Now What: My 6-Year-Old Told Me You Go to Heaven When You Die

Now What: My 6-Year-Old Told Me You Go to Heaven When You Die July 5, 2017

I knew this topic would come up eventually. I just didn’t realize it would be so soon.  A few days ago, I was playing with my son in the backyard, throwing a hula hoop high into the air and spinning it so it bounces back to us after it lands.

“Daddy throw it higher!” Of course, I obliged.

“Wow, it’s going up to heaven!” The sound of a needle scratching across a vinyl record fills my head (google it, millennials).  Full stop.

“Ryan, what’s heaven?”

stairs-735995_1280“It’s where you go and see God after you die.” Uh oh. I’m so not prepared for this. I always told myself I’d be prepared, or read a bunch of books to get ready for this moment. What great intentions I had. The moment has come, and I’m not going to ignore it. I won’t nod and smile and move on. This is important. I need to address this by asking the right questions — not necessarily by giving the right answers.  When I was six (and younger), the answers were given to me, just as they were given to the vast majority of people reading this story.  In my opinion, not only were those answers wrong, but they were someone else’s answers.  My kids will answer these questions themselves. It’s not my role to determine what my children’s belief systems will be.  It’s my role to give them the tools to be thoughtful and thorough when it comes to examining life’s unanswered questions.  Here we go.

First I want to know where this information originated. “Ryan, who told you that you go to heaven when you die?” [Source changed for anonymity.] “Johnny did. He says when we die we go to heaven to meet God.” Johnny is Ryan’s older cousin and comes from a church-attending household. I was already about 80% sure Johnny was going to be the source.

I asked a few more questions related to date and place, but I was really just stalling while my thoughts were circling, searching for the best words to use in this scenario. Finally, I chose to give Ryan a little background to help him understand what Johnny was telling him, and then follow up by reinforcing that it’s ok to not have the answers.

I told Ryan that Johnny was just telling him what Johnny and Johnny’s family believe. I told him that people around the world believe a lot of different things about what happens after we die. Some people believe we go to heaven like Johnny said. Some people believe other things happen, and some people, like your mom and dad, believe that when we die, we just die like any other plant or animal, and nothing happens. We’re dead and the world goes on without us. He seemed to understand what I was saying, but he’s six, so who really knows. He might have been “yessing” me to get back to the hula hoop.

I let it go after that but decided to revisit the topic when we had some quiet time alone. That night, it was my turn to get Ryan ready for bed and read him his story. We went through the normal routine: teeth, pajamas, story, and bed.  But before I kissed him goodnight, I told him I wanted to have an important talk about what we were chatting about in the backyard.

Ryan's version of heaven on earth
Ryan’s version of heaven on earth

I started by verifying that he understood what I was talking about earlier. Then I went a little bit further. We had a quick talk about what “proof” is, and I told him that no one really has any proof of anything that happens when they die, because after you die, you can’t come back and tell everyone what happens. So people have different ideas of what they think happens and believe different things. At this point, I felt like I was getting a little too “indoctrin-y” and made sure I didn’t show too much favoritism for one viewpoint over another. I’m sure he and his brother will pick up on little things we say about religion and the religious, but the last thing I want to do is tell him what he should or shouldn’t believe. So I shifted a bit and told Ryan that he and his brother will be able to decide what they believe when they’re older and are able to learn more about all of the beliefs.  He seemed ok with that, so I finished our talk by telling him that mommy and daddy are here for him if he has any questions about this stuff and that he can ask us anything he wants whenever he wants. He smiled and nodded, we said goodnight, and he went to sleep.

It’s been on my mind since and will be for a while, so I’ve already ordered a couple highly-rated children’s books that deal with this topic. I think that will help a bit, but in my opinion, keeping this conversation channel about beliefs open is probably the best way to help Ryan (and eventually Grayson) navigate through the countless times they’ll encounter conversations about religion.  After all, they’re members of predominantly Christian families and live in a small rural/suburban conservative Christian town called Churchville. I mean, come on.  Not to mention, Ryan will be entering first grade this year in our public school district that hosts a Good News Club. So religion will be there.  And so will we, to keep the indoctrinators away and help them think critically about the claims of others.

As I finish writing this story, Ryan and I are sitting on the porch while he eats lunch. He must have glanced at my screen and saw the word “God” somewhere, because out of the blue, he looked up from the plum he was enjoying and said to me, “Hey Dad, remember when we were talking about God?”

“Yes, I do, Ryan, why?”

“Can I ask another question?”

“Of course you can.”

“Is God really real?”

I sat and thought for a minute and smiled. I said back to Ryan, “Well, no one really knows for sure. Some people believe that God is real and some people don’t.”  I knew what his next question would be. “Do you believe God is real?”

“No, I don’t. I believe that God is something that people made up. Mommy believes that too. But a lot of people do believe that God is real.  And when you’re a little older, you’ll be able to choose what you believe. Ok?” He nodded.

I asked him one more question and his answer put everything back into perspective. “Ryan, do you already believe something?” He thought for a couple seconds.

“I believe plums are good. And that my daddy is nice. And flowers are beautiful.”

“I love you Ry.”

What has been your experience the first time the “God question” came up with your kids? How did you/would you handle it? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments.

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • jim6661

    Well done, sir!

  • Ryan Hemphill

    “I believe plums are good. And that my daddy is nice. And flowers are beautiful.”

    Love the whole post, but that was the best part. 🙂

    I think you handled that situation beautifully.

    • Thanks Ryan. It was almost like talking to Brick from Anchorman (“I love lamp.”), but it was cute. He was just looking at things around him and telling me what he believed about them. It was actually nice to see how he based his beliefs in the reality around him, and not in supernatural nonsense. Hopefully that never changes.

    • David Hughett

      Yes, that was very cute!

  • Jim Jones

    Maybe Yes, Maybe No

    by Dan Barker

    In today’s media-flooded world, there is no way to control all of the information, claims, and enticements that reach young people. The best thing to do is arm them with the sword of critical thinking.

    Maybe Yes, Maybe No is a charming introduction to self-confidence and self-reliance. The book’s ten-year-old heroine, Andrea, is always asking questions because she knows “you should prove the truth of a strange story before you believe it.”

    “Check it out. Repeat the experiment. Try to prove it wrong. It has to make sense.” writes Barker, as he assures young readers that they are fully capable of figuring out what to believe, and of knowing when there just isn’t enough information to decide. “You can do it your own way. If you are a good skeptic you will know how to think for yourself.”

    Another book is “Me & Dog” by Gene Weingarten.

    And Born With a Bang: The Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story : Books 1, 2, 3

    Here Comes Science CD + DVD

    The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

    Bang! How We Came to Be by Michael Rubino.

    Grandmother Fish: A Child’s First Book of Evolution
    Grandmother Fish, free in PDF form online

    Little Changes by Tiffany Taylor
    Teach your children about the wonders of evolution with this fun story, and get them asking questions about the world they live in.

  • Tawreos

    Probably better than what I would have done. I would have just equated heaven and god to the “monsters” in the closet or under the bed. This way they can be left behind with other follies from youth. Once again it is probably a good thing that I do not and most likely will never have kids.

  • Had3

    You can probably tell him there’s no proof that any gods exist and what evidence we have strongly indicates that no gods exist. It’s a delicate line to walk between trying to be fair and trying to be honest when dealing with young minds, you did great for zero lead time.

  • Foxglove

    I don’t recall my son ever asking me about God. And I don’t recall ever discussing the subject with him. But it’s pretty obvious by the way I live that I consider the notion a lot of mullarkey. Eventually, when he got older, he told me once, “I’m so glad you’re not religious.” Not a problem we ever had between us.

  • coffeepartier

    Telling kids that people believe different things is fine and true. But telling them they will “choose” what to believe when older implies to me that different beliefs have equal validity. With kids I prefer to emphasize reliance on evidence for what we believe. Sometimes just by asking leading questions. Why do you think that? etc. I like everything else you said.

    • Megan Harper

      Great point.

  • lady_black

    You probably handled it in the best way. Six year olds tend to be pretty concrete in their thinking. Once when my nephew was about that age (my sister had her kids relatively late in life) he asked me if I had any kids, and I told him yes and he knew my kids, they were his cousins “Bob” and “Susan.” To which his reply was “Bob and Susan are GROWNUPS!” as though I was trying to put one over on him.

    • Melody

      It’s probably why I called my much older cousins aunts and uncles because it pretty much felt like they were. They were grownups too 🙂

  • MNb

    Too much discussion. Six years old aren’t capable of that. Just say that you don’t think there is a god and a heaven. Make sure he knows that you’re an unbeliever, but don’t make it terribly important. It’s when he’s 12 or 13 that things get interesting; he’ll start questioning you.
    That’s how it went with my son. Since his 13th he’s a staunch unbeliever, despite me never having “important talks” about the topic and despite about everybody he grew up with being religious, including his mother.

  • starmom

    Two of my 3 kids came from kindergarten with ‘Bobby/Susie said if you don’t believe in God you will go to hell’. I went the ‘some people believe but I believe’ route and Socratic questioning and also the importance of evidence.
    I had already exposed them to plenty of mythology, fables and folklore to hopefully inoculate them against mistaking anything religious as factual.
    They are all atheists as adults.

    • Megan Harper

      Yes. Very important to illustrate where the overlaps are- will definitely help their critical thinking skills.

  • Pat Flannery

    I handled it roughly the same way when my daughters came out with the same stuff. It sure makes your mind go around like a hamster wheel trying to think of the right thing to say. One wrinkle I added was to ask “How do you think the kids who told you this stuff knew it was true?” That led us into a discussion about evidence and proof and the value of testimony. I disagree with the person here who said it’s too much discussion for a six-year-old. My daughters got it very quickly and were calling themselves atheists within a few weeks without any urging on my part at all.

  • Michelle Napier

    Really beautiful, thanks for sharing.

  • Machintelligence

    I genuinely can’t recall when the topic of God came up with my kids. It must not have been very memorable and was 25 or more years ago.
    What I do remember is my father’s reaction to something I must have said when I was about 9 or 10 years old. He asked in a rather startled tone “Don’t you believe in God?” I cannot recall what I said that triggered that reaction, nor do I remember my reply, but I do remember thinking “Of course not, does anyone?”

    • guerillasurgeon

      It first came up with my son when he went to school or kindergarten I forget which – I think school though. We were at the mall, and he mentioned something about it and I said “Well some people believe some people don’t and be a bit reticent about it until you know who you’re talking to.” I said this not because I was afraid of him being bullied or consigned to hell, but in case parents complained about their kids being atheised – if that’s a word. 🙂 Where I live most people don’t care anyway so it wasn’t an issue. I was only cautious because I got into huge trouble years ago at home when me and a neighbour kid were watching 2 dogs having sex, and he said – “Wouldn’t it be funny if people did it like that?” And I said “Of course they do. Didn’t you know?” Oops! He didn’t. And of course he went and told his Fucking parents on me or at least told them what I’d said. And they told my parents, and I came close to a hiding. Although I did suspect dad was trying not to laugh at the time.

  • Dan Courtney

    My two boys are adults now, but their Mom is Catholic and they were raised in the Church, including going to Catholic school. My kids knew I didn’t believe, but we were always able to talk because I never told them they were wrong or made them feel like they were disappointing me. That doesn’t mean that things weren’t occassionally uncomfortable. I asked a lot of questions and they very often didn’t know the answer, or the answer seemed to contradict the indoctrination they were getting at school. But I did my best to make it challenging and fun, and I always reinforced their ability to figure it out for themselves.

    Both boys left their belief in God behind by their teenage years, much to the chagrin of their Mother. It’s my belief that most religions require passive obedience to take root, and by empowering my kid’s ability to think for themselves I helped them break the spell imposed on them by religion.

  • Only Some Stardust

    If the kid thinks throwing stuff high in the air can make it reach heaven, you need to teach him what outer space is.

  • Dan Davis

    I was given a leather bound red letter edition of the KJV for a Christmas present at the age of five. Inside the first few pages are places for genealogy, births, deaths, etc. My notes included the following…accepted Jesus as my Savior on my sixth birthday. Was baptized a few months later. That was 66 years ago. I have kept that book but it is only removed from my bookcase once a year for dusting in the last 50 years.

  • Essy

    The entity discussion came in a reverse way for me recently. My 6 years old nephew, who was forced to go to church because of his father & grandmother, told me because I did not believe I was going to hell. I was shocked but let it pass, until the next time. That’s when I told his parents (my niece & her husband) if he tells me one more thing about his god, I will straighten him out on the matter if they don’t do it beforehand! Well he mentioned something about his god & my demise again, so I told him all the choices he has when it comes to what some people think, that religion is just a fake idea created by parents to scare kids into being good.

  • The Good News Club is in over 5,000 schools in the US and won a SCOTUS case to be there. The FFRF can’t do anything about that. Take a look at some other SecularVoices articles. I report on the Good News Club often.