Parenting a Four-Year-Old Humanist: It’s not for sissies.

Nobody has tougher questions about religion than little kids. Adults don’t have time to ponder the universe. We are too busy worrying about the mortgage.  But little kids—they got time.

Really though, my parents got off easy, considering they provided no formal spiritual guidance of any kind.

I think I was 10 when I asked my Dad what religion we actually were.  I know you think 10 must be awfully old to not know the answer to this question, but we lived in South Florida, land of synagogues, Santeria, and Yankees.  And there were plenty of kids playing four square in the middle of the street on Sunday mornings instead of going to church.  My Dad is the type of dad you can ask serious questions as long as you are prepared for a lengthy professorial answer, but I think I completely caught him off guard.

Who wants to know?

Well, I do.

We’re WASPS.

Ohhhhhh this explained a lot.  I had never heard of WASPS, so we must be some weird minority religion.  I thought that was kind of cool.  Cooler than Maggie Bishop who had one of those minority religions that didn’t let you celebrate birthdays.  Birthdays were big at our house, with homemade cakes shaped like animals and party hats made out of construction paper. I guess that’s a WASP thing.

I soon realized that Dad was really trying to speak to our heritage rather than our belief system.  Our belief system, if not categorized exactly, was still pretty clear to a 10 year old.  We had Christmas and Easter.  Tales of the Easter bunny carried equal weight to those of the resurrection and were equally believable.  We had a little crèche at Christmas time where Mom lovingly placed the baby Jesus, reminding us that the teachings of the Savior were important whether or not He was the son of God. I didn’t see that it made much difference either way since Santa was the one bringing me presents. 

Words like atheism, agnosticism, and humanism were not brandied about in our house.  Fortunately, if you do not live in Mississippi, you can totally get away with this.

But I raised my kids in Mississippi, and I needed a better strategy.  I didn’t necessarily think raising my kids to be atheists was the way to go.  The truth is I’m an atheist for the same reason most Christians are Christians.  I was raised that way.  But my children, well I wanted to give them actual choices. I wanted them to develop their own belief systems.  Maybe when they hit their teens, they could decide for themselves what they believed.  I could teach them how to behave, how to treat people, my own humanist principles, but as to the greater universe, I’d let them figure that out on their own.

I decided to take my kids to church.  Not just any church, of course.  The Unitarian Universalist Church, (learn more about the UU Church here) where I could tell the minister we were atheists, and my kids would be taught comparative religion, and it was ok to ask questions.

I was so unprepared for the questions.  UU kids have the hardest questions.

My youngest was not more than four when he climbed into my bed at dawn one morning and started patting me on the head.

Mamma

Mamma

Mamma

Oh God-What?

You know how when you’re on the soccer team, your team is the good team and the other team is the bad team.  But if you were on the other team, that team would be the good team and the other team would be the bad team?

Uh huh

Is good and evil like that?

Uh

Well, no.  Good is always good and evil is always evil, but mostly nothing is really just good or evil and people just say that because they don’t understand the soccer team thing.  Oh My God did you just put grape jelly in my hair?

It wasn’t long thereafter that my baby theologian had a further existential crisis, this time at the McDonald’s drive through.

So God is all-knowing, right, Mama?

In theory.

And all-loving?

Right

And all powerful?

Chicken McNuggets? Yes.  All powerful.

So why does He let bad things happen to people?

Because if nothing bad happened, you wouldn’t appreciate good things.

Why would it be bad to be happy all the time?  If I was God, I’d let people just be happy.

Um.  Ok.  I don’t know. That’s totally twisted that we are supposed to suffer in order to experience happiness.  It’s really just a way to control people so the masses don’t rise up against the upper classes.  Momma has some baggage and she needs a coke.

You didn’t forget my chicken McNuggets, right?

I was sort of hoping I might be able to hide some of my more negative feelings about organized religion from my children.  Maybe they could learn to experience a kinder, gentler theology based on feelings of belonging to something bigger than themselves.  That wouldn’t be so bad right?  It doesn’t all have to be exclusionary hatemongering homophobic patriarchal bullshit, right? Maybe when my kids got scared, they could talk to God, or pray when they needed comfort, or find peace in being connected to other people by faith.

“I have decided,” said my little one, in between McNuggets, “I am an atheist,” as he handed me a soggy fry from the back seat.  “But I am a Santa agnostic.  Just in case.”