Perhaps you saw Bruce Feiler’s recent column in The NY Times, “For A Child, God’s Back Story,” in which he endorsed a full disclosure approach when answering children’s questions about God. It’s painfully predictable, but it also got me thinking:
[My daughter] Eden looked at me and asked, “Daddy, if I speak to God, will he listen?” I froze. I was so completely unprepared for the question, she might as well have asked me, “What’s a ménage à trois?” In my panic, I had three quick thoughts. First, Who told you about God? I certainly hadn’t initiated the conversation, and I thought I knew everything she had learned in school.
Second, I should be able to nail this question. I had spent a dozen years tracing biblical stories around the world and had written four books about God. Surely I had learned something. Third, and more important, I didn’t want to say anything that I would have to unsay later. In other words, I didn’t want to lie to her just because she was a child.
If the idea is that when children are young you should give them very definite answers that do not reflect your actual experience of life, then you’re lying to your children, and one day they’re going to realize that you were a hypocrite. And isn’t being true as much as possible in life the best kind of education you can give the young?
After catching my breath in response to Eden’s question, I said, “Some people talk to God, and it brings them peace.” I gave myself a solid B for my inartful dodge. My answer was true, at least, and it did get me through the moment.
Funny how Feiler sees hypocrisy as a fate-worse-than-death here, a surefire torpedo to his kids’ religious curiosity, rather than, say, an abiding truth about human nature that might lead to a deeper understanding of who God might be… Lisa Belkin offered a different, considerably less self-involved take in her Motherlode column, reprinting a response from blogger KJ Dell’Antonia:
[When I speak with my daughter Rory about God] I’ll put a whole lot less emphasis on sharing my own doubts and beliefs, and try to give Rory room to share hers. “Where do you think they go?” I’ll ask, and if she can’t answer, I’ll meet her more than halfway. Does she think they go to heaven? Does she believe they’re happy there? Are they with God? Whatever she says, I’m there with it. I may mentally cross my fingers, or place my own meaning on the words, but I won’t insist that she understand my doubt. Whatever she believes, I plan to embrace.
Another expert Feiler consulted rejects that course. “You’re lying to your children,” John Patrick Shanley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the play “Doubt,” says of professing a definitive belief you don’t share, “and one day they’re going to realize that you were a hypocrite.” Until now, I’ve shared that view. I don’t want my kids to wake up at 10, or 15, or 50, and realize that I lied to them! That would be awful! What would they think of me? I can’t help noticing, as I think that through, that there’s an awful lot of “I” and “me” in those worries, and not a whole lot of anyone else.
If I accept Rory’s view of the afterlife, will she wake up one day and realize that I was a hypocrite? I hope so. I hope, of course, that she’ll forgive me for it — that she, or one of her brothers or her sister, will remember how much it meant to her as a child that whatever she’d already learned about death not be torn away from her along with everything else. I hope she’ll understand. But if all I get out of abandoning principle is is an eventual quiet ride home, I can live with that. It turns out that my deepest beliefs aren’t about what happens when we die, or even what life is all about. My deepest belief is in my love for Rory (and all of my children).
Although Dell’Antonia’s take is certainly more loving, is it not equally lame? I’ve always felt that the whole thing of supporting whatever conclusions toddlers come to on their own is a little cruel (like telling a teenager interested in Christianity to simply read the Bible and expecting them to get anything out of it that isn’t pure Law), i.e. it might not be terribly wise in the long run if it makes them easy-pickings for anyone with a real point of view. So while both Feiler and Dell’Antonia are clearly attempting to be honest with their kids, which is hard not to admire, maybe giving children a bit more of a “canvas against which to paint” wouldn’t be ill-advised? Or perhaps unconvinced parents are right to give their children no impression of God rather than the “wrong” one? I honestly don’t know. Either way, it certainly puts a lot of pressure on the parent to “get it right” – ironically ruling out God as a (f)actor in the equation almost entirely. Or perhaps the whole thing is just another sad comment on a culture that’s light years away from any understanding of the divine that is based on more than the one’s feelings at the time? For us fickle-hearted hypocrites, that’s a pretty scary scenario…