If you don't talk to your kids about it someone else will

If I've learned anything about parenting, it seems you spend most of your time catching up to what your children have already been trying to figure out. In the last 6 months or so we've gotten a number of questions about death from the Wee One. At five years old kids are starting to figure out that things die and the natural question is "then what?" I've provided answers about the chemicals in your body going back into the Earth so that other things can grow, largely to a dissatisfied stare in return.

"So you then grow into a horse? Or a squirrel?"

"Well, maybe some of the chemicals in your body help to make up a squirrel..."

"Daddy, I'm becoming a squirrel when I die!"

We've had a few of these conversations, which have become a bit more productive over time, but it's a challenging concept so I let her go at her own pace. What I didn't expect to have a conversation about was something that came up last night.

We were listening to the kid's album Snack Time by the Bare Naked Ladies and the song "Raisin" came on. The very first line of the song is:

"Raisins come from grapes, people come from apes"

The Wee One looked up and said "Why did they say that? How can we come from apes?"

Hey, teachable moment, I thought! "Well, honey, apes are kind of like our really distant cousins. People and apes share a greatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreat grandmother and..."

"But daddy, GOD made people! My friends and teachers told me that."

And I was all:

Alrighty then! Nothing like playing from behind in a game you didn't know you were in. For the next hour we chatted about religions, what it meant and why different people believe different things. She was offended that there were no "girl gods" and insisted that she should be able to grow up to be a girl god and I told her that seemed like a reasonable request. In the end she told me that she still thought god made people, but it was a girl god. For now, I'll take it.

But for an atheist family with a child going to a school that celebrates no religion-based holidays and prides itself on diversity, I was (stupidly) unprepared to field these kinds of questions. Good lesson to learn now.

24 responses so far

  • MediumPriority4Life says:

    Ah yes, in my public school system my 8 year old has been told she will burn in hell by another 8 year old. She was badgered for a while but this has died down after several months. I think several kids were surprised to meet someone that does not believe in god.

    Some how I got ahead of society in teaching up my kids. I knew I was slightly ahead when my daughter was reciting the pledge of allegiance and would say "one nation under good". I just left that alone.

    My kids have been pretty content to hear my explanation that the world does not have room to keep everyone around forever and that I need to eventually go in order to make room for their kids to have kids and so on.

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    This is actually a wonderful opportunity to start talking about the difference between belief and questioning and the requirement for both (it's unquestioning belief that is the problem). Kids have a wonderfully naive but clear view of the world that deserve careful consideration. I know I learned a lot from my kids - about my ability to make rational arguments and question assumptions in a non-defensive manner. It's a key life skill as a scientist.

    The issue of unquestioning societal acceptance/pushing of organized religion in schools is also something most kids have to deal with. Engage! 🙂

  • Arseny says:

    Religion (or rather people's personal belief systems) surround us: they are everywhere. Being prepared to handle them nicely in life is probably not much less important than knowing details of human evolution =) It's a social skill, and an important one. So it is a useful experience for a kid. You hear something from a nursery teacher; something different from your parent, yet something different from your friend. In a few years some kind of synthesis will come. You realize that people can be mistaken, but that it is not a good reason to hate them, or generally mistrust them when they discuss other topics.

    And in terms of brainwashing... My feeling so far is that early childhood brainwashing can actually work as a vaccine. If the talk about God becomes controversial that early in life, them kids can develop a critical eye for it pretty soon. Nursery teachers that retell the book of Genesis to preschoolers don't realize that they probably decrease the chances for these kids growing up "believers" in any sense of this word.

  • rs says:

    Actually in Hindu religion there are many goddess, and they are very powerful.

  • Casey says:

    If you don't already know about it, I highly recommend Dale McGowan's excellent blog "The Meming of Life", about atheist parenting. He also just released a book, "Atheism for Dummies"

  • chall says:

    ahh... the dicotomy between "God created humans" and "we decend from the apes". I thought when I was a child that God was a white bairded man in the sky on a cloud, then the evolution theory was introduced in 5th grade or so ... I then ended up with my own little thought since I don't think they're contradictory since I'm not "literally" believing God created it all in 6 days as said in the Bible. I'd start there, with "faith" and "believing" is different than "the books says so on page 4".

    As for the girl gods, I'd go look at Greece and Nordic gods as well as Hinduism (as previously mentioned in the comments). Athena, Artemis, Freja(Freya), Idun and Kali comes to mind...... some of them not so "stereotypical girls either" 🙂

  • DJMH says:

    My 3 year old recently got very upset that he was going to be a grown-up someday. I asked him why, and he said, "Because I want to be an allosaurus!"

    We've already had talks about God because we're surrounded by churches. So far he seems content with the concept that some people are into it, and some people aren't, and he can choose for himself.

  • Arseny says:

    One of my kids told me once, out of the blue: "When you become a small child once again you can play with my toys". It made me sad for some reason =)

  • We're already concerned about this issue and our child is only 18 months old! Churches are everywhere where we live and the 'best' preschools are religious ones. What to do? I'm sure hoping we find a non-religious preschool! I was raised Jewish, so even the thought of Easter Egg hunts is something that I'm discovering I have a big problem with. Religion will definitely be a topic that I hope we will discuss as a family.

  • My younger one was surprised by the firm and uniform denial of the other kids when xe announced at circle time one day that Santa wasn't real but was really your grandparents since santa is a game a lot of grown-ups play. This is at a pre-school that also celebrates no holidays.

    The information xe repeats to us about MLK Jr, earthquakes and the plague has been surprisingly accurate.

    I should check in with hir about the god thing...

  • Kalmia says:

    When we left our liberal PhD town and moved to conservative postdoc 1 state, we had lots of talks with kiddo about this kind of thing. We knew she would be hearing it from the other kids, if not teachers. We do talk to her about "God" and the Bible, and how some people believe those stories are true. We also tell her about other religions and their stories. She loves to hear different creation stories, Native American ones in particular. She likes the idea of reincarnation or cycling back into something else.

    We are now in an ultra conservative area for postdoc 2 and she is the only kid in her class who doesn't go to church. She is different from most of the other kids around here (also only vegetarian her teacher has EVER had in 15+ yrs of teaching), but she gets along well with other kids. We are frank with her about the fact that some people will think we are bad people because we don't go to church, but we know we are good people so it doesn't matter what anyone says.

    These are hard conversations to have with a kiddo, but I think it's best to have regular, casual conversations than one big one. We have similar conversations about homophobia and racism, again not easy, but better she hears it from us.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    We plan to start having these casual conversations more often, I guess I just hadn't really been thinking about it and got surprised.

  • cds says:

    We have been laying the seeds for the religion discussion for a while by introducing a variety of different incompatible religious beliefs, and giving our daughter lots of examples of things people like but that are not real (TV/movies, fairies (they are on TV), tooth fairy (fairies aren't real), santa, etc.). Last I heard, she decided that god is someone who grants wishes and, therefore, is kind of like santa. We have also discussed bits of evolution for quite some time - I don't think she really gets it but more or less gets that apes and humans share a common ancestor at some time in the past, and so on. She knows about bear-dogs and that dolphins have an ancestor that walked on land. We'll see what kind of synthesis she makes with all this information.

    I want to separate the discussion of what happens when you die from whether religious beliefs are real. Apparently, my daughter believes that someday her bones will end up in a museum and wants to make sure her bones are put up next to her friends' bones. She may also like the idea of reincarnation, as she has made comments in the past about her mom and I being babies again.

  • Patchi says:

    My older son, when he was 5, barged into our bedroom one night with this one: "God might have made people a long time ago, but he didn't make me. My parents made me."

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    @Patchi - Er. Am assuming you hadn't just, inadvertently, provided him with evidence for his revelation?

  • I come from Cannnnada.

    Man that song is catchy. (Though if you didn't know BNL as a band from before, wouldn't you think Bare Naked Ladies was a weird name for a children's band?)

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The album, as a whole, is pretty good as kid's music goes. My daughter's favorite is 7-8-9. It has also become her favorite joke and I think I've heard ~218 butchered versions of said joke. But yes, I'm not exactly hiring a couple of guys with a band named BNL for a kids party.

  • Kalmia says:

    my kiddo loved this NOVA series on human evolution http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/becoming-human.html

    she was 5 last year when she got into it & could follow fairly well.

  • Bashir says:

    Trying to remember what my parents did. I think mostly focused encouraging a lot of questioning. Which I learned pretty quickly that a lot of people don't appreciate.

  • weirdnoise says:

    At age eight my son gave me a different sort of a surprise. We were watching Mythbusters (his favorite TV show for about a year at that point) and starting discussing the various meanings of the word "Myth." At one point I mentioned the Santa myth (I avoided ever telling him that myth and he never believed it, but knew about it from other kids). He said to me "You know what is an even bigger myth than Santa? God!"

    Damn near fell out of my chair.

  • theshortearedowl says:

    Get one of the kids versions of the Greek myths. It's important kids find out that there are gazillions of gods and religions, and that lots of people have sincerely believed in all of them. Also, the stories are better - the Bible is pretty boring after the Odyssey.

    Seriously, exposure to comparative religion is the best vaccination against evangelising.

  • Socal_dendrite says:

    I understand not wanting your kids to grow up being fed religious beliefs as facts while at school etc. But I also wouldn't necessarily worry too much about brainwashing etc - your kids should eventually be smart enough to figure out what they believe themselves.

    I grew up going to church almost every Sunday with my parents and I don't think it did me any harm. [Caveat: this was in the UK where most churchgoers are not very evangelical; eg I don't recall my parents discussing religion at all at home - church was just something we did on Sundays, and to this day I don't know how strongly they really believe.]

    I had a bit of little bit of angst between the ages of ~12 and ~15 whilst figuring out that many of the fundamental aspects of Christianity just didn't make sense to me (the angst came from wanting to have faith, but knowing that I didn't). By the time I left for university I knew my own (atheist) mind and haven't been back to church since.

    But perhaps I underestimate the cultural differences between the US and the UK. Eg we learned all about mosques, synagogues, temples and churches in religious studies classes; and there isn't the same 'debate' about evolutionary theory as exists in the US.

  • Isabel says:

    "But perhaps I underestimate the cultural differences between the US and the UK. Eg we learned all about mosques, synagogues, temples and churches in religious studies classes; and there isn't the same 'debate' about evolutionary theory as exists in the US."

    I wouldn't generalize too much about the US. Although you wouldn't know it, Christian fundamentalists (and other religious fundamentalists) here are in the minority. They are dominant in some states, and partly because they are squeaky wheels. My experience growing up Catholic in the US is practically identical to yours, and I think typical. Catholic schools are some of the best the country, in fact. Science and art programs are generally emphasized, and evolution is taught at all grade levels.

    I also grew up being told that chimpanzees were my cousins- not getting the whole explanation though, I think my working class dad just said that to get a rise out of us as we would always frown and say eww, no way. I find that kids tend to this whether they are religious or not. Maybe because it requires understanding that people are animals? Is this innate, or were the bible stories seeping in even though we weren't pressured to take them literally?

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