Children are often curious about God, and many parents have a hard time dealing with it. The subject of God is difficult for adults who are not trained in theological discourse, let alone for children who have a hard time dealing with abstractions. So, very often we transmit to them childish images that we don’t believe either, like, “God, the old man in the sky.” One child thought that God lives in the bathroom, because his mother kept saying, “Oh, God, are you still there?”
In reality, explaining God to children is not different than explaining it to adults, except that the language has to be more direct and simpler. It is important to understand the real source of the kids’ questions. The Swiss developmental thinker, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) taught us that children have a “functional orientation.” That is: when they ask, “What is a chair?” they really mean, “What is it for?” Similarly when they ask, “What is God?” they are really asking, “What does God do?” On the other hand, Rabbi Harold Kushner (b. 1935) says that when children ask about the existence of God, they are really asking whether they can trust the world. Furthermore, as our seminary teacher, Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski (1925-1991) used to tell us, “It is easier to talk to God than to talk about God
Judaism proclaims the unity of God (“monotheism”). However, over the years, Jewish teachers have maintained various views about God (See, for example, Finding God, R. Sonsino and D. Syme, URJ Press, 2002).
In teaching about God, I would suggest the following:
First, a few don’ts: a) Do not stress fear and guilt. Don’t say, if you do or don’t do this, God will punish you. b) Don’t blame God for the so-called “acts of God.” Better deal with consequences; that is, with natural causes and effects. c) Don’t encourage children to pray for the impossible. That often results in disappointments. d) Don’t explain biblical or rabbinic legends as historically true. If you don’t believe them, they won’t either.
And, now a few recommendations:
a) Dr. Benjamin Spoke (1903-1998) was correct when he remarked that when parents are gentle and loving, they will present God as kindly and approving. So, be loving, caring, supportive, non-judgmental with your children in discussing God. And don’t be afraid to say, I don’t know!
b) Along with Rabbi Abraham Heschel (1907-1972), I would strengthen the children’s sense of awe and wonder of the universe.
c) Rather than telling children about God, I would prefer they experience God though love, care, sense of wonder, and beauty of the world, even with the challenges that come from disappointments and pain. Nothing is perfect in life, and we need to learn how to live with all types of surprises.
d) I would tell the children, just because you don’t see something, that does not mean it does not exist. Example: love. God is not invisible; it is intangible. We cannot see God because there is nothing there to see. We only get the impact of God in the universe. As a religious naturalist, I see God in the workings of nature, in the energy that sustains the universe. That is good enough for me. I hope it would be OK with them too.
Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino