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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Teaching Kids About God - Contributor Post

Kate Allen, resident theologist (no, really), who blogs over at CornDog Mama and just had her second beautiful baby, was able to take time out of her busy schedule to write an important post about children and God. Thanks, Kate.

Parenting in the United States looks different in 2013 than it did in, say, 1982, the year I was born.  One of the quandaries I face as a parent, an issue that my own parents didn’t have to mull over quite as much, is the issue of religious education and “churching.”  Although I’m a self-proclaimed Christian like my parents, I don’t limit my religious practice to Christian practice.  I also don’t believe Christianity has an exclusive claim to what is good, true, and right (in fact, I believe Christianity, or at least Christians, often get it Jesus’ message wrong).  My practices and beliefs put me on the margins of Christianity (not to mention the margins of my childhood family!), and I find myself in growing company.  Many of my parent friends, though they grew up in some sort of faith tradition, have either come to pick and choose what they’re willing to pass on to their children from that faith tradition, or they eschew religion altogether.  The big question I hear, especially from friends who no longer embrace religion or believe in God, is: “If I don’t believe in God or don’t know what I believe about God, how am I supposed to teach my own child about God in a way that feels authentic rather than misleading?  Should I teach my child about God?”

As someone who sees systemic problems in her own faith tradition, I struggle along the same lines.  I don’t want my children learning about Christianity from just any Christian church community—I need to know that the Christian message they receive is more than mindless dogma that is inconsistent with the radical teachings of Jesus.
So how do I go about teaching my child about God in a way that a) isn’t contrived, b) offensive to me, and c) illuminating and helpful to my child without being oppressive?

I offer the following questions as starting points for any parent who asks this question, whether they belong to a faith tradition or have rejected religion and God but still wish to offer God as a possibility to their child.

First, what is it that teaching God/religion/faith to my child will accomplish?  Is this for me, or for my child?  What do I hope my child will gain from learning about faith?  Is it an intellectual exercise, or is there something more—something I remember from my own childhood that I want my child to experience, even if she rejects it later? 

Second, do I want to give my child a variety of faith perspectives, or do I want her to experience one primary tradition with occasional references to others?   Do I feel competent enough to teach my child about many faiths?  Do I feel competent enough to teach her primarily about one without tearing down others? 

For someone who wants to go the former route but isn’t sure where to start, a good place to begin is the Unitarian Universalist Church, which is intentionally embracing of all faith and no faith at once—Unitarians include theists, atheists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, you name it.  For someone who prefers to allow her child to experience one faith tradition primarily (in my case, Christianity), one might start in a “safe” denomination.  The United Church of Christ is a Christian denomination that is progressive, socially conscious, and warmly inclusive—all things I know I want my children to be exposed to (and formed by) in a religious context.  On the other hand, my childhood denomination, Roman Catholicism, is home to really rich, symbolic ritual, and it’s extremely important to me that my children learn about the power of great ritual, the sort that gets repeated often enough to get into their bones.  A compromise might be to search for religious communities that straddle the margins as much as I do.   One way to figure out whether a community honors and dwells in margins without risking an in-person visit is to visit their website.  Is there anything about this place that stands out as unusual (and good!) in comparison with other communities of the same tradition?  To use a personal example, my husband and I heard about and joined an African American Catholic Community and eventually had our marriage blessed there, even though neither of us is African American.  African American Catholics certainly aren’t a majority among African Americans or Catholics, so they’ve had to make their own creative way, weaving those two strands of identity together in a way that honors each without diminishing the other.  Church communities like this, that push against whatever “the usual” is because of their “unusual,” marginalized status, are the most likely to honor the questions and concerns that I bring to the table where the religious education and formation of my children are concerned. 

That brings me to the final big question: to what religious institution can I go and share my own concerns and misgivings about religion and God while being taken seriously, rather than dismissed (or, worse, regarded as sinful/shameful/na├»ve/unfaithful)?  A religious community that fails to admit its own ability to be wrong is a community that I’ll never want my child to learn from.  I need my child to learn that even though God is good, religion sometimes really isn’t.  A religious community that can’t admit its own failings is a religious community whose images of God I won’t be able to relate to (and certainly won’t be able to teach my children about with any conviction). 

Even though I’m a lifelong Catholic, I am more importantly a person who has put “God” and religion to the test—questioning whether masculine images of God are the only valid ones, or even the best ones, for example.  I’ve also dug deep into Christian scripture to see how/when Jesus and other holy figures contradict themselves, promoting prophetic good in some ways and making grievous wrongs in action and judgment elsewhere.  I don’t mind the digging—I’m not afraid of what will come of my search.  I surround myself with people who can help me explore—I trust that they haven’t planted answers ahead of time, even if they’ve dug their own digging and found gems of their own for me admire.  For me, the search is the point, and I think this is especially the case for parents who have rejected religion and/or God but want to give their children the option to embrace one or both. I want my kids to see that my answers about God (and the answers of the faith traditions I choose to expose them to) are not final, because if they were final, they’d be missing the possibility of transformation, expansion, and surprise.  Whether my kids ultimately choose to embrace religion or God is not so important to me as whether they learn what my own faith-on-the-margins has taught me: to love abundantly, to turn again and again toward goodness, and to approach both new and familiar experiences with wonder.



  1. For parents who are interested in a more inclusive experience that does *not* have extensive rituals and takes a more personalized approach to faith, consider Quakers (Friends) - they stress that one's relationship with God is a personal thing that cannot be dictated by any other person and all religions are supported and respected. Quakers are primarily Christian but there are many non-christian Quakers as well. Some meetings are "unplanned" and others are "programmed" but even the more orthodox Quakers are respectful of others beliefs. There is no dogma and no ritual. For some people this is very liberating but for others it feels too vague. Mostly, Unitarians could be described as Quakers who have rituals :)

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! And yes, the Quakers are pretty awesome! One thing I appreciate about the Quakers is their embrace of the divine word in *this* moment, rather than prescribed or predetermined for all time someplace (as in highly structured rituals and long-established scripture). For parents who've had poor experiences of being drilled with dogma and unsavory ritual, the Quaker meeting can be really healing. It may or may not be the best thing for parents of small, highly energetic and vocal children, but that's where a Quaker community's Sunday school program could provide a helpful counterpart to the prayer experience of the parent.

      Another thing worth looking for in a church, if one wishes to go the Christian route, is a community that hosts Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for children--it explores ritual and symbol from a kid-sized perspective. It's a montessori approach to religious education and can be illuminating for both kids and their parents. If one wants to go the Jewish route and wants a community that embraces the whole person, they might try a Jewish Renewal Synagogue (Jewish Renewal communities embrace the whole person and pray with the whole body, rather than allowing ritual to be an exchange of talking heads).

      It really depends on the experience of the parent, but I think all these resources are good, safe places to start, whether just to visit a place or to talk with a spiritual leader about resources for kids.



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