What to say to a 6-year-old?

When my 6-year-old son asks me about God or heaven, or even the innocuous myths of childhood, I find myself dodging the question.

“Is heaven really up in the sky?”

“It’s kind of hard to explain.”

(regarding the tooth fairy) “Does she check every night to see if there’s a tooth?”

“I don’t really know how she works. I just know you put your tooth under your pillow and in the morning there’s money there.”

I’m ashamed of not being more honest. At the same time, I am thankful for the ‘forces’ that curb my urge to bluntly tell my son that supernatural beings aren’t real. Those ‘forces’ are the the other adults in his life, especially his grandparents and my wife. To suggest to him that I am right about the supernatural (and that all these other grown-ups in his life are wrong) might put unfair pressure on him to choose a side, or at least confuse him.

What I really want to do is help him develop a sense of healthy skepticism, to point out the distinction between knowledge and beliefs. (We all know things, and we all believe things, but it’s important to understand the difference.)

I don’t want to teach him my conclusions. I want to teach him how to reason so he is not dependent on others for his conclusions.

I also want to spare him false trust (“God is watching out for you”), unnecessary guilt (“When you do that, it makes God sad”) and unfounded fear (“Only believers get to go to heaven”).

There has to be an age-appropriate way to do this — a way that is honest but not disconcerting — just as there are ways to teach a child that not everyone and everything is safe without making him chronically fearful.

Here is what I’m thinking: He must be aware — at least he will soon become aware — that some people believe in gods other than “God” and some believe in no gods at all. It may be enough at this point to just call attention to that fact, to the diversity of belief/nonbelief, so he realizes not everyone has come to the same conclusion.

That should open the door to other great discussions — not just with me but with his mom and grandparents and many others.


Posted on August 14, 2012, in Motives, Personal stories. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Debbi McMullan

    So now I’m not exactly clear, and I’m curious. How would you answer Jacob if he asked “Who is God?”

    • Thanks for being my first commenter! I’m going to have to ponder that.

    • Pondered it. I think I would give him an abridged version of the first paragraph of this. It’s easy to say who a character in specific literature is — for example, Willy Wonka (“He’s a character in two books and two movies; he is the eccentric owner of a chocolate factory”). And it’s easy to say who a verifiable person is — for example, Tom Cruise (“He’s the main actor in the ‘Mission Impossible’ movies and ‘Jerry Maguire'”). But ‘God’ means different things to different people.

      • Debbi McMullan

        I like that. My grandkids will be old enough for these conversations soon. Thanks for the perspective!

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