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Modern Parenthood

Public radio host Krista Tippett on kids and the meaning of life

Krista Tippett, the public radio voice on faith, talks about parent responsibility to engage the inevitable questions kids have about the meaning of life.

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Human beings are storytelling creatures and always have been. But we kind of lost our sense of that. In the 20th century we became very fact-based, very plan-based. Our children remind us that our traditions are full of stories to delight in – and it’s exciting to take our children’s cue on this, because they know how to work with them.

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Clara Germani is a senior editor for the Monitor, based in Boston. She handles in-depth projects, or cover stories, for the weekly print magazine.

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Something that may feel a little counterintuitive: Children know what to do with the hard stories and the dark side of life that is also there in our traditions – the complexity of it all.

In fact, they are experiencing that in the world, they are experiencing things that are happening in their families that are painful, or difficult – and, in fact, that’s what [the stories] are there for.

Also, respecting silence, respecting questions [are tools to use]. Children are big askers of questions, and our traditions grew out of these existential questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Is there a god? Why do people treat each other that way?

And being willing to be in those questions with our children – as maybe I think our parents weren’t,  because they felt like they had to give us answers, whether they felt like they had the answer or not. I think it can be just as valuable, and maybe pretty exciting, if your child asks a question like this, for you to say “Boy, that’s a great question. What do you think?  Here are some ideas I have.” To really share in that wonder, because that’s a big piece of religion too.

Do you have any “ah ha!” moments when this worked for you?

One thing that’s been really interesting to me is how interested my children were and remain in my grandfather who was the religious patriarch of our family. He was a Southern Baptist preacher. He was the one who laid down all the rules. And a lot of what he stood for is a lot of what I rejected for myself later on. Although I think the vitality of his faith is still very formative for me and inspirational. 

He was a kind of a contradictory character because you would get the impression God was pretty mean – you just couldn’t do anything or have any fun. But my grandfather was this very funny loving person. And so I drew all this information about the nature of God, not just from what he said, but from how he was.

My children have always loved stories about him and there was this cathartic story when I was a child that I’ve told them about. He was kind of an evangelist and he used to pastor at little country churches just kind of itinerantly.

And this cathartic story is where I was in a shed, where he kept the lawnmower, and there was a snake coiled up in there. There was this epic battle between my grandfather with a hoe and the snake. My kids love stories like that. And if you think about it, there’s all these classic layers to it – all those images we take from the Bible about the serpent, and here’s the preacher taking one on; good versus evil; dark versus light; courage and comfort in the face of danger.

So even things that we’ve rejected but that are dramatic narratives – we may reject them, but they are still interesting and complex.

Children love to hear that stuff and they’ll do with it what they will. And we have to trust them.  

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