Talking to Kids About God

Sometimes I think it is easier to talk to my daughter about sex than about God. Perhaps that's because I have a pretty good idea where babies come from, but I'm still a little fuzzy on the details about God. It's also because my daughter is only 7, so we haven't gotten to the really difficult conversations about sex. But I have a few ideas about what I'll say when the time comes. I was caught by surprise, however, when she asked me how your soul gets out of your body when you die.

We were talking about Heath Ledger, and how sad it was that he died so young. Then she asked if someone came to "rip his soul out." After making a mental note to pay more attention to the materials she brought home from her weekly religion classes, I explained that no one "rips" anything out of you. It's something far more natural and peaceful, I said. Like a burp.

That seemed to do the trick. She nodded thoughtfully, burped and moved on. The conversation raised a few questions for me, however, and not just about my gift for metaphor. Why does the subject of religion make me so uncomfortable? OK, so I'm divorced (twice!) and I haven't always been, um, a paragon of virtue. Still, I consider myself a practicing Roman Catholic. I take my kid to church most Sundays. (In the winter, at least.) I grew up as a Catholic and I find comfort in the familiar rituals of the mass. I am glad my daughter is getting some religious training.

But when confronted by my daughter's questions—Does God have arms? Do you really have to drink blood?—I'm completely lost. What was I doing during all those years of weekly CCD classes? I learned that Jesus loves me and I listened to a lot of bad guitar-playing at mass when I was growing up in the 1960s. But I didn't memorize the Baltimore Catechism and I couldn't name the seven deadly sins if my life depended on it. I could come up with only eight of the Ten Commandments!

It's not just about the gaps in my education. As a "cafeteria Catholic," I don't accept all the tenets of my religion. I am never going to teach my daughter that evolution is a fraud, and someday I will encourage her to think critically, not doctrinally, about issues like artificial birth control, stem-cell research and abortion.

Even when I agree with the church, I've discovered I'm just not that comfortable discussing the mysteries of faith. Other parents share my ambivalence. "I kind of play down the religious aspect of church, which is easy when you are a Presbyterian," says a friend who has a 9-year-old daughter. "At a recent parents' meeting to discuss what we would like the Sunday school to teach, I got quite a few funny looks when I said I didn't want a lot of emphasis on the spiritual side of things."

I wouldn't go that far, but my daughter's questions still have me stumped. Very often when we're talking to children about faith the problem is us, not them, says the Rev. J. Brian Bransfield, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. We live in a secular world and we try to reduce mysteries to simple facts. Children can experience a mystery, he says. When I ask him to help me explain how the soul leaves the body, he suggests using the analogy of an embrace: we hug each other, then we let go. "Whenever the child asks the adult something, the child is inviting the adult in," says Father Bransfield.

I am going to try to accept the invitation, and still answer my child's questions as honestly as I can. A quick flip through the book she's using in her Sunday classes is comforting. "What are some things that you think make a mother special?" asks one page. Who can't get behind that? And come Ash Wednesday, I will be prepared to explain the dirty smudge on my head. Because I Googled it.