Answering your child's really big questions (UU/Reform Judaism) - Mothering Forums
Spirituality > Answering your child's really big questions (UU/Reform Judaism)
spedteacher30's Avatar spedteacher30 12:50 AM 08-29-2010
Our 4 and a half year old son is definitely at a point in his development where he is beginning to think about Really Big Things.

In the past week, we have had questions about evolution, the creation of the world, the origin of life, and death/reincarnation.

We don't really know how to answer them. We're loosely raising him Jewish--but, I was raised reform, and my family is atheist/agnostic while still celebrating Jewish holidays in a loose way. My wife is atheist, I am probably most closely agnostic. I believe firmly in scientific explanations of the world and that our shared humanity dictates morality and treatment of others, but am also pretty firmly convinced that there is a larger force guiding the universe, and that the force is understood by many people to be their religion's interpretation of God.

But, when we tell our son, "no one really knows" to answer his questions, it is just giving him more to worry about. he is lying awake at night, brooding over these questions, and asking us them throughout the day.

Does anyone have any ideas for books, websites, suggestions. We are thinking of starting to attend the UU church in our town. That way, someone else would have to struggle to answer his questions for at least an hour or so each week.

merpk's Avatar merpk 03:49 AM 08-29-2010
See, now, I'm Orthodox (Jewish), but there are answers that you can give your child that shouldn't offend your own sensibilities.

Science and Torah are in agreement; it's the humans interpreting it all that make it confusing.

This may be way too much religion-intensity for your tastes, but this link explains very clearly how the "six days of Creation" fits in perfectly with the billions of years of the universe.

Meaning, you can simultaneously tell your child that "nobody is really sure," and that the world is billions of years old, and that there is a Force behind it all ... and be entirely consistent with Jewish theology. If that's your concern, anyway ...
spedteacher30's Avatar spedteacher30 10:56 AM 08-29-2010
we've been telling him all of that, and it keeps him lying awake at night, brooding. (he takes after me in his predisposition toward anxiety, insomnia and intense reflection on the world around him).

I think the "nobody knows for sure" piece of it is what is unsettling to him. But, we don't want to introduce something as "Truth" right now. I think he is craving a clear, clean answer, but we don't feel comfortable giving him one.

Before this whole struggle started, we spent a lot of time contemplating "the biggest number in the world" and "the biggest number in the world plus one." That kept him awake for a good portion of June and early July and has morphed into this struggle about the infiniteness of the universe versus the finiteness of humanity and human understanding.
Starflower's Avatar Starflower 02:42 PM 08-29-2010
I'm not sure if any of this will be helpful to you, but we're kind of in a similar boat over here.

We are UU. I used to be pagan but have become more and more scientific / atheist over the years. My DH is agnostic (possibly atheist?). We do science stuff here all the time. DD is 7 years old and she says she doesn't believe in God but she does believe in Star Clan - a theism in a set of fantasy books she has read. I'm not even sure what that is about!? Is she craving something to believe in? Have I failed her in some way spiritually? Sometimes I wonder if I should have given her something specific to believe in, but she's smart enough to know if we're being honest about our beliefs.

DD has been having a lot of anxiety lately. We are seeing a therapist with her. She also cannot get to sleep at night. Lately her big questions have been "why do we have to die" and "what is the point of life if we're all just going to die." She is distraught because she is unable to physically meet her ancestors. We've even offered to research them - I have written letters and accounts of several of them, but she just gets upset when I bring up getting to know them in that way.

We do talk about nature and how things work all the time. We've used logic. We talk about what different cultures and religions believe about death, creation and everything. We believe that all paths can be valid, but none of this seems to be helping DD very much. I sometimes wish I had some pat answer I could just tell her to make it all OK but I just don't feel like I can do that.

We do have a UU church we belong to but we are considering no longer attending. (We've been taking a break from church and I am the only who seems interested anyway. Plus DD hates the kids' Sunday classes.) However, she used to like the classes when she was your child's age.

I am considering consulting with the new minister and some of the other parents on our church email list to see how they handle things like this. I am also considering loosely celebrating pagan holidays with DD since they correspond with the agricultural wheel of the year and would create rituals which I still find meaningful psychologically if not religiously.

One other angle I am wondering about if giftedness. Have you looked into traits of gifted children? Your DS sounds like he may be comprehending a lot for someone his age.

From what I have read, many gifted children have some troubles when they comprehend things intellectually before they may be ready to comprehend them emotionally. I believe this is some of what is going on with my own DD.
Here's a link that may explain a little bit of what I mean.

I hope you find some helpful answers. In any case, you've helped me clarify some of my thoughts about where to go next with DD.
LauraLoo's Avatar LauraLoo 05:59 PM 08-29-2010
My dc's found these books very helpful -- and both took different things out of them: (We attend a UU-like church, and I side with agnostic/humanist religious beliefs)

What Is God?


You may also want to pick up "Parenting Beyond Belief"
I think the strength of this book is the additional resources that you will find there.

G/L -- these questions are challenging!
MusicianDad's Avatar MusicianDad 06:19 PM 08-29-2010
I don't have any book suggestions. It might help him, though, if in stead of "no one really knows" you focus on what different people believe with a bit of an explanation as to why they believe it. That is how we did it with DD and how we plan to approach the subjects with DS.
Arduinna's Avatar Arduinna 06:35 PM 08-29-2010
I grew up in a non religious family that celebrated secular Christmas and Easter and spend a lot of time as a kid trying to understand why humans existed and why and how the world came into being. In fact it's something I've pondered for 40+ years.

Have you considered asking him what he thinks?
meemee's Avatar meemee 07:12 PM 08-29-2010
Originally Posted by spedteacher30 View Post
we've been telling him all of that, and it keeps him lying awake at night, brooding. (he takes after me in his predisposition toward anxiety, insomnia and intense reflection on the world around him).
i think you need to allow him this freedom. he is figuring out for himself with all this anxiety, insomnia and intense reflection, lying awake at night, brooding.

these are all natural states of being.

i dont think you need to fix that. just like food i think you can offer him a diverse option. let him go thru this 'darkness' and soon he will come out of it and accept what he wants to accept.

the biggest lesson we as parents need to learn is we are not to fix things, or make our kids avoid things (of course age appropriate).

when you come across Really Big Things - you behave differently to take it all in. they have to be given the freedom to do that.

childhood is an amazing state of being. what one day keeps them crying or brooding will one day be a piece of cake the next. no big deal. my dd who cried adn wept over her death and her gparents death at 3, was very matter of factly talking about death rites and what one does with the body at 4.5.

so its ok for him to brood. to lay awake at night. to have high anxiety. one day it will all fall into place for him. as a parent you support him in his hour of need. not fix it. but support it. he will in time get out of it.
merpk's Avatar merpk 08:49 PM 08-29-2010
Originally Posted by Arduinna View Post
Have you considered asking him what he thinks?

spedteacher30's Avatar spedteacher30 09:27 PM 08-29-2010
Of course we ask him what he thinks, but he has been in a Montessori school for the last two years, where the science has been based on observation, data, and information. If he doesn't have enough of those things to base his opinion on, he won't just make something up. We're trying to give him the information he needs to make his own informed hypotheses.

and, I do understand that this type of contemplation and reflection is normal and something we can't fix, but when he stops me while we are playing at the pool and asks, "Mommy, what will the world be like when all the people die?" we'd like to give him the space and time and information he needs while NOT at the pool that will allow him to go back to playing with his buddies in the water.

I do know that 4 is a dark and broody age, where most kids become pretty obsessed with these types of questions, but his seems to be something he does need some help with.
DashsMama's Avatar DashsMama 11:11 PM 08-29-2010
When my guys started asking questions like this I picked an explanation that I liked (reincarnation, families being together over and over again, etc.) and that is also in-line with the liberal Jewish upbringing we are trying to bring to the kids. I admitted to them that nobody knows for sure, but that this is what I believe. The reality is I don't really know if I believe in God or reincarnation at all, I've been having a crisis of faith for a few years, but I felt that it was doing no harm to pass along this comforting belief, and it WAS and is still comforting to them to have an answer.
meemee's Avatar meemee 05:57 AM 08-30-2010
aaah sorry gotcha.

like MD pointed out i have shared with dd how that's something no one really knows so these are the ways people have tried to figure it out. and i have shared with her the atheists way as well as many religions, as well indigenous creation tales. and added our own. what i think and i shared my then confusion and what her dad thinks. what really helped her too was we were already taking part in meditation that she was going to with me. initially she would fall asleep but then she started her own short meditation and then fall asleep and i think its those meditative experiences that helped her form her views. without me teaching her she handled her anxiety thru meditation.

his question "Mommy, what will the world be like when all the people die?" has lead to a book and now TV series called The World Without us by Alan Weisman.

two things that mattered here was that the information come from me - that i be the guide (she did not ask anyone else these questions) and that i look at her question and answer just that. not the interpretation. what she demanded from me was an honesty too. it was far safer being honest with her otherwise her other questions down the line would find the holes in my stories.
Arduinna's Avatar Arduinna 09:15 AM 08-30-2010
The tv series Life after People, is pretty interesting and covers that exact question of what the world would be like if all people disappeared. I can't remember what channel it's on right now. I haven't seen anything I'd consider inappropriate for kids on it, especially not for a child asking that question. They don't discuss what happened to the people, only how nature would take over the areas we have changed and how long that would take. They choose different cities to cover different types of environments.
LynnS6's Avatar LynnS6 04:04 PM 08-30-2010
Several thoughts: My first is that I don't think that you can have it both ways. You can either believe there's a truth (and thus tell it to him as what you believe), or you can leave it open and let him struggle with your help.

I also think that you and your wife need to work out what you'd like to tell him. It sounds like you'd be comfortable telling him about a divine presence, but your wife wouldn't.

How you approach this depends on what you're feeling comfortable. When ds was 4, he asked "How did the first person get born if they didn't have a mother or father." l went through the entire history of evolution badly (I was unprepared and didn't have a great way to explain it in the way that a 4 year old could understand.) We are Christian, but I believe that the Bible story is an allegory, and evolution is the best science there is.

My sister's response was: "Just tell him that God formed the first person from the dirt and breathed life into them. It was good enough for the ancient Jews, it ought to be good enough for a 4 year old!"

So, in an approach akin to what Musician Dad suggested, I gave him both versions: Evolution as what I thought was true and the Bible stories (there is more than one). I wished I'd had a good kids' book on evolution. If you are really agnostic, then I'd get books from several religious traditions.

Death was harder, but since I do believe in an afterlife, I did explain that while we don't know for sure, this is what we believe.

Second, I think you could tell your son what you believe with still leaving room for him to develop his own opinion. He might take comfort in the fact that you do have beliefs.

Finally, on a completely different tangent: I'd recommend the book Freeing Your Child From Anxiety by Tamar Chansky. One of the recommendations in that book, for example, is to set a specific time for worrying. If a worry comes up at a different time, you can tell yourself (or your child) that it isn't worry time. When it is worry time, then take you out your worries and examine them. That might keep your son from interrupting pool time to worry about this kind of thing.
spedteacher30's Avatar spedteacher30 04:42 PM 08-30-2010
We have three books on hold at the library on evolution.

I have two books on "pick me up" status at Barnes and Noble--one on teaching mindfulness to your child and one that is a bible for Jewish children (most of the children's "Jewish" bibles are actually Christian-centric).

My wife and I aren't that far off in our opinion--she doesn't like organized religion or dogma for herself, but we agreed before we were married that the kids would be raised Jewish-ish.

So, we're going to start with the Jewish bible as our faith-foundation, and move outward from there as necessary. the mindfulness book is to try and deal with some of the anxiety. the psychologist we saw this summer doesn't think he is clinically anxious, so we're trying to avoid taking steps that might pathologize his reflective nature while still trying to help him manage it.
Adele_Mommy's Avatar Adele_Mommy 04:56 PM 08-30-2010
I am UU. I do think this is a complicated situation that may be related to separate anxiety issues and possibily giftedness. However, to answer the simpler, more practical side of your original questions, I recommend this series of books:

Born with a Bang
From Lava to Life
Mammals Who Morph

These books tell about the origin of the universe and evolution from a scientific perspective, but they are written as an autobiographical story narrated by the universe itself, so they have a kind of spiritual/mythlike feel.

Some other books that may (or may not) be in line with your agnosticism and that may (or may not) be comforting to your child:

Inside All
Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child
What to Do When You're Scared and Worried: A Guide for Kids
The Everything Seed: A Story of Beginnings

As far as attending your local UU church, I say go for it! The worst that could happen is you do not like it or it is not helpful and you stop going. My DD (now 10) loves our church and has really enjoyed most of her RE classes there. In addition to classes for your child, you might find your local UU church has a parenting group where you can discuss these sorts of questions with other parents in more detail (my church has an on again / off again parenting group). IMO the biggest advantage of church for us is the sense of belonging and community both my DD and I have there. It is helpful that my DD has other adults she feels comfortable asking "Big Questions" and whom I feel comfortable having her ask, even if she is no more satisified with their answers than my own.
spedteacher30's Avatar spedteacher30 05:31 PM 08-30-2010
thanks, Adele. the evolution books you listed are the ones we have on reserve at the library right now.

I think our big issue with going to church is that it is "going to Church" and not "going to synagogue."

But, we have tried the synagogue and gotten the doors closed in our faces and been stared at like a freak show (my partner is African-American, and our son is bi-racial). there is only one synagogue in our town, so we don't have another option, but the one here makes us feel very unwelcome and uncomfortable.

The UU church (I actually went to a UU summer camp) is a fine fit theologically, but it is still church, not synagogue, and it doesn't have a great multi-racial presence, though it is open and affirming.

the UCC church is a great fit in terms of GLBT and race stuff, but I'm not down with the Jesus part of their sermons.

So, there we are. We are perfectly willing to answer our son's questions in a supportive and honest way, and we want a community that fits us, but we haven't found it yet. It is sad for us, but not entirely surprising. We are in the south, after all, and no matter how liberal our town is (and it is quite liberal) we are still an interfaith, same-sex, interracial couple...

But, now this is about my own Really Big Questions instead of those of my son. this seems to be my own annual cycle as the Days of Awe march toward us...
_ktg_'s Avatar _ktg_ 06:03 PM 08-30-2010
to trying to wrap your arms around this one. I find as my DS asks these questions - it makes me question what I believe and if I believe it.

For us - I emphasize there is faith which people believe in and that is different from science. This is my explaination right now for my 4 y.o.

Faith is the intangible in the world which may or may not be explained by science one day. It is often felt in the heart and can not be measured and in many times serves to help explain what we can not explain ourselves such as life after death, miracles, or etc.

Science puts theories to the test, and must according to scientific process. Science is a good thing, and many people put their faith only in science. Many others have faith plus a belief in science, and others don't believe in science.

For the big questions - I offer the variety of faith-based ideas (we range from pagan, catholic, judaism and others) and tell them like stories and let him choose the one he likes best or identifies with the most.