When Children Ask About God
Florence W. KlaberFrom Florence W. Klaber, "WHEN CHILDREN ASK ABOUT GOD," in Ethics as a Religion.
"My child asks about God; what do I tell him?"
Over and over again this question is asked with deepest concern. Parents who are themselves happy in our humanistic Ethical faith, with all its wide-open expanses of agnosticism, feel great need of help, and naturally turn to us.
If such a parent comes to me, before I attempt any answer, I counter with a few questions: How old is your child? Under what circumstances did he ask? What neighbors (or help) do you have? I want first to know just what the child is seeking. Is he asking for mere information? Or is he disturbed? If four-year-old Alice says, "Johnny talks to God every night. Who is God?" her query comes not from any deep need in herself, but only to know what the word God means. This requires one kind of answer.
On the other hand, if Alice says, "Johnny says I'm a bad girl and will be punished because I don't tell God every night to make me good," this involves Alice herself and calls for another kind of explanation. Eight-year-old Dick needs still another answer when he says, "The boys think I'm funny because I don't go to the Synagogue!" — (or "to Church School with Peter. Lots of the boys in our class go. They learn about God and Christ.") Then there is Mary Ann, a thoughtful child of seven who has been really moved by accompanying her nurse to the Catholic Church, watching her dip her hand in holy water and genuflecting to the altar. Beauty-loving Mary has feasted her eyes on the stained-glass windows and felt her heart leap up as the organ poured forth its glory. She wants to know about the God who dwells here. She wants to have a part of him. She is really the only one who presents a real problem.
Let us consider Alice and Dick first. If Alice at four wants to know who is this God to whom Johnny prays, one answer can be': "Some people think that all the goodness in the world can hear and see the way we do, and that you can talk to this goodness. They call goodness God. Johnny's mother must think that way, and so she has taught Johnny to talk to God. I think it's nicer for you to talk to Mommy and Daddy." "Is God like you and Daddy?" "Some people think God is like a person — like Daddy and me; but Daddy and I do not believe that. People have lots of ideas about God; but no one really knows what he is. That's why Daddy and I think it does not help much to talk to you about God. If we really knew, we'd tell you. As we don't, we can't." The chances are very good that some such answer will satisfy Alice. If Daddy and Mother, the almost omniscient, do not know, why need she bother her own little head?
On the other hand, if Johnny has worried her about being bad, the little girl may need more reassurance': "Don't worry, dear; I'm sure Johnny's wrong. You know yourself when you are good and when you are bad. You know yourself when you should be punished. Believe Mother, it is not naughty not to talk to God. If Johnny's Mother likes him to do it, he should. You do not need to." All that Alice wants is reassurance; and she can get it in a positive way.
Dick too needs reassurance. He is not so worried about God, Jesus, or the Mosaic law, even though he may use them as a symbol. What he wants is to be acceptable — not beyond the pale. He wants his parents to be "right people." He must be given the assurance that they are such persons even if they do not go to Church or to Synagogue. Here his parents can help him in an affirmative way. He must feel that they have a sense of really belonging or of some kind of dedication which satisfies them, and so completely that they are eager to share their belonging or their dedication with him. While this paper is addressed to members of the Ethical Societies, I have put in the "dedication" for readers who have joined no religious group. Feeling so dedicated to their own idea of living the good life, they do not feel the need of any association to strengthen themselves. Their task is to transmit their ideals in their own way to their boys and girls.
Members of Ethical Societies have an easier task. They can say to their children, "We belong to a fellowship which is very dear to us. Today, as our children, you too belong, just as truly as boys and girls belong to the Temple and the Church which their parents attend. There are not so many of us as there are Christians and Jews; but we are a happy group who have faith in our faith and in each other." What is your religion, Mother?" "I suppose every member of the Society has his own special belief; but I think what I am going to tell you expresses the idea most of us have. We do not know about God; and so we do not say that we want to lead a good life because (as many religions think) this will make God happy, or because I am a child of God. Instead, we think that it is our duty to be just as fine and good as possible just because we are people, and people can be good if they want to be. We have learned that when we work for the good of others and want to make these persons happy, the world becomes a better place for all of us to live in. We feel that it is our duty, and our happiness, too, to try to help other people be as good and happy as they can, and that they will help us in the same way. Our religion is to help each other all the time. That is what Ethical Culture people call their religion."
It depends on the age and the maturity of the child whether the conversation ends there for the time being, or whether the child continues it. You have to follow his lead and answer what he asks and not push the subject further than he wants to take it. He \ may come back to God. He may say "All my friends believe in God. I want to believe in him too." You counter: "I think you will find that although they all use the word God, their ideas of God are different. Some people who believe in God think of a kind of superman. Some call God a spirit; some think of him as a power; some as the First Cause that started the whole world going. There are so many meanings that people have, you couldn't believe in all." "Well, I want to believe in some kind of God." "You certainly can and should if you want to. But you must study to find out what you are going to mean when you say God."
Then if you parents yourselves have some kind of a God feeling or idea by which you explain the universe, you can say to your child': "I think everyone has to discover his own religion; but if you want to know what I like to believe, it is this —•" ... and then give him your own deepest convictions about life and the universe. If you are atheistically-minded, you can say: "I myself don't believe in a God; and the word God does not mean anything to me. But lots of people like to use it; and you will have to study to know what it means and use the word in the way that makes sense to you, if you use it at all." If your child does not attend a Children's Sunday Assembly, you might add: "I think you should go to the Ethical Sunday School. There you won't hear the word God so much; but you'll find out a lot about life and good living. You will learn what the long-ago people thought about God, and what many people think today. You will learn how wonderful life is. From all of these things you can build your religion and decide for yourself whether you want to use the word God in it or not."
If he already goes to Sunday School and asks, "Why don't we talk about God in Sunday School?" you can explain the Ethical idea stated above and perhaps say, "Everything in Sunday School is done so that you can have the knowledge and the feelings to build your own religion. Your teachers there do not tell you what to believe; but they give you material to find your belief. Your mother prepares your food; but you have to eat it for yourself. Study with your teachers, work with them, play with them, and try to understand. They will help you make important discoveries. So you will be forming your own religion. You can then make up for yourself your mind about God."
Whatever you Ethical parents do, please do not let your children become scoffers. Though you deny a God, do not let them get a feeling of superiority over the benighted people who believe. It is part of our Ethical religion to respect each other's sincere reverences. Let us not forget this when it comes to God.
What about Mary Ann, who deeply responds to the God idea and wants to worship him? How can she be given the security she craves? If you, her parent, have any leanings towards God in your own personal philosophy, share them with her: "You and I feel this way — let's share this God together. If you like to think about him in Church, I'll visit different Churches with you. I too like the ^eel* of Church. I'd like you to go to the Ethical Children's Assembly too. You can learn there and in the Churches and develop your own big thoughts." If, however, your feeling about God is re ally negative, you must say honestly, "For me, Mary Ann, God is just a beautiful fairy-tale. But many people do not agree with me. In the Ethical Children's Sunday Assembly, although they do not worship God, you will learn much about what other people have thought about him, and many important facts which will help you understand life and how to live it. You will probably call what you learn there *God'; and you have every right to do this. All people who believe in God really have to make their own idea. God, if there is one, is too great for a human being to understand."
Children with this God longing and belief have come to our Children's Sunday Assemblies; and some have been satisfied. A very few have completely withdrawn. As a mother of one of these children said: "I know Kate is a little Catholic at heart. You can't make her happy." She was right. She withdrew with our Ethical blessing. As I told her mother, "Don't make her go where she is not happy; but please do not expect us to teach what we cannot substantiate.” When your children question you, follow the same principle; Tell them what you hold to be the truth; share with them your own (not necessarily the Ethical Society's) honest convictions. If you do that, you will not fail them.
This document is part of a larger document, "Understanding Ethical Religion" edited by Howard B. Radest.
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