When my daughter was 2, and barely out of diapers, she had her first Potty Emergency.
We’d been having lunch when suddenly she rose and sprinted to the bathroom with the speed and determination of a hunted deer. I’d been hopeful she made it in time, but when I arrived several seconds later, she was standing in front of the toilet, fully clothed, staring down at a puddle on the floor. Her little shoulders had fallen. Without looking up at me, she shook her little head and said exactly what I would have said in the same situation:
I’m sure my Presbyterian ancestors would have been charmed to know the only thing my daughter knew about the Christian Messiah was that he made for an effective expletive.
In many nonreligious families, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for religious references to arise outside of idioms, proverbs and occasional profanity. Few of us visit churches or attend mosque or synagogue or temple. We don’t pray before meals. We don’t emphasize the religious aspects of national holidays. We don’t have Bibles or Qur’ans lying around. God just doesn’t come up.
As a result, sometimes we don’t know how to start the conversations. How do we kick things off? And when, exactly, are our kids ready to have these talks?
“I don’t want to make a big deal of telling her I don’t believe in God,” one atheist mom told me, “but there never seems to be a right time to say it.”
There is no magic age for God talk, and it depends a lot on the personality of the child, but kids are generally ready to start exploring ideas of spirituality around ages 4 or 5. This is when blossoming imaginations welcome supernatural ideas, and when concepts like good and evil come into focus. It’s about this time, too, when inquisition replaces demand as the rhetorical tool of choice: Why did this happen?” “What happens if someone does that?” And it’s during these years they are first exposed to the reality that mom and dad don’t have exclusive control of the thought process: kids at preschool and daycare also have ideas to share.
Watch carefully, and you’ll see the signs of mental development, and a readiness for thoughts unrelated to immediate needs and wants. You may notice a new interest in how plants and insects die, curiosity about the sunshine, and a knack for picking up on anything “out of the ordinary.” They’ll pretty soon notice that people have different answers, different explanations, and that some of them will undoubtedly involve faith.
Even when you know the timing is right, the thought of broaching the subject of religion can be intimidating — even paralyzing. Many parents fret that they waited too long. Their children begin to “act” on what they hear without the benefit of context. They may assume that the religious ideas voiced by relatives or peers are absolute truth. They may learn to phrase things in ways that make their parents uncomfortable, which causes the parents to try to “undo” the children’s learning.
“My son overheard a discussion that I was having with another adult,” one mother told me. “When he heard me mention ‘God’ he asked: ‘Do you mean the ‘One True God?’ Apparently, his public school kindergarten teachers were praying with the kids in class.”
This is not to say it’s imperative that we parents are the ones to bring up religion. More than 50 percent of parents surveyed said their kids had brought up the subject themselves. Don’t be surprised when the moment arrives. Accept the opportunity, and dive right in: “I’m glad your Uncle Joe brought it up!” you might say. “This is interesting stuff.”
The trick, if there is a trick to this, is to let children’s curiosity be your guide. Try not to tell them more than they want to know, or answer questions they’re not asking. There’s no need for a boring dissertation or a nervous oratory. Nothing needs to be forced or coerced.
Seriously, if talking about religion is anything other than natural and interesting, you’re probably trying too hard.