Can Toddlers Believe In God? The Lessons Start Young

“Why are those men wearing hats?” my son asked when we were strolling from the library during the Jewish holidays. My son is nearly 3 — and like many toddlers is capable of asking questions about religion and gods. But can a toddler believe in a god? I thought about his question for a second.

“Their god likes them to wear hats.”

“Why don’t we wear hats?”

“Because our god doesn’t care about hats. He wants us to pray before we eat.” I explained.

Before every meal, my husband and I take a moment to dedicate our meal to the three principles of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. These rituals just skim the surface of the religion, but I hold on and express those moments as much as I can to expose my child to our beliefs.

Like many parents raising their children within a specific religion, we believe we are passing along a vital part of our culture and values to the next generation. But we also understand that trying to explain concepts of reincarnation or the origin of humanity to a toddler who is still learning why they have to put caps on a marker feels a bit ironic (and maybe even silly) at times.

Introducing and discussing religious elements is a little like teaching your child a second language at home. But where you can tangibly witness your child learning a language, it’s harder to know how much of their religious learnings they are taking onboard. By age 4, children can understand the irreversibility of death, reports National Geographic. By 5 or 6, kids may understand the concept of an all-powerful god, according to Newsweek's Ashley Merryman. "They understand that, even though mommies are very smart, God knows things that mommies can't know," Merryman wrote. On the other hand, Jean Piaget's theory of moral development argued that children learn not from imposed rules and modes of order, but from learning themselves about the consequences of their actions.

The author's son at a Buddhist temple. Photo courtesy of Ambika Samarthya-Howard

Either way, many parents feel very passionate about passing on their religious framework to their children. My friend, Daniel Mond, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew and is a teacher at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, says, “I want my son to have the choice about being a Jew who is fully immersed in his culture and nationality — and to do that he has to be ‘literate’ in the Jewish religion,” he tells me. “Being brought up as an active member of a practicing religious community greatly enriched my life, and I want him to have that available to him.”

To make religion more tangible and accessible, many parents focus on fostering a religious community. They still of course are not entirely sure if it will have any impact on their child’s relationship with god, for example, and for many parents, there is a great deal of anxiety around the question of how to foster that relationship. After sending your child to a religious school or taking them to church, did any of it matter?

Caroline, mother of two boys who go to Catholic daycare and regularly attend church, who asked to be identified only by her first name, isn’t sure how much her elder son understands his religion. “The verdict is that he (Henry) very seriously says ‘Yes, I do believe.’ And then I ask him if he knows who God is, and he says ‘no.’ And then goes back to his cartoon.”

A 2 to 5-year-old is going to see god as a magical being.

This seems to be exactly what is expected in terms of a child’s development. Dr. Pooja Dave, a clinical health psychologist at Cambridge Health Alliance and clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, explains to me by phone that “religious understanding parallels the stages of moral and cognitive development. For example, a 2 to 5-year-old is going to see god as a magical being, prayer as a sort of wish that is heard and fulfilled magically, and their religious identity is going to be just a label (e.g., ‘I am Jewish’).”

But a school-aged child will be more literal — “god is a man in the sky with a beard,” Dr. Dave says, “and their understanding of prayer is going to be a negotiation.”

This early magical view of god was reflected in the children I spoke with. Kaya*, 4, was raised atheist but within the Hindu culture and matter-of-factly said “no” when asked if there was a god. But her latest superhero and role model is Hanuman.

Hilary’s 3-year-old, Mirah, smiled when I asked her if she believes in god. “My Little Pony?” She replied.

When I asked Shelly Agarwala's 3-year-old daughter Lalita, who has been raised Hindu and Christian (but more culturally than religiously) if she believes in god, she immediately responded “I am God!” but went on to quickly add “Ganesha is amazing. He has such a big elephant head but never breaks anything.” It made me smile.

My cousin’s 6-year-old daughter, Priya Levine, said, “Yes, I believe in God. God makes people.” She also quickly followed by asking her mom if she believed in unicorns. (She said yes, of course.)

Shelly Agarwala‘s 3-year-old daughter, Lalita. Photo courtesy of Shelly Agarwala.

The jump between a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old’s response to the question demonstrates the developmental leap in that time. I corresponded via email with Rebecca Mannis, PhD, a learning specialist who trained in developmental psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and also founded Ivy-Prep Learning Center, who puts this growth in context.

“A child’s spiritual development grows and shifts as two other things are happening. One, the child is growing and experiencing the world internally. Two, the child is taking in and thinking about those experiences and storing associations based on her own internal observations and based on watching the models of other people," Mannis says. "This is one reason that it is so important for children to have many concrete experiences as part of a family or community and also the chance to learn from their grownups that other people do things a different way. As children’s critical thinking, language, motor, and memory skills develop, so too does their ability to develop abstract concepts and to understand the point of view of other people.”

What’s most interesting is how babies and toddlers can “hold” concepts, and Mannis cites Jean Piaget’s theory on how babies and toddlers primarily take in experiences at the sensory level, holding on to what they see, feel, hear, and taste. “But as they develop language and the ability to move, concepts stay with them even if they are not present at each moment,” she says.

In other words, they develop the ability to conduct abstract thought about themselves and others — to moralize, and so on.

I meditate around him and encourage him to take deep breaths to calm down. This does not mean he necessarily understands what I’m doing as part of my religion.

Practitioners, parents, and psychologists alike all agree the importance of religion’s connections to morality — practicing what you preach. I was raised Hindu, with all its rituals and practices from regular temple visits to pujas and celebrations. At the same time, my conservative Hindu father was also physically and verbally abusive at home. The hypocrisy of being religious and acting immorally hit me hard. This, combined with the politics of Hinduism in India becoming tied with the religious right and anti-Muslim violence, turned me away from the religion.

But I felt the desire for religious community and tradition in my life, and became Buddhist several years ago. One of the things that drew me into the religion was the explicit connection between morality and religion. My teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, advises to “teach children about cause and effect. And as a result of that to emphasize certain positive states of mind as a means to achieve any goals in life.”

This can be taught as soon as children are able to understand actions or speech and their effects.

The author's cousin's 6-year-old-daughter Priya Levine, dressed for Diwali. Photo courtesy of Shrimathi Bathey.

If we understand that religion at a young age is primarily about modeling and teaching values, then just as my father un-taught me Hinduism through his actions, how we model moral behavior and connect it (or not) to religion is the heart of the matter.

We often explain to my son how insects have feelings and that’s why we don’t hurt them. I meditate around him and encourage him to take deep breaths to calm down. This does not mean he necessarily understands what I’m doing as part of my religion: I fully acknowledge that when my son sits next to me quietly on my bed while I meditate it’s because he’s avoiding sleep, not because he’s trying to get closer to enlightenment.

I also understand that if I’m raising my son Buddhist, it’s also my responsibility to make sure he’s not isolated and that he’s aware of other religions. Dr. Dave talks about identity formation once a child is 5. Their identity will also be literal, she explains: “I am a Jew because my family is Jewish and so, therefore, my cat is Jewish.”

Lauren, a mother-to-be, was raised Catholic. She told me how isolated she felt when she went to high school and realized not everyone else was Catholic and there were indeed different belief systems in the world. She’s decided to expose her child to many religions and not raise her strictly Christian because of this.

This resonates with what I heard from Dr. Anne Klaeysen, Clergy Leader for the New York Society for Ethical Culture and a Columbia University Chaplain. “For parents who do raise their children within a denomination,” she told me, “it is important to raise children who are aware of those who practice their beliefs and values in other ways by visiting different worship spaces and learning about different religions.“

The New York Society for Ethical Culture is a humanist community, with no religious teachings — adults and children alike in the congregation make sense of the world through an ethical framework of, essentially, what is right or wrong. They make sense of death with secular memorials, and celebrate life with naming ceremonies — it’s essentially church without a god. Dr. Klaeysen challenges the idea that structured religion has a sole claim to the teaching of values. As Klaeysen says, “Ethics gets lived on the playground, in the classroom.” (There are programs across the country run by the Societies of the American Ethical Union, focusing on development of the moral reasoning process, and Klaeysen recommends the book Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan, a practical guide that helps parents who choose to raise children without religion as critical thinkers and moral agents.)

It may be a few years before our children see prayer as more than just magic.

So how should I answer my son when he asks about hats? Mannis has three points of advice:

Firstly, in an unfamiliar or new situation, use words related to the experience to give children labels and grounding. For example “That is called a kippah/yarlmukah and it is something some Jewish people do to show they are in a special place close to God. Just like that special dress your friend was wearing during Diwali, the ceremony we did at grandma’s house."

Secondly, give children meaningful experiences in your own faith. For parents of toddlers, this means providing small, concrete experiences, like lighting candles, and attaching specific labels to them.

Lastly, speak to the experience, what they see, and how they otherwise experience the moment in a practical way, and when appropriate, attach feeling labels.

“Parents don’t need to ‘cover all the bases’ when they explain, but they can engage the child in what they both see or share in the moment and acknowledge things that they do not know or are uncertain about,” Mannis says. For example, “I don’t know what those words mean either, but the people all look so happy and I like how they are dancing.”

Regardless of the fact that a toddler is not capable of understanding what god is, using concrete language and labels, and giving kids memorable experiences will go a long way for communicating both religions and moral frameworks. We may have to accept that it may be a few years before our children see prayer as more than just magic, or god as more than a superhero. This can maybe help us get out of our boxes, too.

The other night, when my son saw me meditating in my room he pulled me down on the bed, held me tightly and gave me his biggest smile, “Can you meditate like this?”

Why not? I’ll give it a try.

*First names were used for some minors.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the author of Parenting Beyond Belief. It has been corrected.

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