Wednesday, October 5, 2011

“Mommy, what’s church?”

My kids are really interested in what roads we’re driving on and what direction we’re going. They have a better sense of direction at four than I had at ten (yes, really, I am truly direction-impaired), and they know all of the roads we take to get to most of our popular destinations. So yesterday, on our way to the grocery store, we were on Linden Church Road, and one of the kids asked, “What’s linden?” I replied, uncertain, “I’m not sure honey, but I think it’s a tree or a plant.” (Note: yes, it is a tree.) And then, of course, “Mommy, what’s church?”


My internal dialogue went something like this: You could just say it’s a pretty building. You could say a lot of things. You could say it’s a building where people go to talk and sing. You’re driving to the grocery store. Do you really want to get into this right now? But it’s a teachable moment. They’re interested, and listening, and a captive audience. Take a deep breath, don’t chicken out, just tell them.

“A church is a building where people go to learn about God.” (Yes, I know a church is much more than this. I know that a true church is not a building at all. They’re four. I started simple.) “Do you know what God is?”


Right. Because we don’t talk about God. My husband is a lapsed Catholic who probably hasn’t been to church since his mom stopped making him go. He’s a scientist, and would probably describe himself as agnostic. I was raised Protestant, and have been many other things since. I am not an atheist or an agnostic. I have faith, but it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the boxes I have tried. Since I found out I was pregnant, I have debated what (if anything) to do about the kiddos’ religious education. I liked growing up believing in something, even if it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. Even at a young age, organized Christian beliefs were too rigid for me. I questioned, always, even as a kid. In the end, that whole good people who don’t believe go to Hell thing was a deal breaker. I just don’t believe it. I believe there are many paths to heaven or bliss or nirvana. So no, we don’t go to church, and we don’t really talk much about God.

Until yesterday.

“God is someone that some people think made everything. The Earth and all of the trees and the ocean and animals and people.”

“And the clouds?”

“Yes, and the clouds.”

“And McDonalds?”

“Yes, and McDonalds. Everything. Some people think that God is real, and other people think that he is pretend. I don’t know the real answer. No one knows. It’s a mystery. What do you think?”

My son, looking confident: “Real.”

My daughter: “No, he’s pretend.”

Me: “I don’t know the real answer. Everyone thinks something different. You can think whatever you want.”

At this point, my son starts trying to convert my daughter with the zeal that only a four-year-old can exhibit about something they only heard of two minutes ago. “He’s real. He’s real. Say he’s real!”

My daughter looks upset. “No, I say pretend. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

After a few minutes of holy war in the back of the minivan, I redirected to a discussion of the names of trees, and breathed a sigh of relief. That stuff is HARD. I want my kids to have a spiritual life, and I wonder how much of my own odd but still very present faith can be traced to the fact that I grew up being taught that faith and spirituality were important. I don’t feel comfortable teaching them things that I don’t believe, and I don’t feel comfortable with anyone else teaching them that stuff either. But I’m not sure that teaching them my weird mélange of faith would help. It would probably just be confusing.

Maybe they should start joining me in a meditation practice. Can kids sit and breathe? It doesn’t seem terribly likely, and even if they could, would they derive any benefit from it? Or would they just play with their belly buttons and wiggle around on their miniature zafus? We could certainly start having more conversations and hands-on lessons about helping those in need. I think they’re ready for that. They already have a very strong sense of environmentalism and know about being good to Mama Earth. Last time we went to Storyville (at the Baltimore County Public Library), they wanted to clean up the field full of litter before going in to play. And on the topic at the very heart of my belief system, love, they are experts.

In some ways, a lot of my spiritual searching has been about coming back to some things that children do naturally. They are already in the moment. They are authentic. They dance like no one is watching and laugh hard enough to heal anything in the world. They are beautiful bright spirits. For now, maybe it’s enough. Even if they don’t know that they have spirits.

As usual, I am left with more questions than answers. But when it comes to faith, maybe that’s OK.


  1. I think you're on the right track. The Bible does say, "Seek and you shall find. Ask and it shall be answered.". So it stands to reason that if you are looking and asking for answers, you'll get there. Eventually. Just my two cents.

  2. I am an atheist and have been since I was a child. I was raised as a "lapsed Catholic"- by parents never really attended church, but made me and my sibs go through the formalities of communion etc. With that being said, I see value in religion/spirituality, even organized religion, for those that benefit from it. I never try to talk people "out" of their beliefs and live by the mantra, "to each their own" and hope they respect me in the same way.
    When I had my daughter (she is now 17) I figured I would just let her chose to believe whatever she wanted. I would love her either way. The problem with this lassiz fare approach, I realized, was that by the age of 6 or so, she really didn't have any information at all with which to *make* a choice (not that she was ready to make a final choice or anything, but it's just the age that it dawned on me that even *I* had some kind of information in which to make my choice by that age). So, I asked some people I trusted who went to a church that I had visited as a child to take her to Sunday school as long as she wanted to attend. She and I would have discussions about what she learned and I would be open about my opinions while stating clearly that what she believed was up to her.
    For years she attended and liked it. She stated that she believed in God and would even try to "convert" me at times. However, over time she began to question things. She stated that she wasn't sure. Now she doesn't attend church, and states that she's pretty sure there is no one god, but that she likes to believe in something, she likes the celebrations and the sense of community (my words, not hers, but you get the picture).
    I think at 4 you gave them enough information to begin to think about it for themselves,and that's always a good thing. :) Good luck on this journey.

  3. Great point. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. That will definitely be something I need to think about as we move forward.

  4. I am an acquaintance of your sister, and I must tell you that you and I are leading similar lives! I really relate to you and your kids.
    My daughter is four, my husband is a math guy (recovering Catholic), and I was raised Presbyterian though I no longer believe in organized religion. I did visit the UU church in Annapolis and thought that might be the way to go because it's sort of an "unorganized" religion, in a good way. They have classes for kids that we will be looking in to.
    In Columbia, don't they have those "spiritual centers" or something? We lived in Owen Brown for two years and I seem to recall some sort of non-denominational thing back there on Cradle Rock.
    What do you say about the Christmas holiday?
    Good luck to you! Let me know how you handle the next difficult question which seems eminent here: How does a baby get in the mommy's belly?
    I really enjoy reading your blog. Keep up the great work.

  5. Yup, The Owen Brown Interfaith Center. I think that's a building/sanctuary for little spiritual groups to use, not a church itself per se. The UU meets there on Sunday mornings, and other groups use it other times.

    Regarding Christmas, mine are so excited about the presents that we haven't even gotten into the "true meaning" stuff. Anything we said would be swallowed up in a sea of mad wrapping paper throwing. Maybe now that the door is open, I'll talk about it this year.

    I'll keep you posted when we have the baby in the belly talk. Mine have exhibited no interest so far in the baby part, although they are champion... um... well... let's just say that they know where in the house they are allowed to have private time with their own bodies. Haha. That really needs to be its own blog entry. But we had to deal with that embarrassing reality quite early! Pre-blog. :)

  6. A very thoughtful post.

    Your point about meditation reminds me of something I read something a few weeks ago about various "executive function" interventions for children. One of the interventions mentioned was walking meditation. A walking "path" was set up on the floor using tape. Children were taught to either carry a bell while trying not to let it ring or a spoonful of water while trying not to let it spill. Perhaps meditation that involves more moving and less sitting might be less prone to wiggle breaks?

  7. I agree with you that children are so much better at spirituality than adults. Certainly, Jesus remarks that on several occasions.

    I think that our culture has placed an artificial wedge between science and faith: while there may be places that are mutually exclusive, there is room for significant overlap. Both are concerned about questions of how things work, where things come from, and where things are going.

    Kids think about those same questions as they grow.

    While I am an active participant in "organized religion," unless you are a rare individual, pret-a-porter will only fit so well. I often get a spiritual wedgie.

  8. Hi! I found you through ILBAB. It's interesting to see how a non-churchgoer handled that question. I'm an atheist, and when my son asked me what a church was (at age 3), it was hard to come up with something that I believed to be truthful, without saying something that he would repeat and offend people... :). I told him it's a building where people go to talk about what they believe. That seemed to satisfy him, for now.