When children ask us about God

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By Bruce Feiler New York Times

Not long ago, Eden, one of my 5-year-old twin daughters, bounded onto my lap at bedtime and asked me if I would read her a book, “Bagels From Benny.” I had never seen this book before, nor had my wife. (I learned later it was a gift from her grandmother.) In the story, written by Aubrey Davis, Benny adores his grandfather’s bagels so much he wants to thank God for them. He takes a bag of bagels to the synagogue, places them in the ark and asks God to taste his bounty.

I had not read more than a few pages when Eden looked at me and asked, “Daddy, if I speak to God, will he listen?”

I froze. I was so completely unprepared for the question, she might as well have asked me, “What’s a ménage à trois?”

In my panic, I had three quick thoughts. First, Who told you about God? I certainly hadn’t initiated the conversation, and I thought I knew everything she had learned in school.

Second, I should be able to nail this question. I had spent a dozen years tracing biblical stories around the world and had written four books about God. Surely I had learned something. Third, and most important, I didn’t want to say anything that I would have to unsay later. In other words, I didn’t want to lie to her just because she was a child.

For all the brouhaha over religion in the United States the last few years, Americans’ views on God have remained remarkably stable.

A study released last month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 69 percent of Americans are absolutely certain God exists, and another 17 percent are fairly certain. Only 6 percent said they did not believe in God, with another 5 percent saying they didn’t know or were not certain.

But in countless surveys in recent years, Americans have shown creeping anxieties about their faith. While 10 to 15 percent of believers define themselves as fundamentalist, a vast majority of believers also express doubts. A Pew study last year showed that half of American adults have changed their religious affiliation at least once.

When it comes to talking to children, fundamentalists (believers and nonbelievers alike) have it easy, I have observed. They can simply express their convictions. But what about the rest of us? Are we supposed to share our uncertainties with our children or pretend we know all the answers and let them discover their own ambiguities in due time?

Hey, Benny, since you seem to have strong opinions: How do you talk to kids about God in the Age of Doubt? To help answer that question, I called three people who have written openly about their own crises of faith.

John Patrick Shanley won the Pulitzer Prize for his play “Doubt,” and later wrote and directed the film, which was nominated for five Academy Awards. Raised a Roman Catholic, he learned catechism from the Sisters of Charity and excelled at prescribed questions like:

“Where is God?”

“God is everywhere.”

Shanley said: “When we went through confirmation at 10 or 11, I answered so many of the questions I was not allowed to answer any more. I just found it thrilling in the sense that it was a theatrical event.”

The single father of two 18-year-old adopted boys, Shanley employed a different style with his own children. “I come from the school of thought that I should teach by example rather than by talking,” he said. “I believe deeply in the power of paradox and contradiction.”

His sons, for instance, knew he knelt down to pray for them every night, but that he didn’t go to church. They knew he said grace when they were in the country but not while they were in the city. “Children watch your actions and see whether or not you’re a doddering fool. And they see that, if you’re a reasonably effective person and you can embrace ambiguity as a positive thing, they say, ‘I want to be like that.’ “

But aren’t young children too vulnerable to embrace contradiction? I asked.

He answered: “If the idea is that when children are young you should give them very definite answers that do not reflect your actual experience of life, then you’re lying to your children, and one day they’re going to realize that you were a hypocrite. And isn’t being true as much as possible in life the best kind of education you can give the young?”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles, the author of “Teaching Your Children About God,” agreed. He uses his own youthful bout with atheism to encourage children to embrace their own struggles. “When a child asks a question about God, they are not coming to you as a blank slate,” he said. “They already have thoughts. It’s more valuable to evoke what they think than it is to insert something and pre-empt their own thoughts.”

Wolpe sees a parallel between parents’ approach to God and their approach to sex. In both cases, skittish parents are so frightened of saying the wrong thing they end up saying nothing at all, thereby forcing their children to seek answers from untrustworthy sources.

“If you want to share with your kids your deepest beliefs,” he said, “your deepest beliefs are not about shopping. They’re about what happens after you die, or what life is about. I can’t tell you how many times I do funerals, and ask the children, ‘Did you ask your parents what they thought would happen after they die?’ The answer in 80 percent of the cases is, ‘No,’ which I find shocking.”

Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of several best-sellers, including “Misquoting Jesus,” suggests that parents should prepare for a conversation about God in the same way they prepare for other difficult conversations.

“The fact that parents are unsure of their own beliefs is no excuse for not talking to their kids,” he said. “It’s like saying you’re not sure what to do about the problem of joblessness or hunger or homelessness. Just because you don’t have the solution doesn’t mean you don’t want to talk about it. The problem with our society is that everybody is interested only in the answers.”

Ehrman’s books explore his own path from a liberal Episcopalian childhood, to college years as a born-again Bible student, to an adult transformation that left him an agnostic. His own children were young during the years he was losing his faith.

“There is precedent for telling a child something you don’t really think is true,” he said. “Parents tell their children there’s a Santa Claus. But my view about religious things is that parents ought to be brutally honest. When I was transitioning, I was completely truthful with my kids and told them, ‘I don’t know’ quite often.”

I was heartened that all three of these men, from different denominations, agreed that children could handle the messy truth. In my case, after catching my breath in response to Eden’s question, I said, “Some people talk to God, and it brings them peace.” I gave myself a solid B for my inartful dodge. My answer was true, at least, and it did get me through the moment.

So I asked my impromptu spiritual gurus how they would have answered the question.

Shanley said he would tell a 5-year-old, “Yeah, God does listen when you talk to him.” Wolpe said, “Yes, God listens, but not like people listen, and he doesn’t respond like people do, either.” Ehrman said: “You know what, Little Jimmy, I don’t believe in God. What do you think?”

If Little Jimmy were Ehr man’s sister’s child, I asked, what would she think of that answer?

“She’s an evangelical,” he said. “So she would cream me.”

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