“Dad, who is God?” The question from my young daughter was inevitable. We had just left a funeral for a dear friend who had been suffering from a painful illness for quite some time. Everyone took solace in the belief that he was now safely in the arms of God, where his pain would no longer cripple him. But in my grief I failed to notice the confusion on my daughter’s face as she listened to the words of those who spoke at the service. I can now see how she must have been thinking “Who is this ‘God’ person that can make pain go away?” At that point I was very ashamed that I had not prepared her better when it came to that question, but I was determined to treat the question with utmost importance. In doing so, I followed three key principles that have always shaped my approach to God and religion: I focused on Faith, Simplicity, and Example.
1) It’s All About Faith. When it comes to the concept of “God” I believe it is important to remember that the basis of our belief is “faith.” So I started by telling my daughter that I had a belief, but not an actual knowledge. At first it was difficult, but it got easier as I continually identified the line where my knowledge stopped and my belief began. For example, I told her that I KNEW I read the bible, I KNEW that I knelt down to pray about what I read, and I KNEW that when I prayed I was addressing a being whom I BELIEVED to be God. I then BELIEVED I felt inspiration, and I BELIEVED that the source of that inspiration was God. I then ACTED on that inspiration by conducting my life in a certain way. I felt that this is a good example of how to explain the interrelationship between knowledge, belief and action which all form the basis of my “faith.” Lastly, I tried to instill in my daughter the idea that because this is “faith” based, I must always respect another person’s belief system, even if it differs from mine. (The Playground isn’t the best place to start a holy war.)
2) Keep Things Simple. When a child asks about such a profound concept about “God” it is important to not overwhelm them with too much information. With my daughter, I chose to explain “God” this way: “Just like you have parents here on earth, you also have a heavenly father who loves you very much.” It’s a concept that she was able to catch on to quite quickly, and it dovetailed nicely into the third principle that I followed.
3) Setting a Good Example. If you use the “heavenly father” method, you need to remember that your actions will shape the “faith” of your child for the rest of their life. Even though the topic of “God” didn’t come up until she was 9 years old, I have always tried to remember that my child is a gift from God, and I should treat her accordingly. I did this because I knew that if I told her that she had a heavenly “parent” she would probably assume that all parents are the same. If I was quick to anger, and punished indiscriminately, she may perceive God the same way, and live in fear of Deity. If I promised things and then failed to deliver (i.e. “Chores first then ice-cream!” and then failing give her ice-cream), she may grow up with severe impediments to accepting promised blessings such as being saved. So it was important to me to always keep my word with her, and to treat her kindly. If I have to discipline her when necessary (even if sharply), I am always sure to show an increase of love afterward so that she doesn’t perceive me as her enemy.
These are just a few examples, but you can readily see how a child’s perception of God can be shaped by your example. There is no way to answer all of a child’s questions about God, and I do not believe we have to. I DO believe, however, that it is important to give them the tools to allow them to form their own opinions throughout life.