Towards a Discussion of Religious Pluralism with a First Grader. Gingerly.

November 20, 2009

in no manual for parenting,this i believe


Seriously. I fear this is true.

Scene 1

On our way home in the car, the 11 year-old lodged an official complaint against his younger brother for embarassing him in school: He talks about God too much. He said things like, “God created everything” in daily, random conversations, without prompting. On top of that, he also sometimes sports a British accent, according to his older brother, “Like Charlie and Lola!”

(Trying very hard not to laugh out loud since both kids were visibly upset).

“People don’t talk that way. It is rude. You can’t assume that the person believes in what YOU believe in.”

“He was telling Miss [Babysitter] about the Ten Commandments!”

“Well,” I attempted to smooth things out, “Miss [Babysitter] is probably not offended. At any rate, it is very possible she is Catholic since her family moved from Poland when she was in high school.”

“Isn’t it rude to assume?” Once again, he got me right then and there.

He was so indignant. Mr. Monk, my 6-year-old, started wailing. “I DID NOT! And why can’t I tell her about the Ten Commandments? She knows about them too!”

At the same time I was proud that we must be doing something right bringing up my oldest, I also felt panic. Surely my youngest is confused as hell. If we insist on him going to Religious Ed every Saturday morning, why can’t he talk about what he has learned there? And if there are people that do not believe in Jesus and God as taught in Religious Ed, for example, Mommy Heathen here, why does he have to believe? Of course, these were questions swarming inside my head as I sped home since the radio cranked up way high was not enough to drone out Mr. Monk’s indignant sobbing. He himself has not asked me those questions yet. Not that day. But they did come way sooner than I had expected.

Seriously? What kind of 6-year-old discusses religious pluralism with their parents?

Scene 2

“Why do people that were not baptized NOT believe in the same god as people that were baptized?”

The questions came. They came fast and furious. We were going to bed. Supposed to.

Not knowing how to answer this question, I decided to take the literal approach:

“Honey, you know that Muslims and the Jewish people believe in the same god that you do. [I am assuming he does for the convenience of having a conversation with him that would actually get us somewhere…] The main difference is that they do not believe that Jesus is the savior.”

Did I say it right? Is Jesus Christ the savior? I was sure I pulled that line out from one of the Christmas carols.

“Do you believe Jesus Christ is the savior?”

“No.” I said without hesitation.

I never talk down to my children. I made a conscious decision when I was pregnant with my first born and one day, all of a sudden, I realized just how heavy that burden is, to be responsible for another human being’s moral upbringing.

He turned away from me. I could see his shoulders heaving. He was quietly sobbing.

Oh my god. Was he fearing for my soul? Finally he turned to look at me in the eyes, very seriously, too serious for a 6 year old.

“Do you want me to learn that Jesus Christ is the savior? That GOD created the world?”

I explained that since his father is Catholic, and I am not, I would prefer that his father talks to him about this subject.

“No.” He said emphatically.  “I want to know whether YOU want me to learn about this.”

I started to explain why we decided to have them baptized and have them attend Religious Ed: Moral upbringing. It takes a village.

Growing up, I was never religious yet deep down I understood the expectations of me to be good. To do good. Karma. Reincarnation. It was never explicitly taught, but I knew. Everyone of us knew. It is embedded in the culture. I am certainly not suggesting Asian societies/cultures are more moral. Ha. Far from it. My theory is that the subtle permeation in daily life of the implicit belief in Karma, in What goes around, comes around, in you do reap what you sow, makes it easier to conform to a certain moral code without an explicit religious upbringing.

My husband and I were alone in the city. Far away from any “villages” that we could count on as a moral foundation for our children. We thought, Catholic Church! Besides, my husband went through the whole Religious Ed ordeal ritual thing and he turned out fine, it just seemed a natural conclusion to draw.

“I don’t need you to learn about God, which god, I am not sure. You will have to make your own decision when you grow up. But right now, I want to make sure that you can learn right from wrong. That you will know to do the right thing when we are not around.”

With a stroke of genius, I used Spiderman as an example to explain Karma.

“Remember when Peter Parker let the robber go because he was mad at the man for cheating him out of his winnings, but later the robber killed his uncle?”

I think he got it. I hope he got it. He turned his back towards me again. Silence. But I could tell from his breathing that he was not falling asleep. It was almost midnight. My child with an old soul…

“Are you worried that mommy may go to hell?”

“Not really. I don’t know.” His voice was calm.

I told him about how when his broher was his age, he came home one day after Religious Ed and asked us, “Are you and daddy going to hell?” Apparently the teacher had told him that his parents would be going to hell if they (we) don’t go to mass every Sunday.

“That was awful!” He commented. He did not sound traumatized. THAT. Seemed to be all I could have asked for that night.

How much do you tell your children when they are so young? Too little, you are sheltering them. Too much, you are burdening them. I decided I would make my one last pitch and let it be. Well, as much “let it be” as I could muster as a mother.

“I want you to remember this: there are people that will use religion as an excuse to try to get you to do things that you know are not right, to beleive things that you know are wrong. Anybody, ANYBODY, that uses religion as an excuse to talk you out of thinking for yourself…”

“… is wrong?” He finished the sentence for me.

“Yes.” I sighed and gave him a hug.

“Ok. I am going to sleep now. Good night.”

Then he was sound asleep.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane November 20, 2009 at 7:35 am

Your kids sound very intelligent. And way more spiritually aware than others their age. I think they’ll be fine, despite your heathenistic ways :) (Kidding! Kidding!!!!)

I was a Catholic religious ed teacher for 10 years, covered all ages from kindergarten through 7th grade confirmation classes, and I can tell you there’s a reason why we’re called “God’s children.” Little kids are so much more spiritual. Even the mean little buggers. I would, however, get the question about every other week, “Will my mother go to hell because she has a boyfriend?” or “Will my dad go to hell because he doesn’t go to mass?”

I think you’re right to emphasize belief and actions as opposed to religious practice.


Absence Alternatives November 21, 2009 at 9:07 am

Diane, thank you so much for your words of encouragement! They mean a lot to me.


TheKitchenWitch November 20, 2009 at 8:29 am

You have smart kids, there! Deep thinkers, those boys. As an agnostic (married to an athiest) I struggle with religion–and avoid talking about it. You are braver than I.
.-= TheKitchenWitch´s last blog…Family Recipe: Russian Spice Tea =-.


Absence Alternatives November 21, 2009 at 9:08 am

Thanks. I am not brave, actually I am afraid whenever the complex questions were brought up. I guess we just do whatever we’ve got to do right?


Velva November 20, 2009 at 8:56 am

My hat is off to you! You handled your little thinkers and soul searchers very well.
.-= Velva´s last blog…For the Love of Martinis =-.


Absence Alternatives November 21, 2009 at 9:10 am

Oh, thank you so much. I didn’t mean to brag about how good my parenting skills are… For starters, I am a “yeller”. I have no patience for stupidity. And I spend way too much time on the Internet! … 😉


November 20, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Poor Mr. Monk! Of COURSE he’s confused! Aren’t we all? (Except for the ones who are sure they have all the answers and THEY’RE the scariest of all!)

You may like this Newsweek column on who has “naming rights.”
.-= Merrilymarylee´s last blog… =-.


Absence Alternatives November 21, 2009 at 9:23 am

Thank you for the article! What a coincidence that it was published the day before. Hamilton’s got some guts. Sometimes even I wonder whether this whole PC thing is going too far. Let people have their GOD if they want it. What’s in a name?… (And then I feel guilty for not being fully committed to it…)


submom November 21, 2009 at 12:53 pm

This is me! Commenting from my BB: I re-read the article again, and I changed my mind: I agree with Hamilton. I didn’t know Jesus Christ = God. (Trinity: so I thought The God = The Father and NOT the Son. Am I missing something here?)


Absence Alternatives November 21, 2009 at 9:25 am

Oh, and “the ones who are sure they have all the answers and THEY’RE the scariest of all!” I agree 100%!


Jen @ NathanRising November 20, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Mr. Monk sounds precious. I bet he’s a sensitive little guy, isn’t he?

I think you are doing a REMARKABLE job!!! And, correct me if I am wrong because I am not Catholic (although I am very interested in Catholocism) but don’t Catholics believe God is merciful? So, just because someone doesn’t go to mass does not automatically doom them to Hell.

I don’t like people who use religion for their own personal gain, to get people to do what THEY think those people should do. I find it loathesome on sooooo many levels.
.-= Jen @ NathanRising´s last blog…Boogers in Abnormal Places =-.


Absence Alternatives November 21, 2009 at 9:25 am

Thanks for the kind words and moral support. We can only try our best. Like I said, I wish they all came with manual!


November 20, 2009 at 6:27 pm

I think it’s great that your kids are so incredibly inquisitive (side note: you know how many tries before I spelled inquisitive correctly? four. yes, I’m lame) Anyway, you’re going to have your hands full with those two. And I already expect the same from my two girls. We are a family of non believers, so I fully expect to get the 3rd degree very soon. “Mommy, why don’t you believe in God?” Blah, blah, blah….

Can’t wait.
.-= Amanda´s last blog…The New York Times Wants To Interview Me? =-.


Absence Alternatives November 21, 2009 at 9:28 am

You are right. Good thing we have our blogs to ponder and have great support from our internet friends, even the ones that are so famous that they got interviewed by NY Times! 😉


Unknown Mami November 20, 2009 at 8:50 pm

That is a deep conversation to be having with a 6 year old. Not to mention that 6 year old expresses himself better on the subject than most adults.
.-= Unknown Mami´s last blog…10 Things, 5 Things, and Two Blogs I Love =-.


Absence Alternatives November 21, 2009 at 9:30 am

I know: I am so worried that I should have kept it simple and not felt the urge to tell him everything…


Falling November 21, 2009 at 12:42 am

Wow. I respect so much how much thought you are putting into this. I think just being willing to have the conversations with your kids (any tough conversations, about religion, race, sex…) often communicates just as much as the words you use to discuss the topics. You are teaching your kids that they can come to you with hard questions. That’s huge.

Regarding how much to tell them, I read a book about children and death which basically said, you don’t have to tell kids everything, but everything you tell them should be the truth (i.e., you don’t need to go into details about Grandpa’s liver cancer, but also don’t tell them that he “went to sleep”). I think that’s a good general guideline for hard conversations. It seems like you’re letting them lead the conversations, which is a good indication that you’re working with what they can handle developmentally.

Also, for your Venn diagram viewing pleasure:
.-= Falling´s last blog…Out of the Mouths of Babes… =-.


Absence Alternatives November 21, 2009 at 9:39 am

LOL. I love the website! Genius! I like this general guideline: you don’t have to tell kids everything, but everything you tell them should be the truth. Thanks much! Thank you for the encouraging words: please don’t make too much out of what I say to my children: they were often said under duress, and I was just grasping whatever that ran through my mind. I often refer to “google” as in “Why is the sky blue? I have no idea. Let’s google!” Only that tough questions such as “what does gay mean?” cannot be answered by google. Someone should write a Liberal’s Guide on How to Answer Tough Questions. I will be the first one to buy it!


mrsblogalot November 21, 2009 at 7:09 am

Not surprised one bit that your kids are so intelligent!

We try to stay away from religion as much as we can in our house. We definitely believe in God…just not religion. One God …..five billion religions? ….It get’s sticky in the explanation but we are trying to be as diplomatic as possible (if that’s possible at all).
.-= mrsblogalot´s last blog…Eyes on Your Own Paper Mister! =-.


Absence Alternatives November 21, 2009 at 9:42 am

You are too kind really. I didn’t mean to brag though. (But now I think about it, it does seem like a “backdoor brag” (a la Jenna on 30 Rock) Ooops.) It is so difficult indeed when I myself am confused!


Jennifer Lynn November 23, 2009 at 8:47 am

Everyone has been commenting on how great a mom you are and how cool your kids are….but I already know all that;)……after reading this post, I just felt heavy. Weighed down as if covered by too thick of a blanket. What incredible responsibility and pressure….yet it is, in my view, what we are really here for……raising up moral children to walk in our stead when we are gone. A daunting task, but worth the ride, I am sure!

What would you have said if he WAS worried you were going to hell?
.-= Jennifer Lynn´s last blog…Pretty Ginkgo–Not Pretty Stink-o =-.


Absence Alternatives November 23, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Thanks for the kind words. I really didn’t mean to fish for compliments. You all are too kind really, and I am grateful to find such support in the Blogosphere. Sometimes I suspect that I am just overthinking it, overtheorizing everything. It’s my own neurosis and I am just blaming it on parenthood. If he was worried about my going to hell? I’d say that anybody that says anything like that is not being truthful. “Thou shall not judge.” I will try and explain this to him, you know, the whole “throw the rock if you are innocent” thing. I will also need to break the bad news to him: I am not going to heaven with them at any rate. I am coming back, baby! (i.e. reincarnation) Actually, I have no idea what’s going to happen to me after I die…


Jana@Attitude Adjustment March 9, 2010 at 7:59 am

Wow, what a post! I feel so honored to hear about how you are dealing with these complicated issues with your children. It’s so hard to try to convey the complexity of the world and complexity of people’s beliefs when even adults don’t want to accept complexity. Often, people want information, or a rule book on how to live, handed to them.

I think you did a great job. And your kids sound like they’re reaping the benefits!
.-= Jana@Attitude Adjustment´s last blog…Why We Read Blogs =-.


Absence Alternatives March 9, 2010 at 10:33 am

Thank you so much for reading this post and for leaving me such a supportive comment! We all try to do the right thing, and you are right, a rule book is also something I often wish for. But of course, who gets to set those rules right? I guess we are fortunate enough in a society where we get to ponder, and suffer (like me!) from anxiety on how to deal with all these conflicting messages. It’s what comes with the freedom we sometimes take for granted. Imagine in a world where there is no alternative way in seeing the world!


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