Talking to kids about God

October 9, 2008 | Background, Conversion, Motherhood | 59 comments

I was wiping tears out of my eyes after reading this interview with homeschooling mom Mary Breda, whose daughter Monica died of a rare brain tumor just before she turned three. Mary says of her daughter:

When I look back, I see what a wise little soul she was, establishing her own little relationship with our Lord. We hadn’t talked to her about death; how do you tell a two year old about it?! But she said, “If I die, I’ll go see Jesus and all the angels and all the saints. But we are going to pray to all the saints that I get better.” I didn’t have to say it; she just knew.

One of the many things that stood out to me in this touching interview was that her daughter obviously had an intimate understanding of her faith, even at such a young age. I’ve been thinking about this subject all day, and realized that I have a lot to learn from families like this.

One of the things that’s difficult for me as an adult convert to Christianity is that I have no idea what it looks like to talk to children, especially very young children, about belief.

First of all, I have no idea what it’s like to have a “childlike” faith in God. I was an atheist as a child and that worldview seemed pretty obvious to me, so I naturally assume that all children start their lives from a position of nonbelief. Coming to faith was an epic struggle for me that involved reading shelves and shelves of books, so I tend to fall into assuming that that’s what it takes for everyone to have faith. I’ve heard that’s not true — people tell me that kids usually have a natural understanding of God, that belief is the default for most people — but it’s not something I can imagine based on personal experience.

To be honest, I feel awkward when I talk to my toddlers about our beliefs. Here’s how it usually goes:

WHAT I SAY: “Let’s pray to Jesus.”

WHAT I FEEL LIKE SAYING: “Let’s pray to Jesus. Now, you may have noticed that I just referred to someone named ‘Jesus, ‘ whom you have never seen. It might strike you as odd that we frequently refer to ‘Jesus’ and ‘God’ and the ‘Holy Spirit’ just like we refer to Grammy and Yaya and Granddad and other people who you can touch and have a conversation with. Well, you can have a relationship with the trinitarian God (who is one in the three persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, although that’s another subject), but it’s different in some ways than having a relationship with a human. Now, at this point you’re probably wondering what proof I have to offer for God’s existence since, again, you have never actually seen him. Let’s look first at Aquinas’ five proofs…”

So, yeah. I am going to guess that that’s not the best way to teach two-year-olds about God. Yet most of the time when I try to vocalize my own faith to show my children how I incorporate it into my own life, I feel like I’m on the defensive as if I were talking about it in front of my atheist friends or family members, that my four-year-old is thinking while playing with his Etch-A-Sketch, “Let’s go back to the part about Jesus answering Mommy’s prayer: what empirical evidence can she really offer that that was anything more than a pure coincidence since even in an impersonal universe driven by blind forces it is a statistical certainty that some prayers would appear to be answered some of the time?”

I know how to talk about this sort of thing with adults. But with toddlers? Not so much.

I think I’m getting better as the years go by, and I’m learning every day. Yet when I hear stories like the Breda family’s, it makes me worried that if a major crisis were to hit my family, my children would not have as much of a natural connection to our faith as I’d like for them to have.

I don’t have a take here, I just thought I’d throw this out in case anyone can relate or has any thoughts to share. Since this is a blog about conversion, it seemed appropriate to share this very relevant part of my journey.

UPDATE: Julie has a prayer request up for one of Mary Breda’s other daughters, Marie, who is in a coma after a choking accident and not doing well. Please pray fervently for this family who faces losing a second child.

59 Comments

  1. Joanne

    I don’t have any answers for you, but I have the same problem having also grown up in an atheist household and converting as an adult. My husband or I read to our 2 year old from “the beginners Bible” every day before naptime and bedtime, and at bedtime we say our prayers including the Lord’s prayer. He LOVES his Bible, and asks us to read it to him instead of other stories! When he has the Lord’s prayer memorized I plan to begin teaching him the creeds. We also say grace at dinner.

    I’m very interested to hear what other families do with very young children in terms of spiritual formation!

  2. Myron

    Hey Jen:

    I don’t know whether I’d make the same suggestions as some of the religious people here, but then, I’m not the kind of atheist you were either (where it was obvious there’s no God). I think there’s a good chance there’s some kind of God, I’m just not sure Christianity has got it right. With that background in mind, here’s how I’d handle God-talks with kids.

    First, child psychologists say (from what I’ve read online) that kids are ready for (and in fact often looking for) deep philosophical discussion (What’s the meaning of life? What should I do with my life? Why is the world the way it is? etc) earlier than most people think. Not 2 or 3 years old, but by 7-9. I remember that’s when I first started really thinking about those sorts of things deeply, although the question of whether there was a God (and if so what sort of God it was) occurred to me much earlier, say 4 ish.

    So, some kids (like the 2-3 year old in your post) are just too young to understand, but at that age, they think their parents/teachers know everything there is to know anyway. I remember being quite shocked as a young kid when I discovered I knew something my parents hadn’t figured out yet. I was about 5 ish, and before that point I just assumed (since they were 30) that such a thing couldn’t possibly happen.

    So, at a very young age, kids aren’t going to be questioning you in the same way you might question another adult, and detailed explanations/justifications aren’t necessary. You can tell them about your faith, and at age 2 or 3 they’ll just believe you because you’re mom.

    Also, your explanations make sense to you, right? And if you had to, you wouldn’t be at a loss for an explanation if they did have a deeper question, because you’ve probably asked those questions yourself. But the full explanation is just a little more complicated than the kids might be able to handle. This is true in many areas, not just religion, so just treat religion like you would any other complex topic with young kids. Dumb it down a bit, but only as much as absolutely necessary.

    That’s what I think, anyway. Good luck!

  3. Michelle

    The Breda’s story is amazing. I’ll keep their family in my prayers. I was raised Catholic and so my experience is very different. I don’t remember ever not believing or questioning the existence of God. I don’t recall ever even asking for evidence. Talking to children about God is hard for us as adults because we require proof to back up our faith. We make it very complicated for ourselves. If we could all be more like the children…..

    In what seems like another lifetime when I was still working (I ran after school programs for children in public schools) it was actually harder to answer those questions because I wasn’t allowed to share my religious ideals with any of the kids. It’s still going to be hard to talk to my own children about it when they are actually old enough to talk to me about it. Having had the experience of having to constantly biting my tongue and trying to find the “Politically Correct” way to answer those questions, it doesn’t seem as complicated as it can be.

    Thanks for sharing this. Teaching my children about God is the next part of my own journey to be closer to God.

  4. Multiple Mom T

    I few up in a Christian home and went to church literally from the womb. I knew all about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit and couldn’t have cared less. Until God spoke to ME at 17 and I discovered a REAL faith.

    DH was brought up in a religion-less home. I don’t know that it was agnostic, atheist, or just not caring about that sort of thing. God spoke and called him at 16 or 17. He speaks less easily to the children about God than I do.

    We are bringing up our children in the Lord. Hopefully we will encourage them to care. There are some terrifically wonderful children’s books out there about teaching your children about God, Jesus and the whole trinitarian thing” 😀 One, called “How to Be a Christian”, walks a child through the steps. Three of my four children responded to its message. I don’t know if the 4th one is intellectually capable of doing it, but I truly believe that God’s grace will cover him if he isn’t.

    http://www.christianbook.com (christian book distributors) would be a great place to look for books on this if you want some.

  5. Catherine

    I have the same problem and I grew up in a Christian home, so I don’t think it’s particular to parents from an atheist background. Like another commenter, we read to the kids from children’s Bibles (one that is really great for tying together themes across the Scriptures is “The Big Picture Bible” – big picture as in grand scope, not large illustrations!), and I try to talk about God in a natural way throughout the day as it occurs to me. Part of that is training myself to see God’s hand in all His creation, notice His works of providence, etc.

    But actually the thing that has helped me most lately is your series on praying the hours. We are not Catholic, but I looked into all the links you listed and sort of developed my own schedule to hang our days around. I had been feeling convicted that my children weren’t aware of the things I was fervently praying for our family, so how would they know to praise God when He answered prayer? I assigned one major topic to each of our prayer times to keep it manageable, and now the kids join me in praying for Daddy, for our family’s needs, for our other family members and church members, etc. We are also learning psalms and hymns during those times and reading from the Bible. It amazes me how much of this my two year old is able to understand already. The one year old not so much, but he tries to sing along and folds his hands to pray.

    All that to say, I think it’s just a learning process, and I think God will honor our efforts to glorify Him in how we raise our children. We pray for wisdom in parenting a lot at our house, because we are so often at a complete loss!

  6. Bonnie

    Visual was always important for me as a child. The statues, the picture Bible, the stained glass windows – my mom always appreciated the beauty of Catholic art and explained its meaning. I would do the rest. Case in point: the paitning of Mary with the rays coming from her hands led me to believe for YEARS that when I saw the sun breaking through the clouds it was really Our Blessed Mother being present to someone. Not true theology, but pretty good for a small child, and still a comforting thought to this day.

  7. Anna

    I have a blog post here that is about something else, but it includes a story about my daughter (5 years old) and her faith. It might help illustrate what a child-like faith can look like?

    I think I haven’t been talking to my kids about God enough. If they ask questions, I just try to answer them as simply and straight-fowardly as I can. But they don’t all ask questions all that often, so I think I need to do some more serious teaching, and I’m not sure what the best way for me to do that is.

    God bless.

  8. Lauren

    I thought, how appropriate that this post is up here today… although I was “raised Catholic” I can’t say we actually prayed or did anything religious as a family growing up, except being forced to go to church (and my mom would always duck out right after Communion so we wouldn’t get stuck in the traffic heading out of church…) So although I would love, love, LOVE to share my prayer life with my kids and I believe it’s one of the highest purposes I’ve been put on earth for (my aunt told me once praying with her kids is more important than making sure they’re fed, bathed, or going to school)… it still makes me somewhat uncomfortable and it feels fake and weird to me. Sometimes we read from the Bible or say a Hail Mary together, but I’ve never been consistent with that which makes me feel bad.

    Tonight, though, on the way home from CCD (I teach 8th grade, my kids are in 1st and 2nd) my youngest asked if we could pray the rosary together. So we did. All three of us, on the couch, prayed all 5 Luminous Mysteries. It was awesome. I’m so happy they wanted to pray with me. I hope it starts a new pattern in our lives where praying together doesn’t seem awkward or weird and just happens naturally… And we had some nice discussions in between, about whether God was born or just always *is*, whether Mary had a sister, and if John the Baptist was a little bit related to God since he was Jesus’s cousin. At the end, my little one asked if we could pray “the prayer that Mary made up herself”- i.e. the Magnificat! I just thought that was great.

    Anyway, I guess the point is to keep trying… and to set a good example yourself because kids really do pick up on that.

  9. Tari

    I grew up completely comfortable about the fact there was God, Jesus, Heaven – my mom just talked about all of it like it was as real as we were, or a trip to the grocery store, and I really appreciate that from her. I wandered away from faith for a while, but am back and trying to do the same for my boys. They are very comfortable talking about faith, and will bring things up randomly, because that it what’s on their hearts at the moment – it’s so sweet to hear and see.

    My husband was raised with nothing at all, and he still is not a believer. He insists that our boys have what he didn’t, however. He wants so badly to believe, and finds it so hard to come to faith as an adult. He doesn’t ever want the boys to go through that, so he is delighted for them to go to church, read the Bible, whatever. When they talk to him about God he acts as if their faith was his.

    PS He is reading the Bible for the first time right now, cover to cover. So my friends and I are praying and holding onto the promise that God’s word never returns to Him void!

    I don’t know if any of that answered your question, now that I read it over. I hope it did somehow.

  10. Gretchen

    Enjoy your blog immensely. I used analogies with my kids. I would liken the love you show your children to God’s love, i.e., “You know how much I like to hug you? That’s how God feels about you, too.” Also, I would talk about God when I was having an internal dialog with or about Him while my kids were around. I would make His presence a normal part of our daily life (He is present after all). Sometimes I would just blurt out things like, “God loves us very much. He just told me so.” Or, I would even ask them questions like, “Do you think God (or angels) are watching over us right now?” There are endless questions. I always engaged them in my own dialog about God. And, I think you are entirely correct that most children have a natural knowledge and understanding of God. It’s like if you explain abortion to a young child, they immediately recoil in horror and tell you it is an evil thing to do.

  11. Jeana

    You know what’s great? You’re children will show YOU what child-like faith is like. It never ceases to amaze me how parenting is as much my children teaching me about God as it is my teaching them about Him. I don’t mean so much them knowing things I don’t, but a new understanding of his nature, his love for us, and his perfect sovereignty. Which brings me to my next point: You did not get your children by some fluke or coincidence. God gave them to you because you are the best Mom for them.

    The great thing about kids is that it doesn’t occur to them that anything you’re doing is strange. God designed them to learn from and imitate you–that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Having to prove it to yourself as an adult–that’s definitely the hard way.

    I’m rambling. You’re doing great. When they hit adolescence you’ll really be in your element–if you’re not too worn out for the conversations by then. 😉

    Oh, and the best advice I have for teaching your kids about God, and something I wish I had started earlier…read them the Bible. The real Bible, not some dumbed down version, just God’s word, straight up, from when their little. They understand so much more than we think they do, and when they don’t we have these great discussions. Don’t spoil their appetites with spiritual candy. Read it in small doses if necessary, but read it to them.

    Okay, I’ll stop now.

  12. SuburbanCorrespondent

    Oh, that poor family!

    I’m with you, I always feel funny talking about God to my little ones, as though they are going to call me out as a phony. I go with the rote prayers, etc.; but I can’t get further than that. I never feel credible when talking about faith to them. It’s easier with the teens, I don’t know why. And not that they listen…

  13. Marianne Thomas

    Hi there — I’m a Bloglines lurker who wanted to drop in for this conversation. I can’t remember how I stumbled into your blog, but I’ve kept reading because you inspire me (I’m a cradle Catholic).

    IMHO, the best way to talk about Jesus to little ones is the simplest and purest form of God: love. When you give or receive love or just plain old feel loved, God is shining through you or on you.

    As they get older, their questions will get more sophisticated and you’ll find yourself trying to explain the Trinity (like I was to my 7 y.o. last month). But for toddlers, God=love, love=God. Simple, true, and they get it.

    🙂

  14. Matt

    Jenn,

    Like many of the commenters above, I don’t remember what it’s like to not believe in God.

    I was raised protestant, and went through a short phase of questioning the whole idea in my teen years, but I’ve never really been able to make sense of the world without God.

    With my kids, 22 month old Ambrose and 5 month old Peter (mostly Ambrose as of yet), I really think it’s the small things that make a difference.

    Lots of Church (as difficult as that can be at times), daily prayer (we pray before meals and before bed mostly, sometimes I’ll pray my chotki while Ambrose is falling asleep), telling them the stories of Sacred Scripture, all of those things add up to a significant presence of God in their lives.

    Being Byzantine Rite, icons are a big part of our spirituality and Ambrose loves to kiss them and even carry some of the littler ones around with him. He loves Mary and anytime he sees a statue or picture of her he’ll run up and kiss it and make the sign of the cross (such as he can, it’s mostly just touching his forehead so far, but he’s working on it).

    As long as your home and your speech are liberally seasoned with the salt of the faith, you can be pretty sure it will take root.

    Probably a lot more than you know just yet.

  15. Anonymous

    Just wanted to add — that when my kids were little I saw tons of stuff for every disney movie that came out. Toys, tchotchkes(sp?), books, whatever. I saw that disney believed that that would make their ideas stick. So, I got the best kids storybooks I could about God and the saints, etc, but I got lots so I would read them just like the others and not get bored and the kids would think this was part of life. And they do. (They are older now.)

    Jane M

  16. Matt

    Sorry to hog the comments, but I really feel bad about the way you seem to feel about yourself in this situation because I think you’re doing a lot better than you know.

    Two things. First, you talk about thinking you children think they’ve never seen Jesus, but that’s nonsense. They see Him at least every week in Church. They see the Crucifix, they see the stained glass, and most importantly, they see the host elevated and they hear the priest say the most beautiful words in the Latin Rite liturgy “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, blessed are they who are called to His feast”.

    They know good and well who Jesus is.

    Second, as I look back on my upbringing, the one where I never for a moment doubted the existence of God, the single biggest thing I can point to for that confidence was my parents’ personal devotion to God.

    They got up early every morning and read their Bibles and prayed. That’s how I remember every morning I can remember. Mom and dad, already at their Bibles before I woke up. Huge impact. And your kids will be no different.

    What do they see? Mom, as much as she can, is in prayer every single day. That devotion, even when it’s not perfect, will feed their implicit faith like nothing else.

    Take heart Jenn. You’re doing a great job and your kids know it.

  17. Shelly W

    What a great topic. And, as always, your take on it is so interesting. I appreciate it so much.

    Marianne said one of the things I was going to say–just love them. Fully. Completely. Honestly. Your kids will learn about God from how you treat them.

    Prayer with my young children was easy. We’d pray when we drove in the car. We’d pray when we talked about something. We’d pray when they got punished. We wrapped a lot of our day in prayer. Now that they are older, though, it has become very difficult, if not impossible, to pray with them. They are teenagers (and one pre-teen). I just pray FOR them a little more now.

    Now that they are older I try to model my faith by pointing out “God things” in the everyday stuff. Today, for instance, I put on a neclace that reminded me to pray for my friend’s daughter who has cancer. Not five minutes after I prayed for this girl, my friend sent me a text message about her daughter who was going to be featured on the news tonight. Coincidence? I think not. So I told my family about this at dinner tonight. I want my kids to know that God/faith is a part of every minute of every day.

    This doesn’t exactly answer your question about YOUNG children, but it doesn’t get any easier when they get older. Just thought I’d let you know. 🙂

    Oh, The Big Picture Bible was written by a good friend of mine. It really is a wonderful resource.

  18. Fabiola & Patrick

    Hello,

    It’s the first time I post here. I really like your blog (I linked it in mine ;))

    I grew up as Catholic and I have early memories of my mum, sitting by my crib talking to my about my “Virgin mommy” as we call Her in my country.

    Also, my parents never kept me from hearing (and some times participating) in grown up subjects. If there was something I didn’t understand, my dad would stop a moment to explain in simple terms what they were talking about.

    In general, they were there with their example and to answer any questions I might have had.

    Also, my parents often had priest for lunch after Mass, and they would talk to me and ask me questions, that helped too.

    🙂

  19. JB

    I grew up as a cradle Catholic. We went to Church every weekend. Mom is Catholic, culturally devout I would say. Dad was a lapsed Baptist and has since converted to Catholicism.

    I know we read some version of the bible, prayed the rosary occasionally, prayed every night etc. But, my clearest memories include me running to my parents bedroom after nightmare and my mom giving me her rosary, encouraging to pray it. Mary and Jesus would take of everything.

    Somehow I have retained that simply faith and hope, but unfortunately have lost some of that Marian devotion.

    I’m not sure if any of that helps.

  20. The Koala Bear Writer

    I’d say that you just live your faith, and your children see you doing it. Do they see you pray, read your Bible? Do they go to Mass with you? Do you read Bible stories to them? I don’t remember being a particularly faith-filled youngster, but I do know that church was a weekly event, Bible stories were all over around our home, and our parents prayed with us every night before bed. It was just there.

    I think all children are different too. The story you’ve shared here is amazing, and I’ve heard of other children who have such an awesome awareness of Jesus. Yet I’ve never met any children like that! 🙂 So I’d say, don’t expect your children to be saints. Maybe God granted that little girl extraordinary grace for the short time that she was here on earth.

  21. Anonymous

    I was raised in a Christian home, but when I was about 12, we stopped going to church. I converted to the Catholic church as an adult. As a child, I absolutely LOVED going to church – not because I understood what it was about, but because it was a chance to do something “special” with my parents.

    Years ago, I wrote a series of articles regarding teaching children to pray. Perhaps some of my suggestions will be helpful to you.

    I began when my eldest was just over a year with bedtime “prayers” that meant letting the child(ren) hold the Crucifix and say, “night, night Jesus” and give a kiss. Every night during Advent, we sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus and blew out the wreath candle(s).

    As they got older, we prayed bedtime prayers that included traditional prayers (Hail Mary, Our Father), a list of realtives for blessings and a hymn chosen by one of the children (like you, Jen, I had four very close and to keep things from going on all night, one child was leader for the day and chose our bedtime hymn). Eventually, we added morning prayers, reciting a simple, rhyming morning offering and guardian angel prayer.

    One habit that they learned very early was to pray whenever they heard a siren – for the rescuers and for those needing their help. To this day, they all continue to pray when they hear sirens, including my 35-yr.-old even though he is away from the Church -for the time being! 😉

    Finally, I remember the children of an unchurched friend arguing about what a church was and her eldest, lording it over her sisters said, “I know what a church is…Linda’s HOUSE is a church!” She based that belief on what she saw hanging on my walls.

    Sorry this is so long. Hope some of it is helpful to you.
    Linda

  22. chandy

    I’m a lurker on your blog, but I totally identify with this post. One thing in particular that is difficult for me is explaining the crucifixion. My daughter is very sensitive, and this whole story seems to scare her a bit. I don’t want to try to teach her something that she isn’t ready to hear, but this is a pretty key story in the NT! I’d love to hear your suggestions on teaching this to kids.

  23. Anonymous

    I have two daughters, ages 2 and 4, and am amazed every day at the depth of their faith! I think sometimes we give children too little credit for what they soak up from just attending mass and listening to us.

    Something that I started with my girls is a prayer corner. In the corner of their bedroom, I have a tiny altar with a candle for each of them. I have hung up a cross and several icons (Jesus, Mary, and a guardian angel) at their height. Each night, ater bedtime stories, we sit at the prayer corner and pray the “Our Father” together. Even my 2 year old knows most of the words! The girls then offer prayers for what they are thankful for. Then, we read from the Bible and when we’re done, they get to blow our their candle.

    We all enjoy the time spent together and it is amazing to hear my four year old express her faith. So, I guess my advice is that children have a natural affinity to God, we just have to provide the opportunities for them to express it.

  24. Melissa

    the other day I was explaining to my 3-year-old that the “real you” is inside your body. He completely grasped this and for a brief moment I think I understood that child-like faith.

    I am praying for that precious family tonight.

  25. Anonymous

    Can you get hold of Mary Newland’s book, The Year and Our Children? It’s a wonderful book, written by a real mom of real kids. I used it all the time when I had little sprouts long ago. Great ideas for simple art, food, stories, etc about the Church year as well as everyday prayer.
    We used to say the “little rosary” I adapted. I would tell the Bible story of,say, the Nativity, but one verse at a time. For instance, “One day, a big girl about Sarah’s (their babysitter’s) age was praying on her patio. You’ll never believe what she saw.” After each verse, the boys would say just “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” They liked that a lot, and if more stories put off bedtime, so much the better.

  26. Trisha Q

    I’ve taught 1st-4th grade religion and the thread is the same. They love stories especially about the saints. I would read the lives of the saints and the children were captivated. I would also tell them bible stories. That’s also how Christ taught his disciples and the people through parables. Christ was many things including God, of course, but He was also a great story teller.

  27. Catherine

    I try to pray every day that my kids will be given the gift of faith, that I will be faith filled to inspire that longing in their hearts and that I will be inspired by the Holy Spirit to answer their questions in a way that honours God and is faithful to what He wants for them. I often fall short of this, and often struggle with my own faith in the Magisterium of the church (thankfully never yet in belief in God), but God is faithful and He wants our hearts and the hearts of our children, so I try to remember that and not to worry. Thank you, as always for your eloquent and funny and sad posts, its a real help.

  28. mom v many

    I know EXACTLY what you are looking for!
    Catechesis of the Good Shepherd!

    Children are put in groups called Atriums and there are 3.
    3-6 Level 1, 6-9 Level 2, and 9-12 Level 3

    As a mother of 10, I have seen the grace of God and a deep understanding of faith that humbles everyone who sees it.

    It is a Montessori faith based system the was started in Rome.

    In a word, BRILLANT!!
    Peace,
    Diane

  29. grandmaonthefarm

    great post – thank you so much. A number of years ago in studying Jewish Sabbath practices – i read this little anecdote: in the home of a friend the author had seen the 9 month old daughter sitting in her high chair waving her hands just like her mother as the candles were lit one Sabbath eve.
    The story taught me this: long before children begin cognitive thinking, they see REAL ACTION and are deeply formed by it. They don’t need the theology or philosophy of life from which the action springs. The actions of parents, whether virtuous or vice-laden will become the model – regardless. HAving raised 4 children on a lot of discussion and long talks I know the value for that activity – but it comes a bit later than toddlerhood – but surprisingly, not as late as the teen years. Careful consideration of your most potent teaching tool – action, done regularly – is an important parenting pasttime during the toddler years. blessings on you and all your little ones – thanks for sharing with the rest of us!

  30. the Joneses

    Others have probably already said this, but oh well.

    I wonder if you grew up among an atheistic family, so imbibed the worldview at a very young age? Which would be why you never believed in God — you instead saw as obvious the belief system you grew up with.

    Your children, growing up with Christian parents, will have no problem believing in God and the Trinity and Jesus at a young age. That’s what their world is made of, and they accept it. I grew up Christian, and it was just as obvious to me that there was a God as it was to you that there wasn’t.

    Even as a Christian, I falter when talking to them. Because God isn’t easily explained sometimes (such as the Breda family’s crisis) and I want to reassure or defend myself to them. But you don’t have to, to toddlers. They’re ready to accept God and be happy about Him, and the short answer usually does the trick. If they want more information, the subject will come up again, usually at a wildly random time.

    Thank you for your blog.

    — SJ

  31. Betsy

    Well, I’m not sure how popular this idea is going to be…but my opinion is that when you lovingly submit to your husband and choose to be delighted in even your most mundane tasks, you are pretty much setting your children up to be converted early. They see daddy…they understand God. They see mommy…they understand Christ’s bride. You were likely converted partly because of these “types and shadows” of heavenly reality that God established early on the earth.

  32. SteveG

    Jennifer,
    You probably have already seen this on my homeschool blog, but I thought it worth mentioning anyway.

    A great resource about this topic (speaking with young children between 3 and 6 in particular) is Sofia Cavaletti’s book The Religious Potential of the Child. Cavaletti ‘s work is the foundation of what’s known as The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

    For anyone interested, Melanie Bettinelli over at The Wine Dark Sea did a wonderful series of contemporaneous posts while reading the book.

    The bottom line of what Cavaletti posits (based on her vast observation and experience as a catechist of young children) is that indeed children do have an innate relationship with God (otherwise, why would we baptize them?).

    It is not that we need to create it from scratch, but rather we need to learn the way in which that relationship plays out in the life of a child. We need to learn the religious ‘language’ of the child so that we can help them deepen and draw out that existing relationship.

    Honestly, I was skeptical at first, but after learning and understanding the principles, and trying to use some of them in our home (and subsequently enrolling the two older kids in a Good Shepherd program), I was nothing short of stunned at how insightful the concepts are.

    Let me give an example of what I am talking about…

    One evening after finishing the section of the book on the concept of the good shepherd in the life of the child, I wanted to see if there was any way this could really work…

    I sat with the boys and told them I wanted to tell them a story from the bible.

    I turned to John 10:1-18 and read them…unedited…the parable of the good shepherd (from the bible, no kiddie version). It was short enough, and ‘story like’ enough that they listened intently.

    At the end, I started asking some very basic question without providing the answers.

    “Who do you think the Shepherd is in the story? Who do you think the sheep are? Why do the sheep follow the Shepherd?”

    To my amazement, my 5 year old says “I wonder if the shepherd is Jesus? Maybe he is Jesus? Yeah, I think he’s Jesus?”

    I asked “Who are the sheep then?” He paused and reflected for a while “I don’t know……well, I think maybe they are people…us?” Without affirming or denying, I suggested we read the parable again so he could think about it more.

    During the second reading, my 5 year old boy literally shouted out “I knew it! It is Jesus! I knew it!” and then again “See Dad! The sheep are us!”

    By the end of the parable, with absolutely no prompting, he was literally jumping around the room smiling with a joy that I’ve rarely seen in my life. At the end, he quietly, almost in awe, told me “Daddy, I heard Jesus’ voice telling me about the shepherd and the sheep.”

    I asked “Where? How?” He pointed to his chest and said “In here dad.”

    This has not been the only time one of the kids has responded this way.

    It’s a stunning thing to see, but if we simply try to meet them where they are and speak their language, like Mary Breda, we’ll more often then not find that these are wise little souls intuitively know more than we an imagine.

    The danger is that if we try to force them to learn about God on our terms, I think we run the danger of squashing the joy out of the relationship.

    I could see that happening with my almost 8 year old already, and conversely, I can see him regaining it as we try to meet him too where he is, and speak his religious language (which incidentally is quite a bit different than a 3 to 6 year old’s).

  33. Lori

    I grew up with an uncle as a priest in the Catholic church. Saying grace, going to mass, nightly prayers were just things we did. I didn’t think about God as a kid the way I did and do as an adult-I just had that faith that there was this entity higher than me looking out after me. And I think that’s all I needed to know at that age (between ages 6 and 12 or so).
    At this age just going through the rituals is fine. This gets them prepped for later, like learning your ABC’s first before learning to read. If they were to ask at this time things like, “But why do we pray to God?” Keep the answer short and simple (or else you might lose them with their short attention spans). What that answer might be, I don’t really know. “To keep us safe”? “To help us be good boys and girls” ?
    I’m still searching this out, too. Glad you wrote about it!
    Oh, and I loved my kid’s Bible stories book-that more than my uncle or parents helped me figure what this faith thing was about!

  34. Bekah

    My four year olds faith has just blossomed this year. He is a sweet boy, but he would always complain about going to Mass or praying. Around Lent, I was instructing his 6 year old brother in how to say the Our Father during morning prayer. He wanted a morning prayer to, and in a moment of inspiration I taught him, “Jesus, I love you. Amen.” So that’s his prayer, and he prays it all the time.

    When we visit parishes which use bells at the consecration, I would whisper in his ear, “Listen, Jesus is coming! Father is praying to make the bread and wine become Jesus Body and Blood.” They don’t question the metaphysics. They just accept.

    When school started this year, we started to go to daily Mass. The first week, he was very whiny about it. Then, both the boys were so good on the last day that week that I took them to the grocery store for a big treat. That made it worth it. The next week he was better, and by the third day he’d whine when there wasn’t Mass or prayer service. Mondays are hard for him because there is never Mass or Prayer service. He tells me all day long, “Mom, I love Mary and Jesus.” Sometimes he tells me, “I love Mary and Jesus more than you.” 🙂

    So, my advice really, is just model faith and encourage them to their own ability level. An Our Father or Hail Mary may be just a little out of reach, but anyone can learn to pray, “Jesus, I love you,” or “Jesus, I trust in you.” Believe in the Spirit of their Baptism that that Grace is working in their souls.

  35. Penny

    Just live it.

  36. Susan Thompson

    Kids love things they can touch, feel, look at, etc. They love to play with a manger scene at Christmastime and to visit the one in the church, to have a collection of holy cards, to watch videos of Bible stories, etc. You can let them put a little money in the Salvation Army kettle and talk about how God wants us to help people, things like that.

  37. Katie

    Hi there. I’ve been reading your blog and I find it hilarious usually but also very brave. I’ve never known anyone who went from atheism to Christianity so fully.

    My only advice is from my own upbringing. I was brought up in a Christian home. We went to church every week and my parents (especially my dad) walked and talked as a Christian should: always trying to live as Jesus lived. My parents’ example and my constant emersion in the Bible (through little kids’ Bible stories) gave me the base I needed to keep developing my faith as I get older. I didn’t really question my parents because I was too young for something like that. I didn’t need proof or deep explanation. Sure I had questions about the trinity (no one understands that completely) or what happens when we get to heaven or lots of little kid questions. But my parents and my sunday school teachers didn’t always have the answers and that was ok with me. I was taught the mystery of God and as an innocent, open minded child (as most children seem to be), I accepted that God loved me and he and Jesus loved me so much that Jesus died for me. That’s all I needed as a young child.

    Jesus said “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17) Why did he say that? Because children just get it. They haven’t been emotionally harmed by life experiences enough to feel the love of God and feel his spirit in their lives. I hope this helps.

  38. 'Becca

    I know just what you mean about feeling awkward!! My parents seemed to think that the most important thing about religion was to avoid saying any of it was true. They were “church shopping” when I was little, then joined the Unitarian Universalists, and one of the UU principles is that each person must be “free” to find her own faith. The trouble with that is having no example to follow. I don’t mean that I had no example of moral principles or Christ-like behavior, just that it wasn’t connected to any truths about God per se.

    Then I spent my college years surrounded by proud atheists in a very PC environment, and many of my friends now are people I met then. I’m very slowly becoming more open about my faith, but it’s difficult because I fear offending people. Even my own child!

    But I’m doing my best to push past that by raising my child in a family-like parish where we participate in many different rites and gatherings. Shortly before he turned 3, he took an interest in the story of Jesus and then in other Bible stories. I read directly from an adult Bible or tell in my own words. Those are some great stories that still hold meaning for us thousands of years later, and I think that’s really cool!

    One thing my dad did right was to sort of “home-Sunday-school” me in the period when we weren’t going to church. We’d make a special place, such as a blanket tent, and he’d read a story from the Bible, and we’d discuss it. This at least gave me some knowledge of the classic stories of Judeo-Christian culture and opportunities to discuss weighty moral issues.

    My mom told me that when she visited Japan and asked about local customs, often the response was, “We Do This.” I’ve come to realize that that’s one of the main ways children learn: “We eat cranberries on Thanksgiving.” “We all hold hands in a parking lot.” “We tell God we are sorry for things we’ve done wrong, and God forgives us.” We don’t have to explain every dang thing, and sometimes it may be better not to.

    Recently my son, whenever he is marveling over something, asks me, “Did God make it?” Often my answer is, “No, people made it. God made people very smart so that we can make amazing things to help each other.” I am marveling over traffic lights, plumbing, clothing, and art like never before! 🙂

    I really appreciate your writing about this topic, and I hope you’ll return to it as new insights come to you.

  39. Flexo

    One difficulty in starting with Jesus in teaching the faith is the situation you describe. What if they start asking, who is Jesus? Then all of a sudden you start making it much more complex that it needs to be.

    A better approach for teaching the faith to little children is to use the approach that Jesus advocates, which has the benefit of being in terms that even the youngest of children can relate to. Rather than initially teaching the faith in reference to Jesus, teach it in reference to the Father.

    Jesus invites us to call God “our Father in heaven” for a reason. Parenthood and our own childness are things that everyone can relate to, and it describes the what and who of God in terms better than we could ever come up with ourselves. Our Father, the Father of all of us, is creator, provider, protector. He provides the answer to a child’s question “where do we come from?” It is this approach of teaching and thinking of God as “Father” that every child can instantly recognize and believe.

    Jesus is a little more difficult, at least during most of the year. It is best to teach little children about Jesus at Christmas time, when children quite naturally will wonder why it is that we are celebrating. Just as children can naturally relate to God the Father, so too can they relate to Baby Jesus. Having an understanding of God the creator, provider, protector as Father, they can easily understand Jesus as His Son, who is these things as well.

    Children can easily understand parenthood, childhood, and family. And they can easily understand love. Above all things, God is Love. And they can understand that there is a Father and Son who loves us totally, fully, and completely, forever and always, no matter what.

    Some of this may come more easily if little infants have seen the family, from the very beginning, making the sign of the cross, saying “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” and praying, even if they do not know or understand what it is they are doing. Or if there are crosses or crucifixes in the house, or pictures of Jesus, Mary, saints, etc. When they are older (three/four) and are able to start asking questions, then you can point to these things, which they are already familiar with, and explain what they are and why we do these things.

    ************

    One suggestion I would have — go volunteer to be an assistant at kindergarten or first grade CCD, or merely ask to sit in and observe.

  40. meandmom

    Jen,

    Do you remember as a child analyzing Santa or the Tooth Fairy to the same extent that you now analyze God? That is child like faith. As a child you trust the people you love. When you tell your child there is a God that loves them, that is all they need to know. Isn’t that beautiful? Not to HAVE to question at all? I miss those days actually.

    I agree with Marianne that love=God, God=love that is all your kids will know. As they grow, they will experience their own truths and their own objections. To me, as an adult, that is what makes faith so wonderous. It ends up taking a slightly different shape for each of us. That is a true relationship.

    Just as your relationship with your parents is unique to you, even if you have siblings. We all experience God in our own way. As a long time Sunday School teacher, that was always my joy. To watch these little individuals take that foundation of unquestionable love and then develop their own experience upon it.

  41. Milehimama

    Jen, you might like the book, “Leading Little Ones to Mary”.

    It’s easy to fall into an intellectualization of the Faith, and forget that the Catholic faith is for both head AND heart. But God tells us that His law is written on men’s hearts – it’s our default, it’s natural to believe.

    I try to explain things in ways small children can understand, then wait for questions. For example, we tell the toddlers that the sign of the cross is like a “hug” for Jesus. Because he is in heaven, we can’t hug him for real but we can still show Him we love Him (like blowing a kiss).

  42. Jennifer F.

    Wow, these are such excellent comments. I’ve been hanging on every one and really appreciate all your thoughts.

    I wanted to respond to this one part from meandmom’s comment since it’s something I should have mentioned in the post:

    Do you remember as a child analyzing Santa or the Tooth Fairy to the same extent that you now analyze God? That is child like faith.

    Actually…I don’t remember ever believing in Santa or the Tooth Fairy either. My parents did tell me about them, but in my earliest memories I *was* analyzing how Santa could possibly get down the chimney, why the Easter Bunny shopped at the same stores my mom did, etc. I never really believed it.

    So I think that’s really the big issue I face: I can’t recall ever having a childlike faith in anything.

    Again, thanks for all these excellent comments!

  43. el-e-e

    Love this discussion! I think Penny hit it on the head with her comment: Just live it. That’s all. They’ll grow up able to say, “In our house, prayer and going to Mass was just something we did, there wasn’t any question about it.” What a blessing! I think celebrating holidays is the obvious way to start with the very youngest kids – Jesus’ birthday. Bingo! You’ve introduced the concept/story of God. 🙂

    My tactic (cradle Catholic) has been to
    1-pray together i.e., grace before meals
    2-go to Mass (obviously), and
    3-enroll ’em in CCD and let someone else handle it! Because this is what my parents did!

    Kinda kidding there, but I did enroll my oldest this year… and volunteered to teach a class at the same time. On our drive home we talk about things he’s learned. It’s working for us. The other day he told me something about his eyes, and he said, “That’s just how God made me, Mommmy,” very matter of fact.

    Hope no one takes me as too flippant — obvs, parents have a responsibility to teach, ourselves — but like some other commenters have said, kids are SO open to belief and if we just let it seep in as an accepted part of their life, there’s no need to prove it to them. Yet. 😉

  44. Jen Rouse

    I really love your description of the things you WANT to say to your kids vs. what you actually say. I just had a discussion last night with a friend about children and faith. They understand things at one level as kids, and figure out what it all really means as they grow.

    We adults tend to assume they get all the implications of God, faith, etc. and worry what they might be learning from what we tell them. While we certainly ought to make sure we’re talking about our faith accurately with them, I just don’t think we need to sweat it so much. They’ll understand it at whatever level they are currently at.

  45. frival

    I can completely relate to this story. While I grew up in more of an agnostic “I’ll figure God out later” household than an atheistic one but didn’t come to the Faith until an adult. As I said to someone recently, I frequently find myself thinking “I don’t know the words to use with kids” when it comes to discussing Faith.

    You know what though, the older my kids get, the more I realize they get it more than I do a lot of the time. While I often have to wrap my head around the issue before I let it into my heart, they just take it all in at once, absorb it and move on. I routinely find myself thinking they’re better Catholics already than I’m ever likely to be.

    The one big thing for me has been getting comfortable enough with my own faith where I can live it openly and actively in front of anyone including them. I have to constantly remind myself that they are not only completely open to the Faith but are capable of far deeper understanding than I frequently give them credit for.

  46. Melanie B

    Jen,

    I think much of what we do to lead our children to have a relationship with God (and I think it’s key to remember that faith is really a relationship with a person and not a set of information we learn) is in modeling the behavior we want them to emulate. So especially with toddlers it’s less talk to them and more pray with them. They are so very visual so you can build on that with religious art. And they are very good at memorizing so you can teach them basic prayers.

    Explanations are for much later. Offer them in response to questions, but if they aren’t asking, they probably don’t need an explanation.

    I know you pray the Liturgy of the Hours. In my experience Bella is quite fascinated whenever I sit down to pray. She seems drawn to me at those times especially. At first it seemed like a nuisance, she was distracting me from my time with God, can’t she see how important this is?

    Then I began to realize it could be her time with God too. I made sure I had a bunch of holy cards in my prayer book and when I pray I let her play with them. At the end of prayers she puts them away one at a time and I name each saint and add “pray for us”: St. Theresa, pray for us; Holy Mary, pray for us, etc. For pictures of Jesus I say a simple prayer like “Jesus, I love you” or “Jesus, I trust in you.” But I never call her attention to prayer time, it’s something she does when she wants to, not something I make her do.

    As she’s gotten older, I find that she really likes to repeat the antiphons. So I say it once or twice, then call her name to get her attention. Then I say it again and most of the time she repeats it after me. I don’t force it and if she doesn’t want to pray ,I let her go back to what she’s doing. I’ve kind of got a sense now as to which antiphons she’s most likely to respond to and emphasize those.

    I also have a small crucifix hanging over her bed. When she first started to give me kisses at bedtime, I began to pull down the crucifix so she could give Jesus a kiss too. It got to be a must-do ritual for bed time (Until the nail came out of the wall and I never re-hung the crucifix.)

    I think that having such a friendly familiarity with crucifixes will help children to have their first association with that image be one of love. I don’t think very young children should necessarily be introduced to the crucifixion story, however.

    Steve G,

    Thanks for the plug for my series on The Religious Potential of the Child. I’m blushing, though, because I got distracted and never finished blogging the last few chapters and my concluding thoughts. Gotta get back on that. Except that first I’ve also got to pack and move.

  47. P

    Out of curiosity, what do you do when you tell your children about germs (with apologies to God for comparing him to a microbe)?

    A.
    “Don’t eat that, honey, it fell on the floor, so it has germs on it.”

    Or B.
    “Don’t eat that, honey, it fell on the floor. Now, the floor has no obvious dirt on it, and you cannot observe any change in the appearance of the food, but it is in fact now covered with germs. You see, the eye perceives the outside world when light reflecting on other objects impacts the retina. Now, this light is focused by a lens just inside our pupil. Because this lens is only so powerful, we cannot see objects below a certain size threshold. With a more powerful lens, you would be able to observe…”

    My suggestion: just talk about God as though He exists, because He does. Your kids will pick up on it the same way they pick up on everything else.

  48. Christine

    As a convert myself, I also have questions about sharing faith with children. My oldest is 8 and youngest is 1. With the youngest we pray every night ending with “and thank you God, for Jesus who loves us”. We speak of God throughout the day and it is just a normal part of our living. My oldest amazes me with his understanding. The other day he said, “When I do something wrong it feels like God and that angel that was kicked out of heaven are fighting in my heart.” Wow, you can’t get deeper than that. Since I never believed as a child this faith he has is amazing to me. Enjoy their spiritual ease, feed off of it!

  49. Shel

    The best thing you can do for children is to live your faith. Show them, by how you live, that God is real, you believe in Him and worship Him. Faith is a private and a corporate exercise. My girls see my husband and I pray, read the Bible, go to church, Bible Study, etc. They go to church and Sabbath School where there are lessons designed for their age groups to teach them the finer points of our beliefs. I grew up in a Christian home and God wasn’t presented as an optional belief but as an established fact. We weren’t forced to believe in God, but we didn’t ever know until we were at least school age, maybe older, that unbelief was out there. By the time we noticed that some people weren’t believers, we had already accepted Him. I have two sisters, two daughters, one niece, two nephews and many many friends with similar backgrounds, and most of us cannot pinpoint the moment we became believers. Check out Keys for Kids. It is a bimonthly devotional for families from Children’s Bible Hour. We’ve been using it with our girls for a couple years now, and my folks used it with us for most of my childhood. It is mailed to you free (they encourage donations), or you can look at it online. I like it mailed to us, but I once had to print out a months’ worth PDF.

    I would agree with the idea that we are born with an innate belief in God, He created us. Sin is the only thing that allows us to not believe in Him. Even the demons know there is a God and are afraid. Creation knows there is a God.

  50. lyrl

    I don’t remember ever believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa either. My parents didn’t believe in them, and so they were not convincing when they talked to me about them.

    But I knew they believed in God, and so I did, too.

    Furthermore, although I enjoyed the community of the church where my mother was the music director, God was not something I spent any time thinking about. It never even occurred to me to question the existence of God until I was in college.

  51. Misty

    I have so enjoyed this post, and many of the comments. I can relate to the worries and anxieties of talking to your children and I feel that I don’t do enough because of it. But there are other things that trip me up, and so I’m hoping to join in the conversation. 🙂

    For one, I hear some of the ridiculous things that adults say to children and it gets under my skin. For example “Jesus wants you to do _______”. “When you act this way, you make Jesus sad.” “That is not putting a smile on God’s face.” I think that things like that only make children fearful of God, or make them feel like they have to please him in some way.

    Someone mentioned fictional characters like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. I once heard the arguement that if children grow up hearing about these and Jesus in the same context, that it could be potentially shattering when the child learns that Santa is not real. Does that mean Jesus is not real?

    There are so many good suggestions here and I do agree that the important stuff is our actions. If what you are saying is consistent with what you are doing, it will have far more impact. And children do consider us the experts on everything so I really live by the rule that you should tell them as much as they possibly understand and do your best to maintain that authority and respect so that when they do start to have tough questions they will come to you.

    Still it is a bit intimidating at times. Part of me does want to give my children the freedom to learn and experience the love of Christ on their own terms, instead of growing resentful or feeling that they have to believe because we do. Still I know I let my fears stand in the way of giving more spiritual instruction and I am grateful for this post to get me thinking about it.

    Thanks for letting me unload in your comment section. 🙂 Anyone else feel this way at times?

  52. Anonymous

    i teach them to take everything to God in prayer. for example, when our oldest was a toddler, and he first tried stacking his blocks and became SO frustrated when his tower tumbled, i said, “Let’s ask Jesus to help!” i held his chubby little hands and prayed, “Lord Jesus, please help Levi stack his blocks. Amen.” then, “Okay, now try again.” i kid you not: *every* time we prayed, he’d be able to accomplish the little task he was attempting, and then he’d clap and giggle! once he could speak, i taught him to thank God for answering. as he grew, we even experienced some mini-miracles in answer to his little prayers. i don’t know if our merciful Abba was showering us with extra graces to build his little faith, or what, but i’ve now taught three more to come to the Lord with *any* concern, and– by His grace– they all love and trust God. Levi made his first Holy Communion this year, and knows he can trust God, no matter the outcome.

  53. Anonymous

    I don’t know if anyone has said this…there are a lot of comments. I definitely think it’s possible to overdo the whole “teaching the faith” thing with children. How many adults (especially those raised Catholic) do you know who walk around with a childISH understanding of faith? I know a lot of them. This is because they had the faith dumbed down and drilled into them from an early age, then they got disillusioned, disaffected, disappointed, etc. Think about how your faith came to you, and try to imagine replicating that experience in a 3- or 4- year old. Most likely you are all going to get frustrated. There is a reason that the church does not fully initiate toddlers. My advice is relax and let them observe you having a deep life in your own faith. Give them the tools and let them grow in their own way.

    Or, here’s another way to look at it…I, too, came into the church as an adult, after having been baptized and then raised without religion–much like you. Think about how much it meant to come to Christ as an adult. I know that I felt *lucky* to have made some mistakes in my life, in order to be forgiven them, exactly so that I could know how great God’s mercy truly is. I think when we try to protect our children from all of the bad experiences and decisions we made, we actually work counter to our intentions, and create the next generation of cynical, “recovering” Catholics because we shoved concepts such as redemption on people who had no need of it.

    I also want to say that it is easy to romanticize the faith of a toddler. Toddlers are cute in everything they do. My experience with real children of all ages is that most are not very “into” church. I wouldn’t focus on that. I would focus on the big picture, the adult your child will someday be. Try to give your children the tools to have an ADULT faith some day, not necessarily a CHILDLIKE faith today. Which one is going to serve them in the long haul?

    Catherine

  54. Carrien

    This is something I have really enjoyed learning about the past few years. As part of our home school Bible subject, we have been keeping Jewish feast days to get an idea of the context into which the gospel was breathed.

    Anyway, while preparing for passover one year I read these words, “you shall observe this rite. “And when your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’you shall say…,”Exd 12:26-27

    And then we celebrated the feast and oh boy did my kids ask questions, and we answered them. And they remember those lessons to this day.

    It got me thinking that God is a very good teacher. He knows what it takes for us to learn and remember things. It’s ritual, and celebration, and memorable days. It’s the step outside the ordinary for a purpose that makes space for curiosity, and the questions that follow. All of the feasts God commanded serve the purpose of teaching the next generation, in very tangible, memorable ways.

    So, as you go about your day and your life of faith include them in it. And wait for them to say, “Mommy, why are you doing that?”

    Why are you giving that poor person our old clothes? Why are we going to mass tonight? Where is God? Why can’t I see him? (My kids have actually asked this, fairly young, and that’s when you can dig deeper.)

    Live your faith, take them along, let them see, and allow the space to grow for them to wonder before you give them the answer.

    It’s working at my house. 🙂

  55. mary ann

    Don’t forget. God is part of the relationship, and can hold up His end of it! You can trust Him to lead and inspire your child.

  56. 'Becca

    Melanie wrote:
    I don’t think very young children should necessarily be introduced to the crucifixion story, however.

    Why not?

    When my parents and I were talking about how my son had come to the decision to be baptized at age 3, they asked what I’d told him about Jesus. Upon hearing that I’d explained exactly how He died, their first reaction was strong disapproval: “That’s too scary; it’s gross; it’s not appropriate.”

    But it’s so important!

    I reminded my parents that when I was little and asked about why American Indians don’t own all the land in the USA, why my ancestors immigrated here, what is a nuclear bomb, or what does “segregation” mean…they did not skip over the scary parts. They solemnly and gently explained the horrible things some people have done and why we must never let such things happen again. Thus, when I first saw a crucifix (I went to Catholic school for a year for academic reasons), I immediately recognized it as an image akin to the photo of black children being plastered against a wall by a fire hose–something that is hard to look at but that we have to face so that we can learn from it and become better people.

    I told my son about the birth of Jesus during Advent last year. Then he wanted to hear the whole story of Jesus. I talked at some length about things Jesus taught. I explained how the priests and police (“people who were supposed to be helpers!”) were mad at Him because he was teaching that they were wrong and not so important as they thought they were. I told the story of the Last Supper, which he already knew from asking questions about Communion. Then, I just don’t see how I could have skipped over the crucifixion. I got teary-eyed as I explained the nails through the hands and hanging in the hot sun.

    My son asked, “What did Jesus say then?” I was astonished by the appropriateness of this question–it was like he KNEW Jesus’ last words had been recorded. I told him. I told him Jesus suffered horribly and finally died.

    My little child looked right into my eyes and commanded firmly, “Tell the rest of it.” Again, he KNEW that was not the end. He was so thrilled by the resurrection! For weeks he went around grabbing random people to make sure they had heard this story. 🙂 I think it would’ve had a lot less impact if I’d downplayed the horror of Jesus’ death. You have to hit that low point to realize just how high the high point is.

    I became an Episcopalian as a teenager because I found Catholic Mass compelling but disagreed with the Catholic stance on some social issues. Now, one of the reasons I’m glad to be an Episcopalian is that we do confession for everyone and allow anyone who is baptized to receive Communion. These are the two rituals that first grabbed the attention of my child and drew him into routine participation, and he’s getting a lot out of them, so I’m grateful that he doesn’t have to wait until he’s 7. I don’t fully understand Catholic arrangements for confession; do you teach children to repent in some other way before they are old enough to confess to a priest?

  57. Ryan

    “Childlike faith” does not mean the absence of questions or analysis, it means the presence of trust.

    Children should be encouraged to raise the difficulties that occur to their minds. They have not always been much encouraged in this matter. Take the child who suddenly asks “Who made God?” Boys have told me what happened. Either they were punished for irreverence or they were wept over. They should, of course, have been rewarded, because they were using their minds on one of the great truths.Frank Sheed – Are We Really Teaching Religion?

    When belief is rather weak in a society (like ours), the not very welcome question for believers, not least those who are supposed to hold positions of leadership and teaching authority, is whether we look remotely trustworthy. Often all we can do is to go on telling the stories of those who keep us going; I may not look very credible, but I can at least point to someone who does. And as long as there are those who effectively and bravely take responsibility for God, the doors remain open and the possibility is there for others, perhaps very slowly, to find their way to a point where they can say, ‘I believe.’ Not just, ‘I’m convinced that there is something called God’ (on its own, that’s too like believing in UFOs), nor even, ‘I’m convinced that believers are talking about something real’ (though that’s a step in the right direction, and one that is often connected with the presence of trustworthy, credible people around), but the ultimate choice, ‘I want to live in the same world as them; I want to know what they know and to drink from the same wells.’ That’s when we can truly say, ‘I believe; I have confidence; I take refuge; I have come home.’Rowan Williams – Tokens of Trust.

  58. midlife mommy

    This is really hard for me now, because I am having a personal crisis of faith, but I don’t let on to my daughter. I just talk about Him in little ways. Sometimes, the only way to end a series of “why” is “because that’s the way God made it.” And, to say that God talks to us in our hearts, and is happy when we choose the right thing and sad when we don’t. Just like our hearts tell us. Things like that. We don’t pray that much, because I haven’t been praying that much, sad to admit, but true.

  59. Jessica

    I think the main thing about talking to toddlers isn’t so much getting them to believe- but to give evidence of how invested we are in having God in our lives. Just like if their father was overseas, you would constantly show pictures and tell them about him, etc. Just so they get the idea that it is important to you and a constant part of your life.

    And as they get older, your actions will speak louder than words anyway (not that you want to stop talking!).

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