Teaching kids about religion: Where to start and what to say

A majority of Americans believe in God, but the way in which they recognize a higher power varies significantly. How can parents take an active role in teaching kids about religion, and allowing them to draw their own conclusions?

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/FILE
President Barack Obama awards the 2013 National National Humanities Medal to Krista Tippett, radio host, from St. Paul, Minn., during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington, Monday, July 28, 2014.

Gallup polls report that 86 percent of Americans say they believe in God. Thirty nine percent say they attended worship services in the past week. So while God may not be dead, religion struggles.

And why shouldn’t it? Religion has awful PR: unrelenting sectarian wars abroad, political infighting over morality at home, scandal, shopping to be done and football to be watched on the Sabbath, high profile competition from secular ideology, and a worldview that can seem out of step with popular culture.

Krista Tippett, host of the award-winning public radio show and podcast “On Being,” which takes up questions of religion and meaning, is alarmed. This, she says, is “the first generation of humans in any culture who didn’t inherit a religious identity.”

But even while parents who have distanced themselves from their faith traditions are hesitant to pass that religion on to their children, science seems to take up the cause, as it unearths a host of practical benefits of religious practice. Everything from the physical effects of a heightened immune response to social benefits like closer interpersonal ties and better behavior in teens, is linked to the state of being religious.

Is there a way parents can overcome their personal ambivalence about religion in order for their children to have its benefits? 

Maybe – as some do – you could try to expose your non-Jewish kids to a Seder, your non-Christian kids to Sunday School, your kids of any faith to religiously-themed movies, books and TV.  You could ask observant believers to explain what their religion means to them in daily life. 

Do you kind of agree with the cliches often used as arguments against religion? That it's the chief cause of wars? That churches only want your money? That believers are a bunch of hypocrites? That it’s opium for the masses? You might ask believers specifically to shed light on those aspects of their faith that people disparage or stereotype. That way, you can be confident that you've done your research and you’re not unwittingly allowing the uninformed or the unquestioning or even the disgruntled to speak for the observant.

“You shouldn’t let the worst of [your] tradition define that tradition for you or your children,” advises Ms. Tippett, who received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in July. 

Since children tend to learn more from show than from tell, parental example is possibly the best teacher of life lessons, including those on religion.

Tippett suggests that parenthood itself can be an invitation for adults to invest in their own spiritual lives, to revisit their own religious heritage, which they may have ignored or rejected. Do the revisiting on your own terms, she advises, setting aside simplistic childhood do’s and don’ts. This is not a matter of eating your peas. This is about uncovering what has the potential to be a thought-provoking, even sophisticated, feast of prayers and vocabulary, of prose and art, of music and ritual and of rationale for the doctrine. With a bit of exploration, even the “shalt not’s” may appeal. 

When the grown-ups are comfortable in their faith, the children will follow. “They’re soaking up what we do.” says Tippett, who explains that this is how kids understand firsthand what it means to pray and to worship. Ultimately, what they learn to honor in their own tradition they will honor in others' traditions as well. And as they bump up against other faiths, as they inevitably will, they will do so from a reference point of personal experience and from a perspective of curiosity and respect.     

They will also likely learn something, as Tippett has done from the array of guests on her show. Sometimes she and her guests talk universals: Why love? How to forgive? Sometimes scientific discoveries challenge her existing beliefs: Is there really free will?  Will there always be mystery? Sometimes, from a creed different from hers, a concept or doctrine intrigues: Is beauty really an attribute of God? Is it a valid litmus test for discerning the presence of God? Often there are more questions than answers. “It enriches the ground beneath my feet,” she says of her work.

Those doing their theology at the kitchen table need not have the answers, either. What matters is the willingness to ask the faith questions together – the “why did Grandma have to die” kinds of questions – and to ponder them with an eye on what the family’s religion has to suggest. The whole undertaking may be more a starting point than a finish line, and if the kids reject the beliefs at times, well, so be it. “There is integrity in giving them something to wrestle with,” Tippett says. “Some kids don’t even have anything to reject.”

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