The holidays in our household are, for us, the perfect hodgepodge of religious traditions. My husband is Jewish and I was raised Catholic, so we have a menorah next to our tree and we put cookies out for Santa. Our daughter gleefully cheers as dreidels spin across our living room floor. Holiday books are stories about Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and the Festival of Lights. It works for us, but our conversations about how we will discuss religion in our house are ongoing. Like many parents who wonder how to explain God to your kid, we want to be well-equipped with the best tools to discuss spirituality. But experts say it’s not that tricky as long as you stay open to the conversation.
“When talking to children about God, the first thing to consider is the child’s age in regards to their cognitive development, as this is important in a child’s ability to understand a very abstract idea," Jaime Malone, a licensed professional counselor at New Jersey-based Insight Counseling and Consulting, tells Romper in an email interview. "For young children — generally under age 7 — a concept as abstract as God may be very hard to understand. These children are considered 'pre-operational' thinkers in that they very much understand the world from their experiences and their own viewpoint."
Malone says at the pre-operational stage — a reference to psychologist Jean Piaget's model of cognitive development — God and related religious concepts might best be understood in relation to a child’s behaviors as they relate to God, such as prayers or attending services.
"As a child’s cognitive development progresses, so does his or her ability to understand more abstract concepts, therefore his or her ability to understand more about God will be possible," Malone says. "So as you see your child able to consider and reason about experiences and objects he or she has never understood, it’s a good indicator he or she is ready to grow her thinking about God."
Dr. Carole Lieberman, author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror, tells Romper in an email interview that it's also important for parents to expose children to traditions of your religion and spirituality, before there is a specific discussion about God. "It is important — in today’s world of hurricanes, earthquakes and terror attacks — for your child to feel grounded in some belief system," Lieberman says. "This will comfort them."
Malone says when your child comes to you with questions about religion, you should consider what they are asking from you before you respond. "Sometimes when children come to parents with big questions, like 'what is God?' parents feel a pressure to answer the questions," she says. "But sometimes, answers aren’t exactly what children need to their questions. Children may just want to think and share." Malone says parents may respond with more open-ended questions such as, "I’d love to hear more about what you’re thinking” or “thank you for sharing your thoughts with me."
"These types of responses help to keep the conversation lines open, so that they continue to come to you with the big questions," Malone says.
Lieberman agrees, adding that if children start asking specific questions, like, “What does God look like?” you can first ask them what they think, and then ask where they got those ideas. "If you feel comfortable with your child’s impression, then you can let it be or embellish it based upon your own beliefs."
Consider also that, like everything you do, children will learn from your actions. Praying at night, holiday traditions, and reading books related to your religious beliefs will help to create conversation about religion. In our house, we keep a stack of Anne Neilsen's Scripture Cards on our bookshelf and Claire regularly picks one for me to read to her. Last week, she sat on the counter while we poured apples and honey into our Rosh Hashanah cake, and I told her about the luck behind the sweet ingredients. She's only 2 years old, but I know that it's the little things that will help to someday bring about conversation about spirituality.
It doesn't hurt that some of them taste pretty damn good, too.
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