Belief, Community, Education, Faith, Family, God(s), Intellectual Honesty, People, Religion, Values, Wisdom

What Do You Tell Your Children About Believing in God?

My mother, who turned 94 this year, was in some ways open to negotiation in how my two brothers and I were to be raised.  For instance, it took a mere twelve years of sustained and passionate begging before she allowed a TV in the house.   A black and white TV fully capable of pulling in one channel, and only one channel — a station twenty miles down the road.

To give her credit, her opposition to television was not based on a whim.  She believed a TV might distract us from learning to read. Consequently, we did not get our TV until my youngest brother had finished his first novel.  And mom really did compromise in a way.  She had planned for us to go without a TV until he had finished his sixth novel.

Yet, despite her remarkable willingness to negotiate on such things as our learning to read, on one issue she was absolutely fixed and could not be moved: Mom was set against our deciding whether or not to believe in god.

You see, she believed the god issue was simply beyond the scope of a child’s intelligence, his emotions, and his wisdom.  At the same time, she was just as opposed to making that decision for us.  Hence, she insisted we were to decide the issue for ourselves — but not until we had “reached an age at which we could reason well enough about it.”

Naturally, I went through a period when I wanted her to tell me what to believe.  But I never succeeded in getting her to do that. “Why won’t you tell me what you believe?”, I’d ask.

“Because you would ape me.”

“No I won’t, mom. I promise.”

“I’m glad to hear that”, she’d say, “All the same, my beliefs are my business and not yours.”

“But when can I know?” I’d whine.

“When you have reached an age of reason, and no sooner.”

I thought at times I would never live long enough, for even as a kid I sensed that for an American, the age of reason comes no sooner than 40 or so.

Like all parents, mom had her paradoxes.  No matter how much she insisted on doing things her way when it came to certain things, her policies on other things were models of laissez-faire.   For instance:  We were free range kids.  On weekends and during the months we were not in school, we could roam anywhere in the town or countryside so long as we pedaled back in time for supper.   She guarded which programs we were allowed to watch on television, but I don’t recall her even once opposing my choice in books.

Mom was criticized in the community for her manner of raising us.  People accused her of not being able to control her son when I grew my hair long.  After she allowed me, at 16, to hitchhike for the summer around the United States, her decision became for a week or ten days the talk of the town.  Yet, her most controversial decision was the god one.  Plenty of folks objected to our being raised that way.

The criticisms often enough worried her, but they never altered her course.  She refused to “take counsel of her fears”.  For mom was — and still is — a conservative in the genuinely traditional sense of “conservative”.  A sense that is all but gone out of fashion today.  That is, she is set against her or anyone else messing in other people’s affairs.  And few things are to her more a person’s own business than what he or she believes about god.

17 thoughts on “What Do You Tell Your Children About Believing in God?”

  1. I am leaving that completely up to my son to decide. I would rather that he not hand control of his life over to someone based on a myth but if I tell him what to think, I’d be a hypocrite.

    I received an odd request today in my email, which is somewhat on-topic for your post, that I will be blogging about this afternoon.


  2. Our children benefited, I think, from our frequent Air Force moves; they did not have to deal with a regular drumbeat of community pressure to “belong” to any congregation. When they were four and seven and we were settled in Virginia for a relatively long tour, we began a very deliberate involvement in a Methodist church (both Mr. Mature and I had been variously Methodist and Presbyterian, growing up). We attended church regularly during that tour, did the vacation bible school thing, Sunday School, etc. They enjoyed the socialization, heard the stories, knew the drill.

    It was a three year immersion course in the protestant tradition that gave them the cultural background that their father and I had in common. We wanted them to know something about that from an early age so that they could relate to peers thereafter and say they’d been exposed. Thereafter, we had a couple of very short tours in extremely religious small Southern communities that gave us the willies. We focused on giving them an exposure to Scouting during those tours, for the continuity it would provide from place to place.

    From then on out, we made sure there was exposure to the typical regional and American cultural icons and philosophies, but we never pushed anything. They’d tasted all sorts of things that their peers had and lots of things they hadn’t. It was left entirely to our kids whether to buy in or out of anything, henceforth. If they wanted to visit a religious community with a friend, we were great with that; our job was to facilitate their processing, encourage their education, and be comfortable to discuss their questions.

    My son chose to worship jazz. My daughter chose to worship dance. My son became a very outspoken atheist in a profoundly fundamentalist Southern music mecca; my daughter has a relaxed on-and-off relationship with a Universalist Unitarian congregation in a big California city. Both seem entirely pleased with their selections and grateful for both the exposures and the autonomies.


  3. I like to think that I’m on the same page as your Mum.
    I tell my kids that they can believe in God and pray if they want. I tell them that I do both (which is the case). But I tell them the most important thing by far is to make up their own minds about what they believe.
    I tell them that this need to make up their own mind extends far beyond the bounds of religion and applies to every sphere of their lives. I hope that this will result in progressive adults who want to make the world a better place – but we can only hand them the tools. It is their choice how to wield them.


    1. About the only way your policy differs from my mother’s, Stephen, is that she refused to tell us her own beliefs. She was afraid we’d reflexively imitate her. Both of you, though, are alike in insisting your children think for themselves.


  4. I stayed with the organization I grew up with until I couldn’t take it any longer by which time my son had already stopped going to church. My three daughters are spread out between fervent believer and agnostic who shows up periodically to visit her friends. I wanted to give my kids some kind of grounding in Christianity before confusing them by pulling the pin.


      1. Bunch of things really. Long time growing dissatisfaction with the teachings of the senior management. Someday when I am ready to shake up some comfort zones I may blog about it but there are some areas (including the main one) that I really can’t talk about.


  5. I was pretty traditional. However, the subject of religion was open to discussion — at any age — and I told them that while I took them to Mass and saw to it that they received religious education, the path they chose to follow was their choice and I would still love and support them. I realized when they were toddlers that they inherited the my family’s ‘renegade’ gene and would choose their own path as did I and that makes me very happy and proud of them because they are good, solid, decent people who think well and follow their conscience.


    1. Isn’t it remarkable, Kay, how many parents refuse to love and support their children if and when their children choose a religious path different from their own? I’ve got to wonder where their priorities lay.


      1. I don’t understand those people at all. I have explored and studied most of the major religions. I finished my B.A. at a local Catholic liberal arts college (at age 40) and was required to take courses in philosophy and theology. One class I chose was Far Eastern religions because I was already familiar with Christianity and I believe that if one understands how people believe, it’s easier to understand them and their culture. It’s proved in valuable in my interest in politics and understanding current events because the Islam everyone is so upset about has only a nodding acquaintance with the Allah’s teaching. Needless to say, it was an interesting course. (I did find a sect of Buddhism I liked based on wine, wit, and poetry but when I had difficulty finding more about it, I figured that there was probably a snag somewhere that I wouldn’t like much. ) I was glad when my kids asked questions — it meant they were thinking and questioning and forming their values which meant that they were growing into mature, independent, sensible people.

        One of the best conversations I had with my daughter occurred when I was driving her back to her college:

        Kate: Y’know, Mom I’m really proud of you!

        Kay: Oh?

        Kate: Yeah, you were always there watching us and protecting us to make sure we did the right things but you’ve really let go and now you treat me like an adult.

        Kay: Well, I was never raising kids; I was raising future adults and when it was time to turn you and your brother loose on an unsuspecting world, I wanted to be able to sleep at night! The good news is that it worked!

        Kate: I know. Thanks, Mom!

        Whatta kid!!!!!


      2. What a wonderful thing for your daughter to tell you!

        When you get up close and personal, all religions began to look different than their ideals. Fortunately, most people are better than their religions.


  6. Paul, your mother sounds like a wonderful, wise woman. I bet I’d love to have a cup of tea, or a glass of wine, with her.


I'd love to hear from you. Comments make my day.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s