When exactly is the right time to broach the subject of religion with children? It's a common question not easily answered. Kids are so different. The brain develops at different speeds and in different ways. What interests children at any given age runs the gamut of possibilities and is constantly in flux. So parents like me, we look for openings. We keep our ears open for conversation starters, and signs that our little ones might be ready to think a bit deeper about life and people and beliefs. We want them to be old enough to hear different perspectives and not take everything at face value; but we also want them to be young enough to listen to us. We want to make sure they'll interested in what we have to say — as opposed to what their friends have to say.
My sister, Jennifer, was driving to my house last week with her 4-year-old son in the back seat. Shortly after Jack had climbed into his car seat, he said to him mom: "I invented a new word."
"What is it?" Jennifer asked.
"Jesus Gosh!" he said proudly.
He explained that it's a word meant to be said when you're surprised by something.
Jennifer saw her opening.
"You know, Jack..." she began, "that word — Jesus — some people don't like to hear that word used in that way."
Jack seemed fascinated by that, so she went on.
She explained how Jesus was a man who lived a long time ago. She said he was an important man who many religious people believe was a prophet, but who Christians believe was the son of God. Then she talked a bit about how that distinguished Christians from other religions and about different cultures. She said Christians from Latin and South American often name their children Jesus (though it's pronounced differently), but that in the United States, the name is considered sacrosanct and is not, in Christian circles at least, to be used in any way other than to talk about or praise Jesus.
"I know Auntie Wendy uses that word sometimes," she said at one point, "but someone like Gramma would never use the word that way. And, if she heard you say 'Jesus Gosh,' she wouldn't like that."
Yeah. She threw me under the bus is what she did.
But I digress.
The point is, to Jennifer, it was breakthrough. And she felt great about it. She told Jack that it's important to understand how our words might offend some people. "We can say whatever we want," she said. "But it's good to think about how other people might feel about our words."
Later, she told me, "I know I was using some words he didn't understand, but he seemed fine with it. He seemed to be getting it. So I just went on and on."
For 10 minutes. Ten. Whole. Minutes.
Jack never said a word, but he was listening so intently, that she just knew this had been the right moment. She hadn't missed it.
Then finally, she paused. Would there be any questions, she wondered?
Just one, as it turns out.
"Mommy," came his little voice, "what did you say?"