What Does Your Kid Really Know about Religion?

Religion Section

Most parents, I've found, want their kids to know about religion. Maybe the reasons are strictly educational, or maybe they're cultural, practical, even political. Regardless, most of us — whether religious or nonreligious — live in a diverse and complicated society whose collective beating heart is powered by the Internet; our children, we know, will be more successful at living if they understand the nature of faith and its role in people's lives.

And, yet, so few of us are willing or able to teach our kids about religion. Why is this? We're busy, of course. We've got priorities, and all that. But isn't more of it a simple lack of knowledge? Wouldn't most of us be willing to say something if we knew what to say or where to start? It's not like we can reduce "religion" to some simple concepts, right? The whole subject seems to run wild and far and resist any kind of containment. So where does that leave us?

Consider this:

A U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted in September 2010 found that a little over half of the American public knew that the Golden Rule was not part of the 10 commandments, the Qur'an was the Islamic holy book and Joseph Smith was a Mormon. Even less knew than the Dalai Lama was a Buddhist, Martin Luther inspired the Reformation, the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday and the Four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This is not to show how ignorant we are as a society — in fact, I was sort of impressed by some of the percentages — but to offer a starting point. We parents aren't expected to teach our kids everything; but we should at least cover the "basics" — the basic events, the basic people, the basic places, the basic meanings.

For the next week, I'll be finishing up a chapter for my book on how parents can "teach religion" without knocking themselves out. (You're welcome.) My plan is to single out the need-to-know stuff from the rest of it, and suggest lots of painless (if not fun) ways to deliver the need-to-know stuff to your kids' amazing brains.

So, now's the time I ask for you input:

What have you done to introduce your child to religion so far? What (if anything) about the subject interests your kids the most? What gets their attention?

And what about you? What has been the biggest challenge in promoting religious literacy in your house? Where do you falter? What tools are you missing?

In short, help me help you.

Thanks, guys!

Oh! And, by the way, congrats to Megan Parker, who won the copy of No! That's Wrong! in my book giveaway.  See? Subscribers to my blog get cool stuff. (That's a hint, people.)

And now this:


'The God Talk' Makes Prime Time


Any Parenthood watchers out there? A couple of weeks ago, the NBC series aired an episode involving a nonreligious couple who discovers their young son praying at his bedside, which leads them to confront the issue for the first time — not only with their son, but also with Grandma (who has, of course, inspired the prayer) and with each other. The story arc rings very true, and I was thrilled to see the discussion come up on Prime Time.

If you're interested, you can stream the episode on Netflix. The story line starts in earnest at 9:45 and picks up again at minutes 17, 20, and 39. If  you don't mind ads, you also can watch it here:

Here's my synopsis:

Surprised by their son's newfound spirituality, Jasmine and Crosby Braverman (played by Dax Shepard and Joy Bryant) decide to broach the subject with Jasmine's mother after dinner one night.

"Mom," Jasmine says, "we noticed that Jabbar has been praying,"

"That's wonderful!" exclaims the mother.

And so it begins.

The grandmother freely admits to introducing the boy to God, heaven and prayer, and seems shocked to hear that Jasmine and Crosby haven't taken up the topic themselves already. The conversation sets in motion some back-and-forth between the couple over what they believe and whether it's important that their son believe the same thing. Both are nonreligious, but — as it turns out — not on exactly the same page. Jasmine believes in God, and thinks their son should be able to explore religion because "it was a comfort" to her when she was a child. "It wasn't about God, or even church," she tells her husband. "It was about community."

But Crosby wasn't raised to be religious ("C'mon, geez, we gave you baseball," his own father, played by Craig T. Nelson, offers at one point) and he doesn't particularly want Jabbar to be, either.

"If you don't have that belief you're not going to be a part of that community," he says. "And I don't want my son to be a part of some club I'm not a member of. I mean, maybe that's a little selfish, but..."

"Maybe a little?" the wife interjects

"Maybe a little," he admits.

In the end, Crosby decides to tell his son a bit about his own beliefs in a way that complements the grandmother's religion, rather than undermining it — which is some darn good role-modelling right there. My only complaint is that I wanted more. "The Talk" was far too brief for my taste. I wanted to hear what came next.

But, you know, I'm totally biased. I wish everyone would talk about this stuff more.

4 Reasons Not To Indoctrinate Kids Against Religion


Indoctrination, whether it be religious or nonreligious, requires that parents send a clear and convincing message that there is only one way to think about God and, in doing so, imply that other ways are wrong, silly, short-sighted or dangerous. There is a pretty major difference between revealing our beliefs to our children and insisting our children — and the world around us — believe the same things we do.

Severe indoctrination leads to the opposite of critical thinking — that is, reflective thinking aimed at deciding what to believe. Part of what makes severe indoctrination so scary is the fact that it can hinder a child's abilities to draw her own conclusions about the world, independent from her parents. And that's a skill that relates directly to a child's level of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth — the very attributes that will enable her to resist peer pressure in adolescence and beyond.

Indoctrination, whether intentional or accidental, can and often does drive a wedge between parent and child. Parenting coach Linda Hatfield once told me that our voices become the voices our children hear for the rest of their lives. If we say "You can do it," for instance, that becomes a mantra that plays in their heads even when we can't be there to say it ourselves.

So when a parent disparages the intelligence of a person who believes in an all-knowing, all-seeing God, that parent is giving his children information that may very well echo in their ears for years. If ever a child, say, chooses to experiment with religion or falls in love with a person of faith, such words would most definitely be remembered — and, very likely, resented. In short: The more we push our rigid opinions onto our kids now, the more we risk having our children withdraw from us later.

Here are four more reasons to avoid inculcating our children with nonreligious or anti-religious beliefs:

1.  Indoctrination often fails. More than a quarter of American adults — 28 percent — have left the faith in which they were raised, according to Pew Forum's 2008 Landscape Survey. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, that number spikes to 44 percent. Think how you would feel if your kids failed to believe something you have given them no choice but to believe? Talk about an ego-killer. And it's no fun for the kids either, by the way, who probably want nothing more than to make you proud.

2. Your passion could backfire. Children who feel unconnected from their parents (and that's many of them during the teen years) may use religion (or anything else that seems important to their parents) as a point of rebellion during adolescence —  a way to assert their authority and establish independence. If religion is a sore point for you, that's all the more reason not to indoctrinate.

3. Your kid might have a natural affinity for some type of spirituality. Or he may come to need it at some point in his life. One respondent to my 2012  survey told me he has a friend who "traded in his alcoholism for God." Despite the respondent's non-belief, he commented: "It was a good trade." Religion might someday have the power to make your kids feel good or even safe. To take that away could be detrimental — not to the child's eternal soul, of course — but to his happiness. And there aren't a lot of things more important than that.

4. Indoctrination breeds intolerance. The natural byproduct of religious freedom is a good, healthy dose of religious tolerance. It's extremely difficult to teach compassion and tolerance to others when you're sending a message that your way is the only right way. True tolerance starts at home. If you're going to tell your child it's okay for others to believe differently than she does; then be okay with your child believing differently than you do. Otherwise, you're kind of a hypocrite. And by "kind of," I mean totally.

And now, on a lighter note, here are some more Toothpaste for Dinner comics:


Brief Tribute to Obscure Children's Book (P.S. #Giveaway)

I've got a book recommendation for you. It's not religious in nature, but it's funny and quirky and carries a really great moral that certainly dovetails with some of my blogs about children and belief. The book is called "No! That's Wrong!" and was written in 2008 by Japanese author Zhaohua Ji and illustrated by Cui Xu.

It tells the tale of a bunny who finds a pair of underpants blowing in the wind. (See now, that's what you call a solid premise.) Anyway, this particular bunny has never seen a pair of underpants before, so he looks them over and determines that they must be a hat; after all, his ears fit perfectly through the little leg holes. The bunny is thrilled with his find, and proceeds to hop around the animal kingdom, where his friends comment on what a marvelous hat he's wearing.

But, of course, the bunny has underpants on his head. And we, the readers, are expected to help point out  our hero's obvious mistake. "No, that's wrong," we inform the wayward bunny. "It's not a hat." (This interactive element of the book is very fun for kids — and reminiscent of Mo Willem's Pigeon series.) At one point, the bunny runs into the most educated, humanized of his friends — a donkey — who backs us up. "What are you doing?" he says. "Why are you wearing underpants on your head? It's not a hat. They're underpants."

When the bunny tries puts the underpants on correctly, though, they don't look right. His tail doesn't fit, and the underpants are uncomfortable. After getting feedback from his friends — who think he's crazy for wearing his hat that way — and looking at himself in the glassy surface of a lake, the bunny takes off the underpants and puts them back on his head.

"No, I was right!" he says, hopping merrily along. "It's a wonderful hat!"

This message can relate to so many facets of life (and even be read literally), but I always think of religious belief when I read it. Sometimes you have to see what's right FOR YOU, even if others think it's silly or stupid or embarrassing or sad or flat-out wrong. Does your belief make you happy? Is it hurting anyone? Great. And if those around you are supportive and happy with your decision — well, all the better. The moral: A happy, non-conforming bunny is better than a unhappy, uncomfortable bunny who does what every Tom, Dick or Donkey tell him to do. Can't get much better than that.

Interested in the book but don't want to pay for it? Cheap bastards. (Not that I blame you.) Next week, I'll (randomly) choose one of my awesome subscribers to receive the book for free. Don't mind paying? You also can find it on Amazon here. Great for ages 3 to 9.


The God Book: A Tale for Children

If you’ve never read a Todd Parr book, you might want to check one out. Parr is a wonderful children's book author whose work heavily emphasizes inclusiveness and self-confidence. His writing is sweet and simple, his illustrations vibrant and kid-like. His first book, The Okay Book, is my all-time favorite — and my daughter's. She loves that little board book just as much today (age 6) as she did when we bought it for her at 9 months. In "The Okay Book," Parr writes:

It’s okay to be be short/ It's okay to be tall/ It's okay to wear two different socks/ It's okay to have freckles/ It's okay to eat all the frosting off your birthday cake/ It's okay to wear glasses/ It's okay to come from a different place/ It's okay to be scared... And so on.

I mention this book because Parr’s approach — simplicity, along with the ever-present notion that it's okay for people to be different — is perfectly aligned with mine when it comes to talking about religion with kids. If I were to write a Parr book, I would want it to offer an unbiased, non-indoctrinating description of God for kids. It would be called The God Book or maybe Some People Believe, and it would go something like this:

Some people believe everything in the world was created by a being called God.

Some people believe God watches over them and keeps them safe.

Some people believe God helps them make good decisions.

Some people believe God answers their prayers.

Some people believe books written a long time ago tell true stories about God.

Some people believe God has chosen certain human beings to talk to.

Some people believe these human beings are important to God, and so they should be important to us.

Some people believe when they die, they will see God for the first time in a place called Heaven.

Some people believe that only those who believe in God go to Heaven.

Some people believe there is not one God, but many gods.

Some people believe God may not be real.

Some people believe God is not real.

Some people believe it's very important to believe in God.

Some people believe it's not at all important to believe in God.

And then, ala Todd Parr, I’d write:

No matter what you believe, always be kind to people who believe a different way.


Now, If I could just get Parr to illustrate...

Jesus & Julia: A Tribute to Real Books


I love reading books on my iPad. I love that I can touch a word, and the definition pops up instantly. I love that I can change the font and read in the dark and buy books online. I love being able to access my entire library from a single page. And being able to switch to the Internet to find more information about what I’m reading. And being able to copy and paste entire passages into e-mails. I love that I can highlight text and make notes and bookmark pages — and then undo it all just as easily. I love that I can travel with dozens of books at a time without adding any weight to my luggage.

Although I found it difficult to go digital at first, I'm no longer nostalgic for the smell and feel of a book in my hands. In the end, it really is the words that matter to me, not the mode.

But there is one thing I do lament about the loss of real books on real bookshelves — something my iPad, no matter how advanced, will ever deliver. And that's a connection to the past.

Without paper pages, we will no longer be able to stumble across other people's underlined passages, or read their notes in the margins, or feel the creases left over from from their dog-eared pages. We will no longer have the opportunity to think — if only for a fleeting moment —  about the people who lived and read before us, or to let their marks and notations deepen our enjoyment of the texts themselves.

Nowhere is this sense of loss more profound, for me personally, than when I consider two books sitting on my own bookshelf: My grandmother’s Holy Bible, and my mother’s copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

The covers of both books alone, well-worn and threadbare from decades of constant use, speak volumes about what both women loved and valued. For my grandmother, it was Jesus. For my mother — Julia Child.

The Bible, published in 1900, was given to my grandmother by her grandfather, a minister himself, when she was 13 years old. It reads: “In Remembrance of Christmas Time 1922 at Deerwood, Minn.,” and is signed “with God's blessings, Grandpa Erlander.”

The cookbook, an eighth edition published in 1968, is signed “Bon appétit! Julia Child.”

The inscriptions alone make these books special, but their real value to me is within the texts themselves, where the marks and stains and notes make me feel as though I'm in the room with these women, watching over their shoulders as they absorb the nuances of the sentences inside.

My grandmother has been dead many years now, but the Bible was a focus of her life. She very much wanted to be the person her Christ wanted her to be. And she prioritized her faith above many other things. In her Bible, which is incredibly beautiful in its own right, she underlined passages about being “saved,” noted the importance of being helpful to others, and seemed to revel particularly in the story of Jesus’ birth. My grandfather died years before my grandmother, and I know – based on her notations – that she must have thought of him often, Bible in hand, and longed for the day she would meet him again in heaven.

"Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is equally fun for me to open and scan for what it can tell me about my mother. You can tell, for instance, from the oil stains and food splatters, that one of my mom's go-to meals was Chicken Sautéed in Butter (mine, too, incidentally). She loved the "sauces" section — especially the recipe for Hollandaise Sauce — and spent many evenings poring over pages 315 to 317: Boeuf Bourguignon. When I was growing up, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was brought out from its nesting place only on the happiest occasions — dinner parties, family get-togethers, and holidays. Glad times, those were, for all of us.

Looking at these two books side-by-side, I am struck by all the parallels. I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to call cooking my mother's religion or Julia Child her savior, but meals did play a central role in how she lived her life  — just as faith played a central role in how my grandmother lived hers. Both women must have read and reread the pages of their respective books hundreds of times, always taking away something to feed them — body or soul.

Had Jesus lived long enough to know Julia Child, it seems quite possible that they would have become friends. Julia, for example, would surely have enjoyed that trick Jesus did when he changed water into wine. And Jesus, when faced with deciding how to season the two fish that would feed 5,000 people, might have asked himself: What Would Julia Do?

Or maybe not.

The point is, I've got these two books — two of my most valued possessions, frankly — and neither of them would exist without traditional publishing houses and traditional books. And while I would never advocate a reverse in the course of technology — that train has left the station, and I jumped on board a long time ago — I am so grateful that these books exist and that I can open them (literally open them!) anytime I want. I am glad for every imperfection left inside, each stain, each crinkled page. For every mark, intentional or not, tells me something about the women who came before me. Women I love very much.

Do you think my iPad will tell my daughter anything at all about me?

Talking to Kids About Death Need Not Be Depressing


For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on a chapter of my book dealing with death. A cheery subject, I know, but an important one —  given that death is a primary reason religion exists at all.

My goal is to make death an easier topic for parents to explore with their kids. What should parents say, and when should they say it? How can they help children cope with the idea of death without the comforting arms of religion.

So far, my research involves reading lots of books with titles about death, dying, mourning and loss. You can see why I put this chapter off for so long. As it turns out, though, the research is not nearly as depressing as it sounds. In fact, it's felt quite liberating — the way it often does when you confront things that scare you.

I’ve also begun showing kids' books on the subject to my daughter, Maxine  — who, at 6, seems to be at the perfect age to have these discussions. It's been fun to gauge how she reacts, what questions she brings up, and how comfortable I am answering them.

The most successful of the books I've found so far is When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. It's a children’s book that explains death in plain, honest terms. Maxine showed an immediate interest in the book, and wanted to read it very slowly so she could carefully consider each picture. She did ask questions, although none were out of the ordinary:

“What’s wrong with him?” she asked, pointing to a man lying in a hospital bed.

“Why is she mad?” she said about a girl who was working through feelings of anger after her grandfather died.

“What is that thing?” she asked when we got to a page featuring a coffin.

When Dinosaurs Die seems to be aimed at kids who have gone through a recent loss, but it's also perfectly well-suited as an introduction to death for kids who've not yet been struck by personal tragedy. You might think it a bit morbid at first, but it's actually very refreshing to talk about something so basic to human nature, and to treat it as just another subject.

The book doesn't pull back in the ways you might think, either. I was impressed, for instance, that the author touches on suicide and murder. I’m not sure I would have thought to mention those especially gritty sorts of deaths. But the fact that she does, and the way she does it, is just excellent.

Other than the title, which sounds a bit too much like a book on dinosaur extinction, the book is great for anyone with kids ages 5 to, let's say, 9 or 10ish. Okay, now your recommendations. Got any?

Lucretius is The Man


Has anyone else read The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt? According to my iPad, I’m less than 10 percent into the story, but already feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth. It’s so rich with history (which is sort of the point of the thing), mind-expanding and gorgeously written. The Swerve is a narrative nonfiction account of an Italian book collector who, in 1417, discovered a book written in 50 BCE by a Greek named Lucretius. Lucretius was a philosopher (like all those other high-fallutin’ Greeks!) and, as it turns out, quite brilliant. Lucretius’ book, which amounts to one long-ass poem, was called On the Nature of Things, and, in it, he lays out Epicureanism, as well as his own thoughts on, well, the nature of things.

Lucretius hypothesized that, rather than being watched over by gods, the world was made up of atoms that had randomly adhered to one another in all sorts of different ways to make up everything we see and hear and touch — including ourselves.

Sound familiar?

That’s because now — 2,062 years later — that’s our “contemporary rational understanding of the entire world,” Greenblatt writes. All of us — animals, plants, water, the moon, the stars, the infinite and ever-expanding universe — are comprised of the same building blocks, the same matter.

In other words, Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie were right: We are the world. And the world is us.

Here’s Greenblatt:

"The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust mites in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. There is no escape from this process. When you look up at the night sky and, feeling unaccountably moved, marvel at the number of stars, you are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere detached from our transient world. You are seeing the same material world of which you are a part and from whose elements you are made. There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design. All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited die off quickly. But nothing  — from our own species to the planet on which we live to the sun that lights our days — lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal."

This is ancient history?! Amazing!

And, then, the kicker:

"What human beings can and should do, [Lucretius] wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world."

Oh, Lucretius. Where have you been all my life?