Talmudic scholars have nothing on a preschooler trying to understand the universe. To them, God works in mysterious ways, but so does the vacuum cleaner. Of course, you’ll have pastors, priests, imams, and rabbis to explain life, the universe, and everything. But before your kids enter a house of worship, you are their defacto spiritual leader.
Krista Tippett, host of On Being and author of Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into The Mystery And Art Of Living, has spent a lot time talking to other people about the meaning of life — including a fair bit of time with her own kids — and has managed to come to one big conclusion: Nobody has figured out the whole “why are we here,” thing, so everyone should get equal respect.
Kids Watch How You Treat People
Tippett says your kid won’t always listen to you (assuming they ever did), but they do watch how you relate to people from different backgrounds and ideologies. This is coming from someone who was brought up Southern Baptist in a small Oklahoma town, where folks felt science was “dangerous” and being curious was suspect.
When Tippett had her own kids, she never explicitly told them how to treat people of differing religions — because she never had to. Once, her daughter said to her, “If there’s one thing you’ve taught me it’s that everyone should be respected and honored the same — to not make distinctions between people.” This would be the “do as I do” model. As she said, her primary method of teaching was by being a good example. “You have to trust that the ripple effects will be with them as they become adults.”
Is There A God?
This will probably come up about the time they’re given their first homework assignment. You could use the words of Reverend Lovejoy, “Short answer, yes with an if. Long answer, no with a but.” But the better thinking is that when kids bring up big questions, show them you have few answers. “Share their questions in a way that continues the conversation,” says Tippett. “Let that be the basis for reflecting together.” And let them know that you’re not going for ice cream until they figure out why bad things happen to good people.
You Don’t Need All the Answers
“Parents get anxious about what they should pass on,” says Tippett. “You don’t have to come up with some coherent view of life and death and the universe.” Again, you could just say that the answer is 42, but it might be more educational to pay a visit to a church or synagogue or mosque. Just to compare notes. “The parent’s job is not necessarily to guide their kids down this road of wonderment and curiosity. But to walk it with them,” she says. And, if you stumble on some great cosmic insight, go ahead and pass it along to the rest of humanity.
Separate People From Their Faith
What people call themselves isn’t as important as what their actions say about them, says Tippett. “Just because someone calls themselves a Christian or a Muslim doesn’t mean they represent all Christians or Muslims, or that you should associate them with that faith,” she says. Because the truth is that, fundamentally, most religious ideologies are about goodness, generosity, and compassion. The other .1 percent belong to the Westboro Baptist Church and ISIS.
Engage Their Questions As They Come Up
Not everyone was brought up in a strict faith, or want to raise their kids that way (blame Footloose). If you don’t have a clear framework to talk about spiritual things (ie., a Bible, Torah, Qur’an, etc.) Tippett’s advice is to start tackling these subjects one at a time. “Let their questions and insights be your guide in the territory you want to traverse with them,” she says. So if they want to know where bad people go when they die, you might want to first explore the teaching of the Meat Puppets.
Books, Movies, And TV Shows Are Good Prompts
“There are meaty things that pertain to the human condition in all these media,” says Tippett. It’s not just all religious allegories in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe either. For example, Harry Potter is a great jumping off point to talk about death, the afterlife, and what kind of badass Patronus you’d take the form of.