A Shopping Guide for Nonreligious Parents (Part I)

In honor of the Judeo-Christian month of giving, I'm offering a few recommendations to add to your shopping lists. These are items I have bought myself, or will buy, or might buy, or probably won't buy but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. Seriously, if you want some assistance in "introducing" world religion and religious concepts to your kids, these are excellent tools. I'll be publishing this in two parts: The first today, the second on Monday. Don't look for this list to be repeated next year, by the way. In 2013, I'll be recommending you buy only one book: Mine.

1. People by Peter Spier. Touted as "a picture book for all ages," People is the best celebration of diversity I've ever seen in book form. Spier is a spectacular illustrator, and offers the sweetest introduction to religion and culture. His little figures are charming, and for children who may never run into Arabs or Africans on the street, it's all the more important. You'd never know the book was written in 1980, but for one single page devoted to different kinds of "communication." Records and cassettes and walkie-talkies are among the most "modern" communication methods pictured. Available on Amazon: $10.36

2. "What Do You Believe?" This book, published just last year by DK Publishing, is a stellar example of how to talk about world religions in neutral terms. The design is excellent and very modern, and the book is full of great information — but not too full. That is, it's not exhausting to look at, as so many of these types of books can be. It includes pages on world religions, as well as atheism and agnosticism — all of which are handled with a high degree of respect.  This is likely to appeal most to slightly older children, 9 and above, but I'd get it early and make it a book shelf staple. Available on Amazon: $11.55

3. DYI Paper Buddha. These things are just plain cool. They come in kits and would be great for kids who like to build things. I love the idea of having my daughter make this little guy — or one of the other Hindu gods offered in kit form — and reading a little bit about Buddhism or Hinduism out loud to her while she does it. The kits are made in New Delhi by cartoonist and animator Kshiraj Telang. They are all limited edition and sold in Indian rupees. Hurry while supplies last! Available on Toonoholic for 99 rupees (roughly $1)

4. Dreidel. I wrote about how to play the game of Dreidel last year as part of my Hanukkah post. It's such a fun game for kids — and cheap! I highly recommend it as and entry into talking about Judaism and the origins of Hanukkah. Plus, it's got a fun song that goes with it. (South Park's version is here.) Simple wooden dreidel available on Amazon: $1.89

5. Fulla Doll. I referenced this doll in a recent post. It's a line of Barbie-like fashion dolls for Muslim girls, and I'm TOTALLY buying one for my daughter. The abaya and hijab that Muslims wear is really interesting to kids. Getting little ones used to different styles of religious dress (so they can see it as something normal, rather than something weird) could go a long way in building an understanding of Islamic customs. (By the way, check out these pictures published on Slate today — it's a photo series on  documenting the Arab woman's experience of being veiled!) Fulla dolls available at Muslim Toys and Dolls: $34.99

6. Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow.  When it comes to giving kids and parents an overview of Hinduism, this book by Sanjay Patel is the best. It's small and cute and bright and to the point, and a fantastic resource for getting a handle on the deal with Hindu gods. Just having on my bookshelf has been wonderful for me. When I need a quick reminder of who Krishna is or why Ganesh is important, I know exactly where to go. Available at Amazon: $8.82

7. Voodoo dolls. To heck with major religions, right? Let's get into some of those fun-filled folk religions! In Africa and Haiti, as well as in New Orleans, voodoo dolls are used to focus energy and blessings to those they represent. They are commonly made with items that are easily found in those regions. The instructions with this cute set advises kids to send good blessing to your friends or turn them into mean people to relieve stress and have some fun. They really are just fun little toys, but it would be a great excuse to explain a bit about the "magic" believed by some folk religions. Set of 11 available on Amazon: $6.74

8. Sikh Play Set. It was ridiculously hard to choose between all the Sikh play sets on the market! My gosh! There are just so many to — oh, wait. No. That was nativity sets. Sorry. When it came to Sikh play sets, there was the one. This one. And it seems only to be available in England. And it's expensive. So I'm doubting a lot of you will buy it, but I still think it's terribly neat. I love the book about the gurus that comes with it, and kids would have a great time inspecting the "artifacts" in the bag. Available at TTS: 74.95 pounds (roughly $120)

9. Meet Jesus: the Life and Teachings for a Beloved Teacher by Lynn Tuttle Gunney. This book came highly recommended by reader Kimberly B. The book is described as emphasizing the "humanity rather than the divitity of Jesus, giving the story broad appeal for liberal or progressive Christians and non-Christians alike." Kimberly said her kids loved it. I'm definitely buying it. Available on Amazon: $10.26

10. The Tao of Pooh Audiobook. (You cand find it free on youtube, too.) I read this book in college, and loved it so much I also read the Te of Piglet, which was good but not as good. Author Benjamin Hoff shows that "Pooh's Way" is amazingly consistent with the principles of living envisioned by the Chinese founders of Taoism. It's very fun and cute. The audiobook would be great for a road trip with a slightly older child — 11ish maybe. Available on Amazon: $14.59

For Part II, click here.

 

Religious Charm Bracelet, Anyone?… Anyone?

All-Religions Charm Bracelet

Okay, I suspect you guys are going to make fun of me a little bit for this, but, hey, what the hell. So, let me preface this by saying that, growing up, my mother had a charm bracelet she wore on special occasions. I was FASCINATED by this bracelet, which strung together all kinds of little golden goodies symbolizing some of my mom's greatest memories. There was a child's ring, a graduation cap, a locket. But my favorite charm was a little money box containing the tiniest folded-up dollar bill I'd ever seen in my life. A little door on the top opened and closed, and I must have opened and closed it hundreds of times. That bracelet mesmerized me. I remember asking (often) what all those symbols meant to my mom, where they came from. What's more: the bracelet was so darn pretty — and jangly. Very jangly. That was definitely a draw.

So fast forward, like, 25 years, and I'm in a bead shop for no apparent reason (I do not make jewelry and have no interest whatsoever in beadwork), and I happen upon what can only be described as a fuckload of religious symbols. There must have 200 different kinds in this shop. Most were Christian (I live in America, after all), but some other religions were represented, as well.

So I got this hair-brained idea to, you know, make a charm bracelet for my daughter, Maxine.

Okay, before you go off half-cocked, hear me out. Here was my thinking:

1. It's important to me that Maxine knows about religion in general, not just the one religion most prevalent in her culture. By stringing all these symbols together, side by side, I'd be putting all major religions on par with one another — with none of them more (or less!) significant than the next.

2. I'd like for Maxine to recognize religious symbols and have some sense of their back stories. It's a challenge sometimes, though, to introduce the basic concept of religion without, you know, boring her to tears. I figured if Maxine had a bracelet with religious symbols in her jewelry box, she might drag it out every once in a while and look at it. If I got lucky, maybe she'd even ask a question or two.

3. As you know, I love the idea of celebrating religious holidays with kids — rather than shying away from them, or even secularizing them. I see holidays as an opportunity to demystify religion, but also to promote religious literacy and religious tolerance. Symbols (the dreidel for Hanukkah or the Buddha for Vesak Day, for example) are fantastic memory aids. A bracelet, I thought, could come in kinda handy.

So there, in this cheesy bead store, I decided to go for it. With no trouble at all, I found a Star of David, a little dreidel and a charm imprinted with Mary and the baby Jesus. I also found  the Buddha and a yoga guy and about a million crosses — both with and without the crucifixion. I knew I wanted the former because the crucifixion is such an interesting (and ghastly) image, it can't help but be compelling. Carting all this stuff around definitely got the bead lady's attention. She asked me if she could help, and when I told her what I wanted — "to make an all-religions charm bracelet" is how I put it — she immediately got on board, tracking down the "Om" and yin/yang symbols to add to my pile

When I got home, I got out my pliers and put it all together.

The bracelet isn't nearly finished — there are so many other religious symbols out there! — nor is it as pretty, heavy, classy or valuable as my mom's. But it's a start. And it jangles real nice.

So what do you think, guys? A good idea? Potentially helpful? Or a total waste of money?

Religious Picture Books Have Much to Offer — But Choose Wisely

Library books

Can we talk about religious picture books for a minute?

I'm assuming most of you didn't read your kid a religious bedtime story last night. And that it rarely occurs to you to wonder what new Islamic, Hindu or Christian children's books came out this year. I'm also willing to bet you don't spend a lot of time in the religious section at your public library.

But it might be time to start.

For the last month or so I've been obsessed with religion-books for kids — mostly because my own knowledge of religious stories is limited, and I'm always looking for language to use when talking through certain religious concepts with my daughter. At any given time, I might have 15 of these things stacked in my office, and another dozen on hold at the library.

As you can imagine, kids' religious titles run the gamut. Many focus on religious holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Christmas, Eid. Others contain more over-arching material — stories about Buddha or Muhammad or the parables of Jesus. Some are meant to "educate" and are much too comprehensive, dated or dry for most little ones to enjoy; others are beautifully illustrated and clearly written with children's interests in mind.

Because a good number are written for religious children, not all of them are a good match for secular families. The worst of the bunch are indoctrination materials, which — in my opinion at least — pose far more questions than answers. But the best can be quite good. They offer fun stories, interesting settings and clever text — and they do it so well that they don't feel like "learning experiences" — even though that's exactly what they are.

Of course, it's sometimes hard to tell the good from the bad and the bad from the ugly. Which is why I'm endeavoring to sort through the lot in search of the best and most helpful reads to pass on to you guys. (How nice am I?) In the meantime, though, I thought I'd offer some advice on choosing titles that won't confuse your child, offend you, or bore either of you to tears.

1. Choose a book that will appeal to your kid

You know your kid and his taste more than anyone else. You know when a book (or toy or game) has a good chance of holding his interest, or no chance at all. If your 7-year-old is a real boy's boy who's going to roll his eyes at an Easter story about a little girl and her lamb, put it back. If your daughter is only interested in princesses, maybe choose a book about the Jewish Princess Esther over a book about the Hindu God Shiva. Religious literacy isn't about cramming shit down kids' throats; in fact, it's quite the opposite.

2. Go for age-appropriate

Like No. 1, this is usually pretty easy to judge by a quick glance. The cover art and the amount of text on the first couple of pages are good guides. And, of course, if you're at all worried about violence or other adult situations, be sure to flip through the book before handing it on to your little one; lots of religious stories depict people — not to mention God — doing some pretty gnarly things.

3. Make it relevant

If you want this stuff to be at all meaningful, it's probably best not to introduce reading material completely randomly. Read her a Ramadan story during the month of Ramadan, a Good Friday story around Easter. You don't have to have some big master plan, of course, but do try to introduce each book with a sentence about why you're reading it — why this book, why now. As a side note: Many books out there are what I would call "secondary" books — books that are great to read AFTER your kid has been introduced to certain concepts. Hoppy Passover, for instance, is a sweet book about a bunny family that holds a Seder. But because it assumes some basic knowledge of Passover, it might be better as an accompaniment to another book — rather than standing on its own.

4. Check for historical accuracy

This is a biggie. As secular parents, the point of reading religious books is to teach our kids about religion. When authors take poetic license or manipulate religious history to the point where the stories are no longer accurate, the value for us is gone. Religious people might believe that their kids will get the "full story" eventually, and may not be worried about these deviations. Hell, they might even prefer revisionist history from time to time, especially when the revision creates a more believable, desirable or compelling story. But we as secular parents are looking for the truth. And, just as often, the inaccuracies insult both believers and nonbelievers.

5. Watch out for white-washing

That a story is "accurate" doesn't mean it's complete. Bible stories (especially the ones you find in the Religion sections at major bookstores) often are abbreviated to sound kinder, gentler, and more understandable. (The story of Noah's Ark is not nearly so charming when you consider that God went on to exterminate every living creature on earth, for example.) I do understand the desire to make stories age-appropriate. I've found myself struggling to explain certain religious violence to my daughter in a way that won't give her nightmares. But if a story needs to be white-washed in order to share it, maybe it's not time to share that particular story. I'd love for my kid to see Chinatown someday; that doesn't mean I need to watch it with her tonight. That said, if you find yourself sharing a cleaned-up Bible story with your child, no sweat. Just explain that there's a bit more to the story than that, and you'll tell her the rest when she gets older.

6. Be aware of slants and bias 

Although it may surprise you, this is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me. Even books written from a religious perspective can be really well-done and educational. It all depends on the nature and degree of the slant. With some titles, the only slant is the point of view. An author might use "we," for instance, instead of "they" when talking about the religious group featured in the book. But as long as you are comfortable addressing these slants as they pop up — "The author uses 'we' in this story because he, himself, is Muslim," for example — then this shouldn't be a problem. Some books, though, are more overt, and secular parents would do right to leave those behind. Sermonizing books will do nothing but confuse your child and annoy the hell of you. If you think you might be looking at such a book, but aren't sure, here's a hint: Flip to the back, and find the story's denouement, summary or wrap-up. That's where most authors put their "morals" — and if the book has a preachy element, you'll find it at the end.

 

Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents

All_Religious_Icons-300x300

We here at Relax, It's Just God believe that religious literacy and tolerance doesn't just happen. We parents have to make it happen.

Unfortunately, saying the word “Hanukkah” once a year and pointing out burkas in the airport just doesn't cut it. A true religious education requires context. Tolerance requires action. If you want your children to be interested in and respectful of those around them, you must knit a sense of interest and respect into your childrearing — today and throughout the year.

That's why major religious holidays are such fantastic vehicles for religious literacy. And the best part? Thanks to this here Holiday Cheat Sheet, you don't have to know a damn thing about any of them. We're one-stop shopping for on-the-go parents. Click on one of the links and in just a few minutes, you'll find out why that holiday exists, how it's celebrated and fun ways to convey its meanings to kids.

So stop letting those vaguely familiar-sounding holidays pass you by in a blur of Phineas and Ferb re-runs. Seize these small but wonderful opportunities to introduce your kids to religious concepts and figures — while also showing compassion for the people who hold these concepts and figures so dear.

September

Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashana? (Judaism)

October

Quick! What the Hell is Diwali? (Hinduism)

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha? (Islam)

December

Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah? (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Christmas? (Christianity)

January

Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Mawlid al-Nabi? (Islam)

February

Quick: What the Hell is St. Valentine's Day? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Ash Wednesday? (Christianity)

March

Quick! What the Hell is Purim? (Judaism)

April

Quick! What the Hell is Easter? (Christianity)

Quick! What the Hell is Passover? (Judaism)

May

Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day? (Buddhism)

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost? (Christianity)

July

Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr? (Islam)

There's more to come, so please keep checking back!