16:22 28 March 2017
Why is the sky blue? Will our dog go to heaven? Why does the naughtiest boy in my class have the most toys? Children have an amazing capacity to ask endless questions, big and small.
Some young questioners seem to have an almost unnatural ability to hit on the most difficult topics but in fact, it is the most natural thing in the world to be curious. As young children develop language skills, they build on their sensory exploration of the world (tasting grass, grabbing glasses, admiring passing trains) by using their new words to ask questions about absolutely everything. This is an essential part of their learning development and something that parents and teachers want to encourage as much as possible. When answering questions about religion, parents can feel confused or not knowledgeable enough to give simple, authentic answers. Luckily, it is possible to harness a child´s curiosity to create straightforward ways into religion and spirituality.
One of the first things to remember is that it is fine to say, “I don´t know”. Children are excellent lie detectors and immediately sense answers that are insincere or invented on the spot. By joining in with the child´s curiosity and saying, “That´s a good question. Let´s see if we can find the answer together”, the child is immediately rewarded by attentive listening. More thrillingly, both child and adult set out on a joint quest for answers in each other´s company.
The next question is what tools are available to find the answers. The internet is a wonderful resource for quick, practical questions but children respond best to shared time with loved ones and what they can understand with their senses. The most engaging and effective way to do this is through the timeless pleasure of reading stories together. The trick is not to be too heavy-handed with the choice of reading material or the questions asked. There are fantastic illustrated stories for children that explore themes such as empathy, community, diversity and fairness with imagination and humour.
Plough, the publishing house of Bruderhof, has a range of colourful children´s books by writers from diverse traditions that touch on many important themes. The beauty of a well-written book is that it can be read as a simple story or introduce complex themes with a light touch. A child delights in being asked questions along the way: “Do you think that´s a good idea? Why? What would you do?” The early wisdom and imagination of the response can be astonishing.
It is important that children are aware of different religions because multiculturalism and globalization in the modern world are more the norm than the exception. As soon as children go to their first school or nursery, they encounter other customs and belief systems. A classmate may have a different understanding of community, marriage, creation or death and the afterlife. Children need a way to relate to different kinds of people in order to grow and flourish. Here, it is useful to explain the difference between religion and spirituality. Just as the next-door neighbours may speak another language, perhaps they go to another church or temple. Most families do things in their own way but beneath apparent variations, they share a fundamental love for each other and a trust in a loving higher power, whatever name they give it.
It is important to head off children´s competitive tendencies to say things like: “My dad/house/religion is better than yours” before it becomes a gang mentality. It is best to defuse the issue before it develops by talking with the child and trying to understand what it is like to be the other person. When children feel common interest and curiosity or go to visit diverse buildings in the neighbourhood where people worship, they begin to see that everyone fits into the big community. Understanding diverse viewpoints helps them to look for common ground and connect with other people throughout their lives.
“Respect” can be a difficult word for young children to grasp without a context but they naturally understand social interaction and kindness. The ability to understand and respect gives them a richer human and spiritual experience. It connects them with the wider universe and provides them with the tools to enjoy and express their own spirituality.
Explaining religion to children does not have to be awkward or confusing. Good books and everyday situations provide essential ways to explore spirituality together. Children who receive affection and encouragement are more likely to continue exploring spiritual issues as they grow older. Knowing how to engage with the wider world and navigate modern life is a measureless gift and, on a personal level, it leads to satisfaction, happiness and fulfilment.