Why is the sky blue? How far up do you have to go before there is no wind? Where does God live? Children are filled with questions. Daily we are bombarded with their incessant, "Why?" On a busy day when life pulls us in many directions all at once, we are inclined to answer: "Just because."
When our children pose the questions of which we are afraid--Why did Grandpa die? Where do people go after they die? What is heaven? How can God be everywhere at the same time? Why isn't life fair? Is God real? Why didn't Grandma get well when I prayed for her?--we dismiss them in different ways. We tell them they are too young to understand. We offer some pat answers that don't make sense to them (or to us). Or we avoid the questions altogether by suggesting that they ask their teacher or clergy.
Our children are not necessarily too young to understand these big life issues. They have an innate spiritual life; they just need the language to give it expression. They don't want answers from a textbook; they want responses that arise from someone they can trust. Our children aren't interested in what some expert has to say about issues of ultimate concern; they want to know what the significant others in their lives think. When parents call me and ask to make an appointment to discuss a question their child has about God, mortality, or prayer, I'm always willing. But first I tell them, your child really wants to know what you think.
When we ignore our children's natural religious inquisitiveness, we do them a grave disservice. We lose the privilege of being their guides and companions on their spiritual journey. Why then do we avoid their questions? Perhaps the last time we grappled with these issues was in college or even earlier. We're not sure what we believe, so we don't know what to tell our kids. In other words, we are afraid of questions without clear answers. But our children are not afraid of the mystery. If we let them, they will invite us to continue the spiritual journey we once started but have long since abandoned.
First, it's okay to let our children know that their question is a difficult one and that people have been thinking about it for a long time. Invite them to think along with you. More important than any answer is the conversation. You'll get to know your children better, and they'll get to know what really matters to you.
Second, don't talk down to children. Just as Leonard Bernstein was able to teach Beethoven to young audiences, we can help our youngsters to grapple with the mysteries of life, death, and transcendence.
Third, don't say something that you will later have to correct. For example, don't tell your kids that if they behave, God will give them what they want. Theological dishonesty causes youngsters to discredit in adulthood everything they learned about religion as childish fantasy. Faith becomes something to outgrow like the Tooth Fairy.
Finally, answer your children's questions, not your own. For example, when your youngsters ask about the death of a grandparent, they may be seeking assurance that their world is safe and secure and that you, their parent, will be around to take care of them. Or they may simply want to know what will happen at the funeral. Or perhaps they need your reassurance that nothing they did caused their loved one to die. Listen for your children's concerns, and if you're not sure what they are, trying asking kids what they believe before you respond. Most of all let them know that you are there to talk whenever they are ready.
I remember once talking to a thirteen-year-old in my religious education class about a paper he had written. The view he expressed was very traditional, I asked him if he really believed it. He looked me straight in the eye and answered, "No." "Then why did you write it?" I asked. "Because that's what I thought you wanted me to say," came the answer. Our children seek our approval. We need to let them know we approve of their doubts, their unconventional answers. Otherwise they will parrot back to us what they know will please us, but they won't let us know what they are really thinking.