Religious Charm Bracelet, Anyone?… Anyone?

Okay, I suspect you guys are going to make fun of me a little bit for this, but, hey, what the hell.

So, let me preface this by saying that, growing up, my mother had a charm bracelet she wore on special occasions. I was FASCINATED by this bracelet, which strung together all kinds of little golden goodies symbolizing some of my mom’s greatest memories. There was a child’s ring, a graduation cap, a locket. But my favorite charm was a little money box containing the tiniest folded-up dollar bill I’d ever seen in my life. A little door on the top opened and closed, and I must have opened and closed it hundreds of times. That bracelet mesmerized me. I remember asking (often) what all those symbols meant to my mom, where they came from. What’s more: the bracelet was so darn pretty — and jangly. Very jangly. That was definitely a draw.

So fast forward, like, 25 years, and I’m in a bead shop for no apparent reason (I do not make jewelry and have no interest whatsoever in beadwork), and I happen upon what can only be described as a fuckload of religious symbols. There must have 200 different kinds in this shop. Most were Christian (I live in America, after all), but some other religions were represented, as well.

So I got this hair-brained idea to, you know, make a charm bracelet for my daughter, Maxine.

Okay, before you go off half-cocked, hear me out. Here was my thinking:

1. It’s important to me that Maxine knows about religion in general, not just the one religion most prevalent in her culture. By stringing all these symbols together, side by side, I’d be putting all major religions on par with one another — with none of them more (or less!) significant than the next.

2. I’d like for Maxine to recognize religious symbols and have some sense of their back stories. It’s a challenge sometimes, though, to introduce the basic concept of religion without, you know, boring her to tears. I figured if Maxine had a bracelet with religious symbols in her jewelry box, she might drag it out every once in a while and look at it. If I got lucky, maybe she’d even ask a question or two.

3. As you know, I love the idea of celebrating religious holidays with kids — rather than shying away from them, or even secularizing them. I see holidays as an opportunity to demystify religion, but also to promote religious literacy and religious tolerance. Symbols (the dreidel for Hanukkah or the Buddha for Vesak Day, for example) are fantastic memory aids. A bracelet, I thought, could come in kinda handy.

So there, in this cheesy bead store, I decided to go for it. With no trouble at all, I found a Star of David, a little dreidel and a charm imprinted with Mary and the baby Jesus. I also found  the Buddha and a yoga guy and about a million crosses — both with and without the crucifixion. I knew I wanted the former because the crucifixion is such an interesting (and ghastly) image, it can’t help but be compelling. Carting all this stuff around definitely got the bead lady’s attention. She asked me if she could help, and when I told her what I wanted — “to make an all-religions charm bracelet” is how I put it — she immediately got on board, tracking down the “Om” and yin/yang symbols to add to my pile

When I got home, I got out my pliers and put it all together.

The bracelet isn’t nearly finished — there are so many other religious symbols out there! — nor is it as pretty, heavy, classy or valuable as my mom’s. But it’s a start. And it jangles real nice.

So what do you think, guys? A good idea? Potentially helpful? Or a total waste of money?

On Tom, Katie and Interfaith Families

To answer your first two questions: Yes, I’m going there; and, no, I’m not above it.

Now, back to TomKat.

If media reports are to be believed — and let’s say they are for the sake of this conversation, shall we? — actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes have split up based, in part, on a dispute over the religious upbringing of their 6-year-old daughter, Suri. In case you are reading this from under a rock somewhere, Cruise is the highest-profile Scientologist in the history of Scientology, and Holmes — well, she ain’t. (I’ve read she was raised Catholic, which probably means she’s a Buddhist by now — ha ha.)

There may well be much more to the divorce than this — always is — but what I wouldn’t give to know how this pair has gone about discussing religion with that kid.

Suri’s age sure seems significant. While the topic of religion may be blissfully avoided for the first several years of a kid’s life, most children get God-curious around age 5 — which is about the time they start school and meet other kids. It’s quite possible that, in the Cruise-Holmes household, religious differences played a supporting role until very recently, when Suri (through no fault of her own) pushed it front-and-center.

•••

A child changes everything.

That’s what they say, and that’s how it is. A new birth has a rather magical way of changing our lifestyles, interests, priorities, and relationships. Most of the time, of course, the changes are for the good — especially when it comes to the relationships part. Children can make us parents stronger, more resilient, more mature, more committed, more loving. But sometimes, the changes are…. well, let’s just say challenging. Like how our “parenting styles” (which some of us didn’t even know we had!) can bump up against each other, creating tensions and resentments where none existed before. Things we didn’t think were important AT ALL now seem to matter A WHOLE FREAKING LOT. And compromise is especially hard to achieve when our little innocents are the ones who might suffer when we give up too much — or too little.

Interfaith marriage is so much more common than it’s ever been. According to recent studies, upwards of 25 percent of American marriages are mixed. And, as religion loosens its grip on each passing generation, that percentage is expected to rise. In my own survey, which concluded a couple months ago, 20 percent of the nonreligious parents surveyed were married to people who held religious beliefs different from their own.

Of course, in a sense, this is wonderful news. America is, after all, the great melting pot. And the more couples comingle, the fewer divisions we’ll have and (theoretically at least) the fewer conflicts we’ll have.  But interfaith marriage isn’t easy, either, and that is especially true when a couple bears children.

According to an excellent piece in the Washington Post (Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they’re falling fast too) many interfaith couples underestimate the importance that faith plays in their lives. And some of them intend to become more religious after marriage — something they may not share with their partner before the vows are taken.

The Post article cites a paper published in 1993 by Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who found that divorce rates were higher among interfaith couples. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination had (at the time at least) a one-in-three chance of divorcing, Lehrer found. A Jew and Christian had a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years. (Same-faith marriages, by comparison, divorced at a rate of one in five.)

“As Lehrer points out, a strong or even moderate religious faith will influence ‘many activities that husband and wife perform jointly.’ Religion isn’t just church on Sunday, Lehrer notes, but also ideas about raising children, how to spend time and money, friendships, professional networks — it can even influence where to live. The disagreements between husband and wife start to add up.”

•••

One of my husband’s heroes is Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a Presbyterian minister, civil rights activist, gay-marriage proponent and proud liberal. In his sermons, Coffin equated God with love, and love with God and didn’t let anything dilute that one true meaning.

Sloane married plenty of interfaith couples in his day, and his personal contention (which he outlined during an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air) was that marriages could absolutely withstand differences in faith — especially when the parties shared the same “level” of faith. For instance, he said, a Jew and a Christian who are both slightly religious won’t have any problem at all; the same with a Jew and a Christian who are both very religious. His reasoning: One’s devotion to faith matters more than the underlying faith itself, as long as the couple share a genuine respect for the other’s religion.

You notice who’s left out of Coffin’s feel-good scenario, though, right? Couples with different levels of faith.

Coffin contended that most problems arise when one parent is very religious and the other isn’t; when one person wants to attend church or mosque or temple, for example, and the other wants to stay home. If a couple’s religiosity is uneven, we’re led to believe, couples may feel as though there’s a “winner” and “loser” when it comes to deciding how much of one religion to bring into the house  — or keep out of it.

It’s an interesting point. Especially when you relate it back to Tom and Katie. (Yes, dammit, I’m still writing about this shameful topic. Let it go.)

If it’s true that Cruise came to the marriage holding firm to the, I don’t know, staff? of Scientology, while Holmes came draped in the light mist of her parents’ Catholicism, then they’re level of devotions were certainly not aligned. Perhaps she thought they were stronger than the sum of their religious parts. Perhaps he thought she’d come around.

The point is, interfaith marriage can work, but it doesn’t always work. And the more couples think about their faith/non-faith in the context of child-rearing BEFORE THE CHILDREN ARE BORN, the less likely they’ll be to end up on the front of Us Magazine over a story about their impending divorce.

Don’t Label Me, Man

We humans are all about labels. From such an early age, labels are so central to our identities. We’re constantly looking for ways to divide and unify, divide and unify, divide and unify — starting with gender and age, and then blossoming into 150 million other identifying marks.

It’s all so, well, annoying.

When I decided to write a blog for nonreligious parents, my belief system suddenly became central to my life and work. I’ve felt I had to label myself as nonreligious — atheist, if pressed. But prior to a year and a half ago, religion played absolutely no role in my life. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t care about it. I didn’t fight about it or talk about it — or not talk about it. When asked, I’d say I wasn’t religious, but that was rare because so few people around me seemed to be basing our relationship on that particular piece of knowledge.

Even today, if it weren’t for my work, I wouldn’t be all that curious about people’s religious choices. The way I see it, we’re defined by our actions, so when the people around me are humble, noble, gracious, and ethical, I tend to ask approximately zero questions about what made them that way. I don’t have time; I’m  too damn busy trying to model that same behavior myself.

Sometimes labeling can be a good thing, I don’t deny that. It can make lonely people feel not so alone. It can help organize the disenfranchised and educate the ignorant. But wearing labels can feel really shitty, too. Especially when those labels are used against individuals — to pigeonhole them, prejudge them and put them down. Labels also sometimes remove our sense of independence and freethinking. (The irony, of course, is that even “Independent” and “Freethinking” have managed to become labels of their own.)

This is all to say… oh, hell, I don’t even know anymore. I guess I’m just trying to come to terms with the fact that none of the traditional labels of non-faith — atheist, agnostic, skeptic, secularist, naturalist, ignosticist, apatheist, etc. — seem really to apply to me. Not when it comes to these labels as “movements” anyway.

Even “humanist” has become a loaded word. At its core, humanism is simply a devotion to the humanities — and it sounds so damn nice, doesn’t it? Human, humanitarian, humanity. All beautiful words! “Humanist” seems to roll off my tongue the same way that “atheist” gets stuck in my throat. But, more and more, I see “humanism” acting as a secret code word for “atheism.” Which, I suppose, isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps “humanism” helps keep stereotypes at bay, at least for a while. Perhaps Nonbelievers Formerly Known As Atheists can relax a little, let their guards down, redirect, refocus, breathe.

So here’s my question: Do you think it’s important to have a label when it comes to religion/non-religion? Why ? And what the hell do you call yourselves?

By the way, I’m on vacation next week and won’t be posting again until after the holiday; so, everyone, enjoy your Fourth of July!

Why Secular Parents Should Do the Santa Thing

Does it seem a bit weird to talk about Santa in July? Probably. But that’s the chapter of my book I’m working on at the moment, so that’s the subject you’re getting today. My apologies in advance!

I’m not sure how many of you have read Parenting Beyond Belief, edited (and partially written) by Dale McGowan, but it’s considered sort of a must-read in some nonreligious parenting circles. The essay-driven collection is a hodgepodge of ideas set forth by famous and not-so-famous atheist/agnostic parents on a whole range of topics.

My favorite bit in the book is offered by McGowan himself on the subject of the whether secular families who celebrate Christmas should engage in the Santa myth with their children. McGowan’s bit was offered as a counterpoint to an essay by Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism who in 1993 wrote The Trouble With Christmas — a book that no-doutedly helped fuel the overhyped, so-called “War on Christmas” controversy. Flynn’s Parenting Beyond Belief essay (which can be read here) is called “Put the Claus Away” and lays out five main arguments against letting kids believe in Santa.

1. To perpetuate the Santa myth, parents must lie to their kids.

2. To buoy belief, adults often stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the child’s developing intellect.

3. The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear.

4. The myth makes kids more acquisitive, not less so.

5. The myth appears to exploit age-appropriate cognitive patterns that religious children use in forming their ideas of God.

Although I think there’s a whole lot of exaggeration in this list, his first and second points are the same ones I struggled with about the time my daughter hit her second birthday. Is it okay to lie to my kid when it’s all in “good fun?” And, if so, how much lying is too much lying? After all, “letting her believe” is not the same as “encouraging her to believe,” which is not the same as “insisting she believe.” Yet all of these include some level of deception. Can I justify deception? Or has this whole lying thing gotten blow way out of proportion?

I explored this issue a bit — and fielded some great comments — back in February, with a post called Honesty, Schmonesty: When Did Lying to Kids Get Such a Bad Wrap? I don’t think I mentioned it at the time, but my thoughts on this were affected by a mother who wrote a blog post on coming clean about the Tooth Fairy before her son was ready. As she says in her post, the boy already had suspected that Mommy was the Tooth Fairy and was having fun collecting “evidence” and “investigating” his suspicions. But when this blogger revealed the truth (although cryptically) before he had fully figured it out, the boy was devastated. “Now I know for sure that Mom and Dad are the Tooth Fairy,” he lamented. (She quickly back-tracked and, to his delight, was able to salvage his belief for a bit longer… which, as it turns out, is all he wanted.)

The blogger, Noell Hyman, contributed a couple of essays to Parenting Beyond Belief — which brings me back to McGowan.

In his essay, titled “Santa Claus — The Ultimate Dry Run,”  McGowan hits a home run in his defense of the Santa myth. He argues that “figuring out that Santa is not real” is a wonderful rite of passage for children, as long as parents tread lightly around the myth, and stay alert for the first hints of skepticism. When McGowan’s son, for example, began to ask pointed questions — How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How can he make it down the chimney with his big belly? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? — McGowan didn’t try to answer the questions. He simply said: “Some people believe the sleigh is magic. Does that sound right to you?” and so on.

“I avoided both lying and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself,” McGowan wrote in the essay. And then, when his son was 9 and finally asked him point-blank whether Santa was real, McGowan said, one last time, “What do you think?”

“Well,” his son answered, smiling. “I think all the moms and dads are Santa. Am I right?”

McGowan smiled back and told the truth.

“So,” McGowan asked, “how do you feel about that?”

His son shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know… makes sense again.”

How cool is that?

Dale’s attitude, which I think is the perfect combination between smart and fun, is the one I’ve tried to adopt as my own. I’m totally down for giving Santa cookies and looking for him out the window before we go to bed on Christmas Eve. But, as Maxine gets older and her critical thinking start kicking into high gear, my plan is to encourage her questioning while not ruining the surprise. If she asks me how Santa gets around the world in a night, I’ll say, “I have no idea. It seems almost impossible, doesn’t it?” If she asks me whether I believe in Santa, I’ll say: “You know how I am about believing in things I’ve never seen for myself. What do you think? Do you believe in Santa?”

It’s not all that unlike how I deal with the God questions, honestly. And McGowan makes very clear in his essay that this is part of the point. He writes:

“Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one… By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside.”

The other thing McGowan suggests (that I love!) is heaping on praise the moment your child figures it all out for the first time: “Wow! How did you figure it out? What were your clues? I’m so proud of you!” In this way, you underscore how the Santa story is a real rite of passage, and “figuring it out” is something that takes a special type of maturity and wisdom.

12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids About Death (Part II)

I’m back with again with my Grim Reaper friend. I like that little guy. Just wish he were more cheerful.

Anyway, in my last post I described six mistakes parents make when talking death with kids. Well, apparently, we screw up A LOT because here’s a whole other six:

7. We yada-yada over the science part.

Talking about decomposing bodies may seem a ghoulish proposition, but the actual science of death is not only fascinating to children (particularly preschoolers), but can be comforting, too. It’s true that adults tend to focus their worry on the emotional aspects of death — how it feels to lose someone we love, for instance. But children of a certain age aren’t as consumed by the grief aspect of death. They are still working on how things die (“Could I have caused it?”) and how it feels to be dead (“Will I be lonely?”) This is why it’s so important to explain to kids how we humans work — how our beating hearts are what keep us alive, and that there is a difference between bodies and consciousness.

“Most children understand the concept of something that has ‘stopped working completely and can’t be fixed,’” social worker Debra Stang tells us. “It’s also important to reassure children that a dead person doesn’t breathe, wake up, go to sleep, or need to go to the bathroom, doesn’t hear or see anything, doesn’t get hungry or cold or scared, and doesn’t feel any pain.” But do remember,adds parent coach Miriam Jochnowitz, there is a limit to how much science to impose on a child. “It can be helpful just to understand more about what happened,” she says. “But follow the child’s lead. Do not expound if they are not interested.”

8. We expect kids (and adults!) to react in a prepackaged way.

For most of us, grief has a certain look to it: tears, pain, prolonged depression. So when people react to death in a way that runs counter to our image, we think it’s strange. We assume something is wrong. We worry. And it’s no wonder — given the popularity of author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross‘ Five Stages of Grief, which was introduced in her book “On Death and Dying.” Kubler-Ross said that the stages were denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and that most people go through one or all of the first four stages before reaching the last. Over the last 15 years, this hypothesis has informed how we, as a society, view children’s reactions to death, as well as our own.

The problem, according to modern studies, is that it’s all bogus. When it comes to the loss of a loved one, grief doesn’t work in “stages” at all. In his incredibly enlightening book, “The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss,” author George Bonanno says that resilience — not denial, anger, etc. — is what truly defines grief. His scientific studies, conducted over 20 years, show that most people weather the deaths of loved ones relatively quickly and thoroughly. Even weeks after devastating losses, many are able to experience genuinely positive emotions, even laughter. And this is not denial or drugs doing the work — but rather their own natural resiliency, Bonanno says. Personality has a lot to do with grief reactions, of course, and there are those who experience grief in the Kubler-Ross-created image. But, in general, studies show, grief has an oscillating pattern. It comes and goes in “waves” — which is what, mercifully, allows us to take care of ourselves and those around us.

At the risk of making this too long (I know, too late), I’ll just add this: Bonanno’s philosophy is that we humans are a lot more resilient than we think we are. We are hardwired to adapt, and that’s what we do. Most of us adapt much more quickly than we think possible — which is both good and healthy. No one should be surprised when a person finds joy and happiness soon after the loss of a loved one. “It’s okay to cry,” we tell our kids all the time. But sometimes we forget that it’s okay not to cry, too.

9. We forget to seek help

Sometimes we just can’t do it. No matter how much we want to, talking about death with our kids is a challenge we can’t face. Maybe we have suffered a particularly devastating loss recently, or maybe WE’VE JUST GOT SOME ANXIETY ISSUES, OKAY?! Whatever the reason, there is no shame is handing off the baton to someone (another adult, a therapist) or something (the Internet, the library) better suited to guide our children in positive ways. By showing our children that they have lots of resources and support available to them, we ensure that when WE aren’t around, they will still have their needs met.

There are some excellent books out there for broaching the subject of death with very young children. My personal favorite is still “When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death,” by Laurie Krasny Brown, which I wrote about here. But I also am crazy about an oldie called “About Dying” by Sara Bonnet Stein. It’s a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side. “When a Pet Dies,” by Fred Rogers, is also awesome (Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome?) and “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages” by Leo Buscaglia is also really nice. None of these books has a religious bent, by the way.

11. We’re afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’

No one, not one person in all of history, has ever known for sure what happens when we die. So why is that we parents have such a hard time admitting we don’t know? When it comes to death — and, frankly, religion in general — we sometimes feel we must be on one side or another in order to maintain stability and consistency in children’s lives. But this is one area where saying “I don’t know” will never be seen as a sign of weakness or ignorance.

What our children choose to believe as far as heaven/afterlife/reincarnation really has nothing to do with us anyway. We can state what we believe to be true, and we can state what other people believe to be true (to the best of our knowledge), but to think we are “teaching” them what happens after we die is kind of ridiculous. No one can teach it because no one knows. Telling our children we’re confused is okay. Telling them we keep changing our minds is okay, too. And throwing up our hands and telling them we haven’t got the slightest idea what’s going to happen — dammit, that’s okay, too.

10. We lie.

This one comes courtesy of a mother who responded to my survey earlier this year. “When it comes to death,” the woman wrote, “I have allowed my children to believe in a ‘heaven,’ for lack of a better word. I felt that allowing them to believe that ‘people go on to happy place surrounded by loved ones, waiting for other loved ones to join them someday’ gives them comfort about losing people. Heck, it comforts me to make up a place like that when I am grieving also.”

It’s not uncommon, as I said in No. 6, to gravitate toward the heaven narrative. Even nonreligious parents have a hard time with this one. But we can’t — as in CAN NOT — “make up” an afterlife and ask our kids to believe in it. This is just not cool. As author Earl A. Grollman says: “Don’t tell children what they will need to unlearn later.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting kids to know about all the “afterlife options” out there, but why not refer them to those who believe? A grandparent, perhaps, or a beloved aunt? By all means, there is no harm (most of the time!) in encouraging our kids to get religious input from other family members or friends, but don’t lie. The stakes are too high, the potential to hurt our kids too great. The litmus test is this: Are we telling our kids the same thing we would tell a fellow adult? If not, it’s time to come clean.

12. We don’t talk about dead people in happy terms.

After a person dies, the only thing we have of them is our memories. Yet so many of us don’t talk about dead people because we feel even our happiest memories lead us to melancholy. We assume the only way to avoid the painful end is to not begin at all. But honoring our dead and keeping them “with us” is part of how we cope with our losses. Suppressing those memories can deprive us of both joy and comfort.

Working Grandma’s favorite recipe into a mealtime, telling Grandpa’s favorite joke, or recounting the copious amounts of liquor Great Aunt Tilly used to consumed at Passover every year are all healthy ways of coping — not just with their deaths but with death in general. Giving memories of our dead a happy “place” among the living benefits us all. Especially our kids.

12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids About Death (Part I)

Let’s face it, talking about the Big D with the little humans we love more than anything in the world ain’t easy. All we want to do is protect our kids — is that so wrong? — and here comes Mother Nature to screw it all up:

Hey, guess what, darling? I’m going to die! But don’t worry, because you’re going to die, too! In fact, everyone you’ve ever loved or will ever love is going to DIE! But don’t mind that. Let’s go get some ice cream.

Yeah, it pretty much sucks — and it sucks for every parent on the planet. But, believe it or not, that doesn’t mean it has to be an awful or depressing or scary topic of conversation. In fact, talks about death can be some of the most rich and textured talks you’ll ever have with your kids.

Here are the first six of 12 common mistakes parents make in talking to their kids about death. The other second six are here.

1. We wait until tragedy strikes to start up the conversation.

It never feels like the right time to broach the subject of death with our kids, which is why many of us put off the initial talk until tragedy strikes and the conversation is forced upon us. Unfortunately, by that point, we’re stressed and sad; our kids are confused and scared; and our minds are flooded with all the things we need to get done. Coping is often the best we can do.

Having thoughtful, hopeful conversations with our children about the the cycle and meaning of life requires a clear mind. So, before something happens, be on the lookout for any and all excuses to have these talks. A dead bird in the yard can be a fantastic point of entry. Taking the time to explore the bird’s death, what “dead” means, and why the bird died can open up those lines of communication in remarkably effective ways. Of course, many parents put off these conversation because they’re children are young and/or they themselves are sensitive to the subject. Each child is different, of course, but generally kids want to hear about death much earlier than we expect. We know they’re ready when they start asking questions: “Why is that bird not moving?” “What happened to the evil queen?” “Where did your grandma go?”

2. We use euphemisms. 

Passed away. Taken away. Resting place. Went to sleep.  Left. These terms are fine for adults, who know the score, but they’re terrible for kids, who might find it really damn creepy that their uncle was “taken away.” These terms, as well as many of them provided by religious imagery, are just too abstract for a young children, says Earl Grollman, who wrote the excellent book Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child.

Instead, use the real words: Die. Death. Kill. Murder. Suicide. Coffin. Cremation. Funeral. When we speak directly and specifically — even if the words seem sharp and awkward in our mouths at first — we avoid painful confusion and misunderstandings, Grollman says.

3.  We talk too much.

Damn those awkward silences and our need to fill them. As I mentioned last week, we parents want nothing more than to comfort our kids. Soothing them is in our nature. To hold back from saying things that will make a child feel better is one of the more difficult aspects of parenting. But when it comes to talking about death, experts say, less is more.

Explain death as simply as possible, then step back and let listening take over. Nods and hugs are fine, but parents who try too hard to comfort with words can end up explaining more than than a child wants, or is ready, to hear. When in doubt, try turning the questions back on the child, suggests Grollman. When a child asks: “What did Grandma look like after she died?,” a parent might answer: “What do you think she looked like?” This gives us insight into our children’s imaginations and helps us guide the conversations where they need to go.

4. We shield kids from the death of pets.

One could argue that part of the reason we have beloved pets is to familiarize us with the idea of death, let us “practice” mourning, and remind us that life goes on after they die —and the pain does lessen. But, so often, we shield our children from the reality of a pet death — and, therefore, pass up the chance to introduce our children to the very real sadness that comes with it. We also miss the opportunity to let our kids build up their own coping mechanisms.

It may seem harsh, but encouraging our children to be present when our pets are euthanized and/or allowing our children to be involved in the mourning process with us (rather than, say, leaving the room to cry), we are teaching our kids how to mourn and move on. We are teaching them it’s okay to cry, and that grief — no matter how painful — is not life-threatening.

5. We don’t give our kids anything to do.

When your children lose someone they love, they benefit from being brought into the fray, as it were, rather than sequestered away from it. Modern therapists not only condone taking young children to funerals — they encourage it. Unless the child refuses to go (which rarely happens, I’m told), kids should be able to witness and participate in the catharsis that funerals bring. Also, children need confirmation of death much more so than adults do. Without it, they may view death as something mysterious and temporary, rather than a real, permanent event. They may even await a loved one’s return.

“Participation helps soften the pain, enhance the healing process, and provide an opportunity for acceptance and transformation,” says Lynn Isenberg, the author of a book called Grief Wellness: The Definitive Guide to Dealing with Loss“When a child can participate in a loved one’s passing, it creates an action, a sense of doing, a sense of purpose, around the loss. A child can plan a ceremony, create a ritual, write words to share with family and/or friends, design an (activity) around healing… especially if the activity was directly related to the person who has died.”

6.  We view heaven as a necessary solace

Even nonreligious parents have a hard time leaving heaven out of death talks with their kids. We use heaven (yes, even Doggie Heaven) to put a positive spin on something heart-wrenchingly painful. But when we do that, we are at risk of blurring the line between heaven and nature. There is nothing “bad” in nature. (This may be the one thing religious and nonreligious people agree on!) When we offer up heaven as a knee-jerk reaction (rather than a true and honest belief), we lose out on showing kids the true and honest glory of nature. Things are born, they live and they die — and it is this necessary cycle that makes the world so freaking beautiful. Life and death are intricately related. If we don’t have death, we don’t have life. There is no splitting them apart. And if we think about it for any amount of time at all, we realize we wouldn’t want to.

Heaven would be awesome, no doubt about it. But there also is solace in the predictable logic of science. Reminding a child that everything ends and dies, and that this is the nature of the universe, can and does help, says Eve Eliot, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher living from New York. For example, she often cites “the end of the day when the sun goes down, the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the time in (kids’) lives when they have to leave the comfort of being home with their moms and enter school for the very first time. The very next inhale will be ‘lost’ on the very next exhale.”

A side note: I suppose a great many religious people will take issue with No. 6. As they see it, the point of life is to follow divine law (which commands that they be a good person, etc.) so as to ensure a heavenly place beside the Big Guy Upstairs. But many of us nonreligious types believe that dead people simply go back to the same nonexistence they experienced (or didn’t experience) before they were born. We don’t become souls — we become memories. So perhaps the point of living isn’t to get somewhere else but to collect memories that make us happy and “give” memories that make other people happy. Being a good person is vital in this scenario — because if other peoples’ memories are the last vestiges of ourselves that we leave behind, we want to make those memories as good as we possibly can.

Click here for Part II,  and here to find out why heaven is rarely helpful when talking with kids about death.

Heaven Doesn’t Help Us: Talking to Kids about Death

Religion just comes in so darn handy sometimes — and never more than when someone you love dies.

Picturing our grandmother in God’s beautiful kingdom, happy and joyful, and awaiting our arrival, is just, well, nice. It’s a fantasy so many of us would love to believe, which is precisely why some nonreligious parents feel guilty about not being able to “give” their children the solace of heaven.

“It’s hard to see a 5-year-old struggle with mortality,” one mom told me. “Part of me wishes I had the ‘heaven’ out — if only to comfort her.”

“I feel bad,” said another, “burdening my child with the prospect of no afterlife.”

It’s understandable. We parents are just so hardwired to protect our children from pain; that’s what we do. Yet there is no worse pain than the pain of death, and what can we do about that? We are left struggling to find something — anything —to soften the harsh divide between alive and dead.

But the truth is, child psychologists and grief experts say, religious talk is no gift at all when it comes to addressing death with young children.

Debra Stang, a medical social worker who has specializes in hospice care, has this to say:

“It’s been my experience that children don’t respond very well to religious explanations of death, even if the family comes from a religious background. ‘Grandpa’s in heaven’ is just too abstract for a young child, especially when he or she went to the funeral and saw Grandpa’s body in a casket. One of my families told a child that her deceased mother was an ‘angel watching over her,’ and the little girl had nightmares for months, thinking that if her mom caught her doing something wrong, she would die, too.”

If it were really true that heaven brought comfort, then all religious people would suffer less grief and have less fear of death than nonreligious people do. And that’s not the case. A person’s faith in God can be entirely divorced from her mourning process or fear of death. The idea of heaven doesn’t erase sadness. The here and now is too wonderful, too beautiful — the unknown too terrifying.

Walter G. Meyer, a San Diego writer, suffered three devastating losses in rapid succession when he was 7 and 8 years old. His best friend and two favorite uncles all died within a single 13-month period.

“I was raised Catholic, but my parents platitudes about ‘seeing them in heaven’ had no meaning and rang hollow,” he said. “I didn’t want to wait to die to see them again.”

Children might hear people say, “Your grandpa went to heaven,” “God loved your mommy so much he took her to be with him,” or “God has a plan.”

Very religious people don’t think twice before saying this stuff, but all these statements, experts say, can have detrimental effects on little kids. Children may wonder why their grandpa would choose to go someplace without them. They may feel guilty that they didn’t love their mom enough to keep her alive, or that they are being punished for not giving her enough love. They may wonder why God would make such a horrible plan, and be angry at God for taking their sister or ignoring their most heartfelt prayers. They might think heaven sounds so great, they want to cut to the end and go there right now.

So on top of overwhelming sadness, kids in these situations struggle with feelings of hurt, guilt, anger, fear and confusion. What kind of comfort is that?

For these reasons, and others, religion is not the asset we think it is when addressing the idea of death with kids, says Miriam Jochnowitz, a parent coach and hospice volunteer who blogs at thesingularparent.com.

“Whether you are religious or not,” Jochnowitz says, “I believe simplicity and honesty are the best approach. Don’t try too hard to say comforting things, but be there to listen.”

One of the hardest parts about keeping heaven out of conversations with kids is that it makes death such a true and final thing. But the finality of death is something children must be able to grasp. Until they do, they won’t be able to let go of dead loved ones — and that’s crucial to their healing.

Click here for 12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids About Death

 

Images of Faith (and Non-faith)

It’s funny what you see when you start paying attention. I don’t consider my city particularly religious, but there was a two-day period recently when religion seemed to pop up everywhere I looked. Maybe it was because I had been thinking about religious imagery through the eyes of children — about all they must see in the world around them that they don’t understand.

I took all three of these pictures after randomly happening upon them. I wonder how many of you could take similar pictures in your neighborhoods — or if you already have.

God is Jesus: The Trinity (the concept that God is three separate and divine persons — a father, son AND a holy spirit) is almost impossible to comprehend, even for the most devoutly Christian. Looks like this kid’s got in pretty well in hand, though. The cross with the crown is a nice touch.

 

Virgin Mary on the Half Shell: This statue stands next door Buddhist Temple and across the street from the Pacific Ocean. The day I drove by, a brother and sister — both grown — knelt and prayed, while their mother found a shady spot to stand and pray. The father, not pictured, took it upon himself to water all the flowers that people had left. There is something sweetly humbling about public prayer, isn’t there? It’s like people are saying: “Yes, I need a little help with this life thing. And I don’t care who knows it.”

 

Shattered Faith: I found this on a patch of grass between the sidewalk and street in a residential neighborhood. I like the way the crack in the sidewalk seems to connect with the crack in the glass — as though the whole world is shattering. That must be the way some people feel when they lose their faith in God.

Anyone else have photos of fun or unusual religious/nonreligious imagery in your town? I’d love to see them. If you’re so inclined, please send JPEGS to relaxitsjustgod@gmail.com.

How to Tell if Your Child is ‘Ready’ to Talk about God

I wish there hard-and-fast rules about when to have the “tough talks” with our kids.

Like how preschool teachers do Kindergarten-readiness tests and then let parents know when their kids are ready to advance. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could give us a sign when the time for these conversations is right?

“Yes, Mrs. Russell, feel free to discuss the 9/11 attacks; your daughter is mature enough to handle that level of evil.”

“No, Mrs. Russell, she needs a more few months before she hears about the difference between vaginal and anal sex.”

It’s like that with the God Talk, too, especially for those of us who have anxiety about (1) not wanting our kids to believe everything they hear and (2) not wanting to indoctrinate them into our ways of thinking. Sure, most of us generally know we need to address God with our kids somewhere between the ages of 3 and 6. But when exactly is the right time — not just for kids in general, but for my kid?

Often, we don’t have a choice in these matters. Relatives or peers introduce our kids to the “existence” of God before we have the chance to broach the subject ourselves. Or a grandparent or pet dies, which moves the conversation naturally in that direction.

But if you find yourself wanting to bring these things up yourself and aren’t sure if your child is “ready,” you might try a game called Fact, Fiction, or Belief.

The idea is to make statements and have your son or daughter tell you whether the statement is fact, fiction or belief. Define “fact” as anything that’s true; “fiction” as anything that’s made up; and “belief”as anything that some people think is fact and other people think is fiction. (For purposes of this game, opinions, preferences, tastes, etc. all can be considered “belief.”) The bonus to this game is that you’re also teaching the word “fiction,” whose meaning has confounded children for decades — ever since we got the rather loony idea to make “nonfiction” the name given to books that are not untrue.

For instance, you might say: The moon is in the sky. And your child would say: Fact! 

It’s okay to make people feel bad. (Fiction!)

Pink is the best of all the colors. (Belief!)

The game works really well during car rides, which are also — incidentally — when a lot of kids ask questions about the existence of the universe anyway. (Must be something about sitting still and just thinking.) Don’t get too wrapped up in making everything too literal. Just keep in mind the point of the game, and have fun with it.

And when your child has mastered it? You can be relatively assured she’s ready to advance to the next level.

Is a Lack of Vomit the Best We Can Offer?

Did I ever  tell you about the time my husband told me hated the word tolerance? I was sure I’d misheard him. I was all, like, what? Huh? You can’t hate the word tolerance! Everybody LOVES the word tolerance. Simon Wiesenthal and the Museum of Tolerance and all that. Remember?

Yes, he assured me, he did remember. But he still hated it.

See, in my husband’s view, tolerance was a word used to relate something bad, not good. A guy ate a piece of rancid beef but was able to tolerate it; that is, he was able to barely not vomit. A woman tolerated an abusive husband; she hated him but was terrified to the point of inaction. An Arizona sheriff tolerated illegal immigrants; he left them alone, but anxiously awaited the day he would be allowed to arrest and deport them. A liver transplant patient tolerated his new organ; he may have been in a lot of pain, but at least he didn’t die.

Tolerance isn’t something to aspire to, said my husband. Barely not vomiting just isn’t good enough. Hard to disagree with him there.

In my Survey of Nonreligious Parents, I asked people what tolerance meant to them. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said tolerance meant “regarding religious people with respect, even when their religion is not respected.” About 35 percent said it meant allowing people to have their own religious beliefs.” And the highest percentage — 38 percent — defined tolerance as “embracing all people and all beliefs, as long as those people/beliefs are not hurting anyone.”

This struck me as somewhat encouraging.

It shows that, to many, tolerance signals a sort of conditional embrace — where the “conditions” are based on whether an actual harm is being committed. Now embrace — that’s a far nicer word than tolerance, isn’t it? Embrace makes you think of warm hugs, peaceful acceptance, even love.

But now we must ask ourselves: What do we allow to constitute actual harm? After all, if we define harm too broadly, there’s not a shred of room for tolerance, much less embrace.

Are all Roman Catholics committing harm by being members of an organization that has harbored pedophiles? Are all Baptists or Mormons or Muslims or Jews responsible for things done by sects of their own religion? Define harm too broadly, you see, and pretty soon we’re vomiting all over everyone.

I’m not trying to tell anyone how to define harm or tolerance or anything else. But I do think that, as parents, we owe it to our kids to aim as high as we possibly can — so that they might aim even higher.

 


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