According to the Pew Research Center’s latest U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, a combined 69 percent of adults attend religious services on a regular basis, and a combined 89 percent of adults believe in God. Fifty-three percent said that religion is “very important” in their life. Religion is a part of the world — just like mathematics or baking or astronomy — and is a part of many people’s daily lives. So just like having to talk to your child about eating habits or sex, talking about God is a naturally-occurring conversation.
“For parents who are religious, this conversation isn’t intimidating — they are probably already having this conversation and know how to have it with their kids,” says Wendy Thomas Russell, a journalist and author of Relax, It’s Just God. “But if you aren’t religious, this can feel like an impossible topic. And a lot of parents are having trouble with this conversation, but you don’t need to.”
If they aren’t involved in religious practices, children typically start becoming aware of God and religion between the ages of four and six — just by picking up on its presence in the world. By age six, if your kid hasn’t asked about God, you can feel free to ask them yourself — just make sure that you’re both prepared. That means you need to know how you’re going to respond and your child needs to be able to comprehend what you’re saying. Thomas Russell suggests using the game “Fact, Fiction, or Belief” as a sort of litmus test to ensure that your child can discern what beliefs are before talking about religion. To play, give your child a fact (“The sky is blue.”), a fiction (“You’re a dog.”), or a belief (“Peppa Pig is the best T.V. show.”), and then ask them to identify what it is. If they can grasp what a belief is, then you’re good to go.
“My philosophy is that the best way to talk about religion is to focus on tolerance and free-thinking,” Thomas Russell says. “Your child needs to feel like they can make up his or her own mind up about religion.” If you make it clear from the very beginning that belief is personal — not fact or fiction, or right or wrong — then talking about God can actually be fun. “When you approach religion and God in an open and honest way, you can encourage your child to realize that it’s a wonderful thing to be able to make up your own mind,” Thomas Russell says. “Religion or lack thereof is a compelling and interesting thing — and parents should feel free to be guided on this journey of discovery with their kids. That’s the basis of a healthy relationship.”
Keeping the conversation and relationship healthy, though, relies on your ability to be honest and open. If you don’t know if you believe in God, be honest and say that you don’t know or that you struggle in your belief. If you believe in God, tell your child and let them know that not everyone believes in God. If you don’t believe in God, be honest and say so — but allow your kids to also know that lots of people do believe in God and that’s okay, too. Tolerance is about appreciating what’s right for others while having the choice to choose what’s right for you and accepting that it may not be the same thing.
“Kids have a tendency to want to believe what their parents believe, but parents need to realize that they can’t make their children believe what they believe,” Thomas Russell says. “It’s a rude awakening to realize that we don’t have control of our kids — but it’s a truth you have to grasp.” If children feel corralled into a certain set of beliefs, religion can take on the identity of indoctrination — which has unhealthy effects on children and their relationships with others and themselves. “No one ever thrives when something is thrust upon them and they feel like they have no choice,” she says. Indoctrination or lack of free-thinking is what later leads to rebellion and a lack of established independence — all things that plenty of studies show aren’t healthy.
“You have to let go of the fear around the issue: that making choices about religion has ramifications,” Thomas Russell says. “If you focus on teaching your kids to be compassionate, kind, ethical, tolerant people, then the chances are that they’ll gravitate toward beliefs or non-beliefs that reflect that.
Cheat Sheet: Talking About God With Kids
- Play “Fact, Fiction, Belief” to ensure that your kids know what a belief is.
- Focus on tolerance and free-thinking.
- Encourage your child to decide what they believe, so they can honor that beliefs are an individual choice.
- Religion is everywhere, so talk about it like you would talk about sex, astronomy, or politics: matter-of-factly.
- Be honest, but try not to be passionate when explaining your beliefs or non-beliefs.