by Dennis Prager
From Moment, October 1997
Reprinted With Permission
Parents should speak about God to children regardless of their personal philosophical doubts.
The Jews brought God into the world, but today they are probably the group that is least comfortable talking about God, especially to their children.
This is tragic. Parents who don’t talk to their children about God are depriving them of one of the most important things a parent can bequeath to a child. Even parents who are not at all religious should think about the effect on their children of not speaking about God.
Why is talking to our children about God so important? I offer four reasons.
1. Talking about God engenders a profound sense of security in a young child. In order to assuage young children’s fears about being hurt, parents have essentially three choices: One is to tell the child that nothing bad can ever happen to them; a second is to tell them that Mommy and Daddy will protect them; the third is to talk about God’s care for them (which is particularly important when there is no father, as in single-mother families; when there is no earthly father, it is very valuable to have a heavenly father).
The first option doesn’t work well because children sense that they can get hurt. The second option is important, but Mommy and Daddy are not always present. The third option therefore works particularly well: God’s care is omnipresent, and if something bad were to happen, God ultimately rewards good people and punishes bad ones.
Now, of course, many parents will counter that while this tactic may work, a God who cares about people is no more than a fairy tale, and children should be spared fairy tales. I would respond that (a) God is only a fairy tale to the atheist, and while many modern parents are not religious, few are atheists; and (b) even if you are an atheist and believe that a God who cares for people is entirely a fairy tale, children are told many fairy tales, and if these play a positive role in a child’s life, they are a good thing. Children grow up, after all, and they can decide what they consider real and what they consider fairy tales.
2. If we tell our children that God loves them, they will forever feel loved. In the harsh world in which we live, a permanent sense of being loved is quite a gift to bestow on a child. While parents inevitably die, friends sometimes abandon us, and spouses sometimes divorce us or die, God’s love endures.
3. It is immensely helpful to make reference to God and religion when explaining ethical principles to children. Let us say your child wants to steal a candy bar. You have essentially four choices in explaining why it is wrong.
One choice is to simply say, “It is wrong to steal,” and this is very important to say. But the child may wonder, or even ask, “Who says it’s wrong?”
What do you then say? “Daddy (or Mommy) says it’s wrong”?
This is a less than ideal response. “Because I said so” should be a parent’s last resort. And it is very important that children know that Mommy and Daddy are also answerable to God. Furthermore, moral teachings based on Mommy and Daddy’s authority may not be enduring, because parents’ flawed behavior often renders their moral teachings suspect.
A second way to tell your child not to steal the candy bar is to explain that stealing is against the law, and if he is caught, he will be punished. This is a particularly weak response because it reaches the child that if he can get away with something, there is nothing wrong in doing it. Indeed, the confusion of legality with morality is one reason for our present moral crisis.
A third way is to explain that the store owner will suffer a loss of money But it is difficult for a child to understand the candy bar as a significant monetary loss.
The fourth and best response, when combined with the others, is to tell the child that stealing is a sin, meaning God says it is wrong.
4. God (and religion) inculcate gratitude in children. Whom will your family thank for the food at each meal if not God — the local supermarket and the Teamster Union? Parents who talk about God frequently do so in context of expressing gratitude. Teaching a child to thank God for the daily blessings in his or her life is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child. The single most important component of happiness is gratitude and it is also one of the most important components of goodness.
Many parents object that they would be hypocritical if they spoke to the child about God, because they themselves aren’t sure about God.
This concern is understandable, but misplaced. Parents must do what is good for their children irrespective of their personal philosophical battles and behaviors. This is not hypocrisy. If you don’t use seat belts, it is hypocritical to insist that your child use seat belts. If you loathe vegetables, is it hypocritical to tell your child to eat vegetables?
Once a parent believes that God and religion are good for a child, the parents’s own atheism, agnosticism, secularism, aversion to religion, or discomfort with talk about God should be irrelevant. Unless you believe that talking about God is actually harmful to a child, let your children determine when they grow up what role God will play in their lives.
Finally, though you may feel uncomfortable talking about God to your child, it becomes easier the more you do it. Begin by telling your child how grateful you are to God for being your child’s parent. When you see beauty in nature, mention how great God’s creation is. And thank God for some of your meals.
You have nothing to lose. And your child has everything to gain. I have met many adults who wish they had been raised with some religion and reference to God. But I have never met one person who regrets having had God be a part of his or her upbringing.
Dennis Prager’s latest book is Think A Second Time (HarperCollins paperback). He also writes a biweekly newsletter, The Prager Perspective. His e-mail address is DenPrager@aol.com