Monday, September 24, 2007

A 5 year old encounters religion

Z goes to a school owned by a deeply Catholic family, where the walls are adorned with a few icons, but Christianity is not part of the curriculum. Whilemost of the teachers are Catholic, a majority of the children are not Christian. Apart for some Christian stories around Christmas or Easter, his teachers never attempted any religious indoctrination. We chose the school because it's merits greatly outweighed these (and other) negatives.

Around kindergarten was the first time Z mentioned God. I think he suddenly made some type of matter-of-fact comment that God was listening to us, because He is everywhere. It was not easy for him to understand when I told him this was not true. It was the first time he was being told two different things by a teacher and a parent, and had to decide whom to believe.

For a few weeks, he tested the idea. In different contexts, he would ask again whether God was around, of whether he was seeing, or whether he was listening, or some such question. It was as if he was trying to check if my rejection was limited to some particular context... which would allow him to reconcile it with his teacher's assertions.

Apart from repeating each time, I also repeated it as a generalization, and also explained that there was no reason to think God was doing... whatever. In addition, I tried to make clear that I was not ignorant of his teacher's views. I explained that many people have believed in God for a long time, and many people -- like his teacher -- still do.

At 5, kids might appear to reason, but they really accept almost everything on trust. You can tell a 5-year old that you once lived in a house where coca-cola came out of the faucet, and if he trusts you, and if no other adult contradicts you, he will believe you. It is still important to give a child reasons, so that they understand the pattern in which they should approach thought; but, one should also realize that your reasons are not being "understood" in the adult sense. This is why it's important that your kindergartner trusts you completely.

After a few weeks, Z accepted the idea that his parents were right and his teacher was wrong, and it didn't seem to bother him any more. He was left with one final injunction from us. "You're still too young to fully understand this", we told him. "You think we're right and you're believing us, but some adults like your teacher feel very strongly about this, and you should not challenge her about this in class. When you're a bit older, you can tell your teachers that they are wrong."

That little episode at 5 carried him smoothly through the next 4 years. Now, at 9, we had a second episode... but that's a tale for another post.


Blogger johnnycwest said...

Good post - as an objectivist parent of a 15 and 17 year old, I think your approach is a very good one. My kids have attended secular private schools, but their mother's mother is quite religious. They have watched their share of Veggie Tales I believe. I do not live with their mother and haven't for over 9 years. My kids do not profess or discuss religion although I will gently make comments or mock religion at times. They know my beliefs.

I am wondering how you deal with Santa Claus etc. I know Penn Jillette, the noted magician, atheist, libertarian, and Ayn Rand fan believed that one should not encourage the Santa fantasy in children. He is big on reality - me too, but I have another take on it.

I may be lazier or less confrontational than some, although most people who know me would laugh at the confrontation thing. I believe that the Santa fantasy along with the easter bunny etc is useful and harmless. Kids have some fun with it and when it comes time to find out the truth - "hey society has a number of fantasies - some benign and some dangerous and evil". I think the Santa metaphor is useful. God? another Santa that is lot more dangerous. Move along.

I know some kids are very angry and feel betrayed that their parents "lied" to them about Santa. I never felt that way myself. How are you handling it with your son?

9:47 AM  
Blogger objectivistDad said...

I don't have strong feelings on the Santa issue. We chose not to tell our son that Santa was real. OTOH, I can understand the motivations behind playing along.

Personally, I couldn't bring myself to lie to my son about that, nor about a magician's magic really being magic and things like that. I understand that some folk think that takes a bit of the magic out of it. OTOH, I remember XMas being magical and it being a lot of fun, even when I did not think Santa existed. If you really consider what motivates kids about XMas, the reality or not of Santa doesn't seem to be a big part of it -- but, that may be my personal experience.

I cannot imagine the Santa myth hurting a kid in any significant way. I've known one kid who got upset when she learnt the truth. She had just defended her belief to her friends (based on trusting her parent's version) and they had ridiculed her. Teaching a kid to stand up to ridicule is a good thing, but when one has put them into a situation where they are indeed being ridiculous, then that's not fair. I guess that parents who use the Santa myth should try not to be the last ones (among their age-cohort) to reveal the truth.

There was quite a long discussion about this on

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Kyle Haight said...

My own experience as a child with the Santa myth actually reinforced my atheism. I noticed that a number of things which adults claimed existed (God, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy) had characteristics in common. I never actually saw them, just their alleged effects. They had powers that I couldn't integrate with my everyday experience, such as the ability to travel around the world at seemingly infinite speed, or the ability to enter places without being detected or leaving any trace. Etc. I lumped all of these things together into a single category.

Then, when I was a bit older and I learned that some of the things in the category were made up by adults, I drew the obvious conclusion -- all of them were made up. As goes Santa, so goes God. I found this a valuable illustration of the power of reason.

The lesson for theists in the above is that if you want your kid to believe in God, don't tell him that Santa Claus is real.

1:15 PM  
Blogger objectivistDad said...

That's interesting Kyle. Yes, I can see how that would work... with God getting thrown out with all the rest.

Thanks for the input.

2:52 PM  
Blogger johnnycwest said...

Kyle- that is exactly what I was getting at - you expressed it better than I did. I think it may be easier to leave God behind, if you have already left Santa behind.

This discussion reminds me of the joke about the older child who is upset when his dad finally tells him that there is no such thing as Santa Claus - "Okay" he replies, "but if you are going to tell me there is no such thing as sex too, I'll just die".

8:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm very sorry to interrupt- I merely happened across your post about how you have dealt with your sons questions about God and Santa Claus.
I'm aware that you are probably not going to take seriously at ALL, anything I am about to say, and you have absolutely no reason to. I promise I'm not trying to shove anything down your throats :), I just wanted to tell you a story that I can promise you is 100% true. I would have no reason to lie to you, I have no idea who you are, you most likely won't believe, you have no idea who I am, and so it would be utterly useless to post this comment just to trick you or any such thing as that.
However, after reading your comments, I felt that I should relate to you a few little stories, that ( I hope! ) may change your minds about what you call "The Santa Myth" and religion in general.
I don't wish to bother you in any way, I just thought that I should offer this to you, and you could laugh at it ( I don't mind a bit hehe, I know what I'm about to tell you is going to sound a little crazy to you! ) or consider if it you so choose. Okay- here goes!
I would merely like to tell you (here comes the part where you think I'm off my rocker) that Santa Claus is absolutely real.
I am not a child. I am a young woman of substantial mental health, who is completely blown away by the wonder of Santa Claus and of God.
I know that it sounds like a very cute story that is made up just to help children be happy at Christmastime, and give them something to be excited about and all of that; but Santa Claus is in no way a myth.
I would have no reason to lie to any of you, I just felt very strongly that I should tell you.
Santa Claus is very real, and I know, because I've met him.
Not the one that shows up on television or anything like that, but all the same, I have; and many, many other people have too. You just don't hear about it.

Of course you wouldn't, who would go around confessing that they've met Santa Claus? They'd be put away. But many, many, many people have. And not particularly extraordinary people either, just regular people that are still little children in their hearts. I am sure that if you looked deeply into it, you would find many stories. There are a great number of people in the world who have met Santa Claus; and a massively greater number that have met God.
You are however, correct on the point that the Easter Bunny does not exist.

I would implore you to not press upon your children that Santa Claus does not exist, because in doing so you are depriving them of the very real magic that comes out of Christmas. It's not a story, or a fantasy, it doesn't go against reality. Santa Claus is incredibly real, as is God. One could even say that you are living in a fantasy if you deny such things; but please don't believe that I am trying to offend you in any way.

Bells ring at Christmas, when there are no bells in your house to make the noise themselves; if you believe in the magic of Christmas. Extraordinary things happen, incredible and beautiful things. My husband and I have both had the most beautiful, wonderful and magical things in the universe happen to us during the holiday season. I don't expect you to believe me, but I can at least tell you what happens to us, and you could perhaps consider it in your heart.
My husband and I hang christmas bells over our bedroom window, as part of our many decorations for the season, and one night, on the night called Three Kings ( I am not sure you would know this, it is mainly a Latin American holiday that celebrates the Three Kings who brought gifts to the infant Lord), at 12:34, the bells rang almost excruciatingly loudly, for almost half an hour, the most beautiful sound I've ever heard. I was extremely frightened but my husband wasn't, his entire life magical things have happened to him.

However, this wasn't the case with me. When I was a child, I didn't believe in Santa Claus after catching my parents at a very young age putting the presents under the tree. I didn't really believe in God either; though I never denied that He existed; I almost never thought about him. But upon meeting my wonderful husband, the most amazing things started happening to me. I would wake up in the middle of the night after being snuggled up sound asleep with my husband, and I could hear very clearly the sound of christmas bells jingling softly from downstairs. My husband when he was younger, heard and saw something huge fly past his window in the early morning on Christmas Eve, followed by little bells. He was extremely excited that he had just seen Santas sleigh take off.

Another time he was feeling a little frightened and climbed into bed with his parents. He heard someone gently climbing the stairs up to his parents room, and when he peeked out from under the covers, he caught a glimpse of a big red mitten resting on the door. He dove back under the covers because he was scared.
Little doors in our house open and shut gently, and there are incredible noises in the house when we are there together. And no; it's not haunted, and to me, there is no such thing as haunted or any such horrible thing as that. I am sure of this. During the holidays, angels and Santa Claus, his reindeer, the Three Kings, and God are with those who hold them dear in their hearts. Heaven celebrates with those who have the spirit of christmas, those who love life and each other and who have never cast away that inner child to instead focus on things like "reality" and growing up. Many, many things have happened to my dear husband and I, myself much less, because I've only believe in the magic of Christmas for such a lamentably short time.
I have grown up, I'm afraid. But I am extremely happy to say that on the inside, I haven't aged a day over 10, and neither has my beloved husband.
I am extremely aware of what your probably reactions to this will be, but I couldn't help it. I had to tell you. I am absolutely not crazy ( well, maybe a little to others, but I am happy!), I have no reason to lie to anyone, and I fully expect that you won't believe a word I say here anyways. But here it is; for you to read and laugh about and even ignore if you would like.
Santa Claus and God are the very most real things in the universe. They are inside of us all of the time. Some choose to ignore them or push them away, and then yes, they do become a myth. I wouldn't visit someone who didn't believe in me! But I promise, they are incredibly real, they are the most beautiful things in the entire universe. People are afraid to believe in them, I believe. Maybe they are afraid that they will be disappointed, or maybe afraid of handing over so much power to ones greater than themselves. Maybe some have no idea how you stay young on the inside and not on the out. Maybe some don't have time or energy for Santa Claus or for God or for anything like that. They argue that they are atheists, above anything magic, they can't be bothered with petty little things like stories invented just to keep the children happy ever December the 25th.
But I promise you, it is all very real, and to live your life without knowing it.. without experiencing it.. without hearing those little bells ringing just for you to hear in the night.. what kind of life would that be? A sane one, some may argue. But do you really want to be that sane, and take the chance that you may miss out on the greatest thing to ever happen to you? All that it takes is to believe. You believe in yourself, I presume? You believe that other people exist, that the world around you exists, that there is a universe that exists. Why not Santa Claus and God? Have you any proof that they DON'T exist? Merely because you haven't seen them doesn't mean that they're not there. You have a 50/50 chance. They're either real and there for you to love and cherish, or they're not. If you choose to believe in them and they're not real, what have you really lost? So you had a little bit more spice and excitement and happiness in your life! It's much better ( and more beneficial to you) to love and believe in those things. What harm can it possible do you? It CAN do you harm to not believe. Think of all that you are missing out on!
If you don't believe me now- wait until Christmas Eve. Even if you feel like an absolute fool, try to stay up a little bit, and with just a little bit of your heart- wait for bells that you know will come- and they will. And then, you'll know. It's not a myth. It's not just for children. No one has been pulling your leg. You've been wrenching your own about insisting that it's all not true.
It is. I promise. You can hold me to it. If anything goes wrong, you can blame it all on me, that silly comment maker who raised all of this trouble, and you've lost nothing. But if you do believe me- and the spirit of Christmas and of God finds you- wonderful, wonderful things will start to happen, things that you won't be able to believe.
And you'll never be the same ever, but in the very best of ways.
It's all real. All it takes is a little bit of believing, a little love and faith and hope. I never used to believe it either, but I was wrong. Remember back to when you used to wait, so long ago, for Santa to come. Dredge up that little child that KNEW that he was coming, and he will.
With love, sincere respect and blessings, and best wishes for the year!

8:29 AM  

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