In my parents' generation, the three-letter taboo conversation was S-E-X. Today, for many parents, there is a new three-letter word: G-O-D.
Talking openly with children about sensitive subjects is hard. It always has been. In my parents' generation, the three-letter taboo was S-E-X. And today, for a great many parents, there is a new three-letter word: G-O-D.
With two of Western religion's most important holidays — Easter and Passover — in the air last week, I find myself thinking back to the first time I had the "God Talk" with my own daughter. Maxine was barely five years old when she piped up from the backseat on the way home from her Los Alamitos preschool one day.
"Mommy," she said, "you know what? God made us!"
I felt like a cartoon character being hit in the back of the head with a frying pan. Visions of Darwin and the evolving ape-man raced through my mind, followed closely by my childhood image of the big guy upstairs in his flowing white robes.
I swallowed hard and forced myself to speak. "Well," I said, "Who is God?"
"He's the one who made us," she said, her eyebrows knitted, the implied "duh" coming across loud and clear. "OK, well, what is God doing now?" I tried for casual.
"God is busy making people and babies," she answered.
This information could not have been delivered with more certainty. My little girl, who had never heard an utterance of the word "God" in our house, aside from decidedly ungodly uses of the word, now had it all figured out thanks to a classmate, a cute Jewish boy.
As a science-minded non-believer with a generally non-confrontational personality, I was stumped by how to handle the situation. I wanted to be truthful about what I believed to be truth, but I didn't want to indoctrinate her into my worldview either. And I certainly didn't want others indoctrinating her into theirs. So where did that leave me?
Luckily for me, I have a husband who is cool under pressure. Later that day, after I'd rather breathlessly presented him with all the facts, he said, "It's not what Maxine believes, but what she does in life that matters."
What I took from this was: Relax, it's just God.
So I set aside my own irrational concerns and began to talk with my kid about God — lots of gods, actually. We talked about Brahman and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. My husband bought her a Children's Bible, and I brought home lots of picture books highlighting aspects of various religious cultures.
Maxine became genuinely interested in religion — as long as it came in bite-size pieces, rather than overly long oratories. She became engaged in the stories we told and good at deciphering the "moral" aspects of various tales for herself. In her hands, the Bible wasn't a tool of indoctrination, but a tool of religious literacy — even critical thinking.
In the four years that have passed since Maxine first told me about God, we have discussed the subject countless times. I have learned that compassion and an open mind are more important than being right. I've also learned that the best way to combat intolerance is with knowledge, and that the best way to combat indoctrination is with critical thinking. No longer is there awkwardness around the subject. We talk about lots of different beliefs, encourage her to learn about what motivates the faith of others, and make clear that there is no shame in choosing an unpopular path. After all, her own parents are happy, well-adjusted, and (I like to think) good-hearted people.
I haven't always done everything right. I have stumbled sloppily through more than a few conversations along my own journey and regretted my word choices now and again. But, because the conversations keep coming, I've almost always had a chance to right my wrongs, to clarify my position, to bring a new perspective to each situation. The point here is not to be perfect — as my daughter says, "That would be boring" — but to give us something to aim for.
Today, Maxine is 9 and believes in God "two days a week — on Sundays and Wednesday." Is that logical or rational? No. But who cares? It works for her, and that's what's important.
Wendy Thomas Russell is the author of "Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious." Russell hosts a blog called Natural Wonderers at Patheos.com and writes an online column for the PBS NewsHour. She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.