Wendy Thomas Russell, who joined us on the podcast recently, is the author of a new book called Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious (Brown Paper Press, 2015):
In the excerpt below, Russell discusses whether you should discuss Hell with your child:
It’s frustrating to know that while we [nonreligious parents] may do our damnedest to teach tolerance and compassion to our kids, not all parents do. In fact, many religious parents — including the parents of some of our kids’ friends — lead their children to believe that it’s decidedly not okay for people to disbelieve in Jesus or Jehovah or Allah, and that disbelievers will someday be sent to an unimaginably horrible place. It’s little wonder that these stories make their way to the parks and playgrounds to be spread around.
To be fair, though, most religious parents don’t teach about sin or evil or hell so that their children will go to school and taunt other kids. Far from it. Most parents are just passing on their belief systems, of which hell is a part. For very religious people, hell is an obligatory subject because hell is a real place — a place they don’t want their children to end up, a place they don’t want to end up themselves. Generally speaking, religious parents tell their kids about hell in order to encourage good behavior, moral behavior, kind behavior. That their children may use this knowledge to terrorize others is painfully ironic.
Rarely, before the age of, say, nine, do religious kids grasp the effect of their words anyway. They are just translating for their friends what they have picked up at home or in their places of worship. They may think they are imparting important information, as their religious leaders and parents did for them. Or they may be genuinely confused about why everyone is not on the same page. They also may be projecting their own fears onto your kid; they tell your kid he’s going to hell for being “bad” because they’re worried about going to hell for being “bad” themselves.
That’s not always the case, of course. Some religious harassment happens because, well, kids are kids. Children of all ages are constantly trying to make sense of their surroundings and figure out where they fit in. They’re obsessed with labels and groupings. Most, at various points in their childhood — if not throughout it! — seek to draw attention to the things that make them similar to the majority and distance themselves from the things that make them different. Often, this means pointing out things that make other people different.
Kids are singled out for being too tall or too short, for having red hair or rough hands or knobby knees or a scratchy voice or a big nose or acne. They’re taunted for being too smart and for not being smart enough. They’re teased for having dark skin or fair skin or talking too much or living in the wrong neighborhood or struggling with their weight or wearing hand-me-down clothes or lacking athletic abilities or having unusual interests or choosing unpopular friends.
As painful as it is, a lot of this stuff is considered developmentally appropriate. And it’s not just other kids who do it. In all likelihood, your kid has done it, too — or will.
Given the potential hurt that could be caused by religious discussions at school, the temptation may be to tell our kids not to discuss religion at all, or to keep them in the dark about our beliefs until they’re old enough to exercise discretion.
I pass no judgment on those of you wanting your children to assimilate into their surroundings for their own protection. Each situation, family, and community is different. Protecting kids from harm should be a top priority. I would simply urge you to be sure you have no other alternatives. Keeping kids from your beliefs, or encouraging them to keep their beliefs from their friends, are solutions with short shelf lives.
Besides, kids will discuss religion with their friends; the only question is whether they’ll tell you about it. If they think you’ll be disappointed, worried or upset, they probably won’t.
There is much to be gained from teaching kids about privacy, but be careful not to restrict children’s speech by forcing privacy on them. That can send the message that you are ashamed of your views or that your kids should be ashamed of theirs.
There is absolutely no shame in being a non-religious family; letting your child think otherwise would be the real shame.
The whole book is full of relatable information like this. If you’re a new parent, you definitely want to check this out.
Relax, It’s Just God is available online and in select bookstores beginning today.