May 21, 2011

Raising an Agnostic Child

Recently my mom had to tell my three-year-old that her dog had died. My daughter asked "Did Olive go to heaven?" My mom replied that yes, the dog had gone to heaven. Bethany gave Nana a big hug and said "I'm so sorry!"

How sweet. How touching.

Flash back to the previous week. Bethany and I are watching a Tom & Jerry cartoon. A piano falls on Tom and Tom's soul rises from his body and boards an escalator. Bethany asks "Why are there two kitties? Where is that kitty going?" I said "The kitty died, he's going to heaven."

"What's 'evan'?"

"'Heaven.' It's where you go when you die, sweetie."

She continued to watch, fascinated, as Tom waited in line for St. Peter with some other cats who had recently died violent deaths (including a wet sackful of drowned kittens).

So, um, that's what she thinks heaven is. That's the only time she's ever even heard the word.

I'm not against religion. I'm fascinated by other people's religious beliefs. I personally believe that it is impossible to know anything for certain about the afterlife (on a side note this means I categorize atheism along with the rest of the religions, since atheists hold a concrete belief about what happens after we die).

I've now realized, however, that as an agnostic I still hold a responsibility to give my children a religious education. I may even hold more of a responsibility to do so than a religious parent would.

When studying racism as it relates to children a few months ago I learned something fascinating: white parents don't talk to their kids about race. We find the subject to be so taboo that we avoid it completely. Our assumption is that if we don't bring it up then the kid will never notice that people have different skin colors.

Stupid, when you think about it. We're leaving our kids to form their own opinions about why people look different. We all know that kids can come up with some pretty wild stuff. It makes a lot more sense to start talking to them about it at a young age so that they understand what it really means.

I now see religious education in much the same way. I assumed that I should leave the matter to my children to formulate their own opinions. Obviously that was a bad idea. I'm not sure how to approach it, yet, but my kids need some foundation for understanding what religion is and what the different belief systems are.

I don't care what they choose to believe when they grow up, but if they form erroneous assumptions in childhood it may scare them off the entire subject for life.

I'd love to hear your feedback on this!     -Kim