pure will, they can’t change their minds. There’s so much interesting stuff here! I wonder if anyone has ever made a children’s Summa Theologica?

Leave a Reply

Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
                    Become a Subscriber!
                            Stay Connected