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.

Photo by Ann Marsden, courtesy of "On Being"
Krista Tippett, the public radio host of "On Being," talks with Modern Parenthood about parent responsibility to engage the inevitable questions kids have about the meaning of life.

Whether it's in the cozy twilight of a bedtime tuck-in or the supermarket checkout line, kIds will surprise parents with the "big" questions: Why am I here? Where did Grandma go when she died? Where does evil behavior come from? The longing to find meaning in life seems innate.

Finding the words to explain these things to an impressionable three-year-old, a skeptical adolescent, or even your adult self can be unsettling.

Modern Parenthood had a conversation about this with Krista Tippett a mother, journalist, and founder and host of public radio's "On Being,"  a weekly exploration of the "big" questions at the center of life. Her books include "Einstein's God – Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit" and "Speaking of Faith – Why Religion Matters and How to Talk about it."

The intersection of her profession (contemplating these issues and talking to the best thinkers about them)  and her family life (she's the mother of an 18-year-old and a soon-to-be-14-year-old) made Modern Parenthood want to ask her these questions:

Do you think parents have a responsibility to cultivate some sort of meaning-making or spiritual sentiment in their children?
It’s kind of a new phenomenon in Western history right now that we have all these kids growing up with parents who have rejected their traditions of origin, in a way people weren’t free to do previously.

Children ask for this. Maybe they’re asking for structure and meaning-making. Or maybe they’re just asking the big theological questions which they do at very young ages: Where do we come from? Why do people die? Why do people treat each other that way?

So do we have an obligation to come up with something? I don’t know. But I think we have a responsibility to meet our children’s questions and longings along those lines. I think that – especially for people who have rejected the tradition in their background – that becomes an opportunity.

You grew up in Oklahoma with a grandfather who was a fire-and-brimstone Southern Baptist preacher, left that tradition when you went away from home, and found yourself unsettled without a spiritual anchor at midlife. How important is it for parents to be settled in their spirituality?

In the name of not giving your children what you rejected, you also give them nothing to reject, to work with, to question, and to challenge.

It’s true a lot of people these days do go through a period of agnosticism or searching or atheism. That’s what happened to me. But I circled back to questions of meaning, of morality, and – ultimately – faith as an adult.

The question becomes: What do you do with that? Do you take it seriously? A lot of people hit that place when they have children. They start asking themselves this question: What do I need to pass on to my children?  And I think it does feel like a huge burden. But just seeing that as an adventure and as a moment of possibility for yourself can be really important.

Rabbi Sandy Sasso [an expert on spirituality and parenting interviewed by Tippett] says, don’t let the people who ruined your tradition for you define what that tradition is about. Often many of us – even if we have grown up uprooted or have uprooted ourselves – we have a mother tongue, we have a homeland. Start there; don’t let it be defined by the people who turned you away from it. See if there’s something there for you to work with as an adult bringing your questions now, your curiosities now.

Can you define “homeland”?

Your denomination. For me, my Southern Baptist upbringing was so rooted to a place, it was a whole universe which stopped making sense when I left.

But when I started realizing that what I was asking – what I initially thought were ethical questions which in fact were spiritual questions – I did realize that Christianity was my mother tongue; the Bible was my textbook.

I could have moved away from that. But I really needed to go back there and see, because I knew how to read that. And I did find that I was reading whole different things there than what had been taught to me in Sunday school. And that was really exciting. 

I didn’t return to the Southern Baptist tradition, but I did go back to Christianity. And now I really identify more as Christian instead of a denomination.

Parents want their children to be virtuous. But you talk about virtues becoming charged and uncomfortable to discuss. Why?

A lot of the words around the classic virtues are either charged or just watered down – compassion, gratitude, love. Love is something you fall into, you fall out of. Compassion and gratitude have been on too many Hallmark cards. And words like "peace" and "justice" are politically charged. So for the virtues we want and need, the language itself doesn’t carry the water for us. 

I think a lot about how to use other words and stories and narratives with the connotations virtue has when these things are meaningful.

And what about nurturing virtues in children?

I did an interview for Mother’s Day last year with the Jewish-Buddhist teacher, mother, and grandmother Sylvia Boorstein. And she really brought me back to the fact that what we nurture in our children is most of all what we demonstrate to them.

So I think a lot about that: What are we passing on? What are we supporting in them? And what are we modeling? And it’s uncomfortable that it comes down to that. But it really does.

What are examples of that discomfort?

When we think about how we nurture our children’s spiritual lives or impart them with virtues, we want guidance on what to teach them. And it’s really important that we actually have to cultivate these things in ourselves even as we are teaching them and cultivating them. It’s good to remember that.

It’s also kind of a relief, because when you think about how do I grow my children’s inner life, their spiritual life, it feels daunting. But if you realize that part of the work is growing your own – and that part of what you can take time and energy to do for the sake of your child is to be cultivating that in yourself – then it’s helpful.

Big virtues are very daunting. Compassion is huge. Forgiveness is huge. So one thing I’m really attentive to in my conversations with people are ways into those superstar virtues. Some ways are cultivating atmospheres; some are creating silence. In our 21st century lives and families, you actually have to make an effort to create silent spaces where there are no electronics on. In all of our spiritual traditions, silence is a very important element of self-awareness and of virtue and of deepening.  

I was talking to Rabbi Sandy Sasso [an expert on spirituality and parenting], who points out that  reading is an exercise that takes us out of our own imagination and introduces us to the lives and minds of different others.

So we can see some of these ordinary things that we want our children to do as also spiritually enriching; it’s not necessarily an extra set of activities.

It’s pausing – this is where it gets hard – in the morning when we’re all late and I’m yelling at everybody to get out the door and I’m in a panic. It’s knowing it really is possible to stop and take a breath and just be present – and say, “Here we are at the beginning of the day....” It’s knowing that that can create a whole different atmosphere.

Another thing I think a lot about is beauty, as in attention to beauty. Beauty almost is a moral value and something that is necessary for human beings that makes us more alive and is a way into virtue that I hear a lot. That’s something that we can show our children in all kinds of ways, both in our homes and outside our homes.

So that’s how I think we break these things down and see them as possibilities that are woven into the fabric of the everyday.

Is it important for parents to raise their children in a specific faith?

I think the depths of faith and religion are in the particularities. Our traditions have specific emphases. They have vocabularies; they have texts; they have rituals; they have communities. And children are very drawn to all of those. 

So I don’t think you have to feel like by giving your children a particular experience you’re narrowing their field. You’re giving them tools to work with. They are going to ask their questions, they are going to challenge it, they – in this world, in this age – are going to be exposed to a whole bunch of other things, and you have no control over that. So to give children something substantive to work with is valuable – and it’s not to narrow them, it’s to give them some depth and some roots, and they can grow as they grow and go where they’ll go.

What tools – books or movies or methods – do you suggest  to convey meaning-making  to children?

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.

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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