Let's say you're a secular parent who doesn't feel the need to talk about religion with your kid. Maybe you don't like religion, or understand it, or even care about it very much. Maybe you tried once to broach the subject with your kid, and it was pretty awkward and confusing and you were sure you screwed stuff up. Maybe you decided, after careful consideration, to table the whole thing for another time. And by "another time," you mean in, like, 20 years.
"So what?" you ask. "She'll get the information she needs eventually, right? And if she's really interested in religion, she'll ask. Plus, what's the worst that could happen? Is discussing religion with my kid really such a big deal?"
Yes, dingbat, it is.
Now if you asked me whether postponing or avoiding the topic of religion is the worst thing you could do, I would say: Of course not! There are far worse things you could do! But since when is your goal to do "better than the worst" when it comes to your child? Aren't you the same person who obsesses about which school would best suit your son's personality? Worries about whether new media will kill his ability to be creative? Feels guilty when you're forced to hit the McDonald's drive-through three times in the same week?
But, hey, let's say for the sake of argument that your gut tells you to just let sleeping dogs lie — and by dogs, of course, you mean gods. Let's say you want to know, specifically, what will happen if you keep your trap shut and let your kids figure it out for themselves.
By my count, there are exactly five possibilities.
Possibility No. 1: Your kid will feel like an idiot
Maybe it's a public sort of humiliation — the kind that occurs when other kids tease your child for not knowing something uber-basic, like what a Bible looks like or what was in Noah's Ark. Or maybe it's the private sort, wherein your kid realizes she's not as "smart" as other kids and is afraid to ask questions that might embarrass her. Either way, she internalizes her ignorance, and her self-esteem plummets. Well done.
Possibility No.2: Your kid will offend people.
When a child doesn't have a foundation of religious understanding, the likelihood that he'll accidentally offend a friend or family member is extremely high. Now, to be fair, you might not care if your kid offends your holier-than-thou, Jesus-freak brother-in-law. You might even secretly enjoy it. (He's such an intolerant jerk. It would serve him right!) But how much do you think your child will enjoy offending her uncle? Or best friend? Or teacher? And how much worse is it that your little snickerdoodle won't even understand what she has said that's so offensive? Sorry, but saddling your kid with confusion and shame makes you pretty much the worst parent on the planet — no matter how limited her exposure to Happy Meals.
Possibility No. 3: Your kid will assume you have "issues" with religion.
KJ Del'Antonia wrote on yesterday's Motherlode blog about the responsibility that white parents have to talk to their kids about race. Many parents think that not talking about race sends the message that race doesn't matter. "But," Del'Antonia said, "research suggests the opposite: that when we don’t talk about race, our children continue to think about it — and what they think is that it matters too much to talk about." Avoiding God talks can send the message that you consider the entire subject to be scary, wrong or bad. And even if your child doesn't see why religion is taboo in your household, he'll learn quickly to respect your silence and ask no questions. That may seem fine, until years from now when your son meets and falls in love with a deeply religious girl — and you are literally the last to know.
Possibility No. 4: Your kid will join the Taliban.
Okay, probably not, but it could happen. Greg Brown has a fantastic song called "If You Don't Get it At Home," whose refrain is: "If you don't get it at home, you're gonna go lookin'...." It's so very applicable here. If you don't encourage your kid to explore the ins and outs of religion at home, she'll find it elsewhere. Fundamentalist Christian groups gain a good number of followers from families who have all but banned religious talk from their households, according to Parenting Beyond Belief guy Dale McGowan. And let's not forget teenage rebellion. When she's 15, your daughter might very well be hunting for ways to piss you off. And, dude, how pissed would you be if she up and joined the Taliban? Or, worse, the Church of Scientology? [Scientologists: It's a joke. Please don't start stalking me or threatening me with your crazy lawsuits. Thanks.]
Possibility No. 5: Your kid will become that intolerant jerk.
So let's say your kid is way too smart to join the Taliban, or any other fringe religion. Let's say, at 8, he's got atheist written all over him. But how — if you don't talk about religion — is your child supposed to learn that religious people deserve your kindness as much as anyone else? If all your kids observes in his house are subtle eye-rolls, sighs of exasperation and occasional disparaging remarks about "fundies," won't he start mimicking that? It's inevitable, isn't it? Unfortunately, he may not know enough about religion himself to do be selective about his negativity. He'll simply lump all religious people together, and treat the lot of them with eye-rolling and signs of exasperation. Goodbye, Tolerance. Hello, Bigotry.
I'm not trying to say there's one perfect way to discuss religion in your home — just as I'm not judging any parent who hits McDonald's on the way home. We are human, and we're all doing the best we can. How you approach the subject will depend entirely on your experiences, your personality, and your beliefs. All I'm asking is that you start the talk while your child is still young enough to want to listen, and seize opportunities to talk these things through. Find websites. Check out books. Read this blog. Whatever gets you started. Define some basic words: God, for instance, and Heaven. Religion and Prayer. Remember, you need not know everything there is about Buddhism to say the word Buddhist. Or everything about Islam to say the word Muslim. Simply saying the words out loud and trying your best to answer any questions that arise can be incredibly helpful to your child— and surprisingly empowering for you.