Parenting in the midst of faith wandering

Parenting in the midst of faith wandering March 22, 2016

“I have Jesus in my heart. Do you?” My three-year-old daughter Georgie and a friend had been making a den of play-dough snakes when her friend blurted the question. I whipped my head around to watch the exchange–I’d never seen a toddler evangelize to another toddler.

Georgie looked up and twisted her face in confusion.


I was waiting for her friend to launch into a dissertation of the Romans Road, but instead she threw a ball of play-dough on the floor and giggled. Then my daughter threw  more play-dough on the floor and giggled. I was ten feet away, stifling my own giggle.

I haven’t told Georgie anything about Jesus yet. For the first few years of motherhood, I’ve said we’d cross some of these bridges when we came to them. I’ve joked with my husband before that it seems criminal and unfair to explain Big concepts of God and Jesus and Salvation to a person who believes the people in headpieces at Disneyland are the REAL Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

With a now-three-year-old, the bridge is nearby, and obviously there are parents in my larger network who have chosen to cross it. I’m hanging back. I’m in no rush.

I think for a lot of people, parenting is a time they naturally turn back to their faith roots. They may have wandered from their religion in their 20s but now as parents, they have decided to raise their kids with the same answers they were given as children. Maybe because it’s safer or it’s what they know to do–or they’ve truly found hope and comfort in their own beliefs and want to pass that assurance to their children. Either way, I’ve had a different experience. Having my first child in my mid 20s, I gave birth in the midst of my wandering. I brought a child into the world in the middle of the mess.

Image: Pixabay

At first I felt guilty about this. What will I tell her about God? How will I teach her about Hope and Grace and Jesus without passing down some of the fear-based teachings I absorbed at church as a child? I felt an urgency to figure it all out so I can give her all the Right Answers Right Away.

But I’m figuring out that it’s OK to not have it figured out, as a mother. I’m becoming more and more content with saying “I don’t know.”

When I do eventually talk to my daughter about God, I plan to keep it simple. For as long as I can remember, my deeply spiritual Episcopalian grandmother signed every card and letter, “Jesus Loves You and So Do I.” She loved children–not just her grandchildren but every child she had the chance to love. At the church nursery. At the preschool she worked at until she was 82. In the families she provided free childcare for–“Jesus Loves You and So Do I.” That was her theology when it came to children–and now, after years of adding stipulations to that message and then years of rejecting it all together, I am slowly embracing it as my own.

As Georgie and her friend were playing in the wake of their very brief religious conversation, I thought about how her friend’s parents would probably be proud of their daughter’s budding faith in Jesus had they been around to hear it. There was a time in my life I would have too. But that day, I loved my own daughter’s ignorance of the language of the churched, her honest lack of posturing, her untactful response. And I giggle because although she may not know the religious jargon to express it, of course she has God in her heart. All children do.

A few months ago, I realized if Christianity tells me I need to teach this crinkly-nosed, Mickey-Mouse-believing child that she is wretched and needs saving, I think it’s time for me and Christianity to part ways. It’s not that I don’t believe in sin–I don’t know how someone can pick up a newspaper and deny the human propensity for evil, or whatever term you prefer. But I can’t subscribe to the view evangelicalism offered either, always telling me children are born these depraved vipers in diapers. I’m not a theologian, nor do I pose as one. All I know is I can’t raise my kids that way.

But I think of my grandmother, who loved children and Jesus more than anyone I’ve known–and I think, I don’t have to. My children won’t be uttering the Sinner’s Prayer with me at bedtime, but they might find me kissing them and whispering the words, “Jesus Loves You and So Do I.”

I’m not here to give advice on how to teach children about the great mysteries of God without guilt and fear and shame-based discipline because I haven’t walked that road yet. I guess what I want to say is if you’re wrestling with some of these questions yourself, you’re not alone. There are others of us out there, navigating this one day at a time, loving our children the best way we know how, and accepting that “I don’t know” is the only answer we have right now. We’re in this together, and we’ll all be OK.

Our kids might even turn out OK too.

About Carly Gelsinger: Carly is a faith-seeking doubter, hopeful cynic, and nerd-at-heart who lives south of the San Francisco Bay Area, where the roots of Eucalyptus trees upturn the sidewalk and where she can escape to the ocean for the afternoon when life becomes stressful or mundane. Currently, she spends most of her days playing Princess Castle and gardening with her 3-year-old, and getting kicked in the ribs by her second baby girl who is expected to arrive in June. When she’s not writing, parenting, or daydreaming, she performs improvisational comedy with ComedySportz San Jose. Follow Carly on twitter @carlygelsinger.

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  • jekylldoc

    Well, sure. If you believe, as I do, that salvation does not come by affirming correct doctrine, then there is no rush to inculcate it. And even the story of “Red Diaper” babies, introduced from the beginning to the stories of the labor movement and the sad history of repression by the rich, makes me sad for children to just have their childhood and learn to feel comfortable with other children. Slapping down their play-doh if you like.

    Soon enough they will face tough questions, and hopefully they will want to know your take on them. Modelling caring behavior is the most important thing we can do to shed the light of grace in their hearts. Worry about how to manage discipline, but don’t worry about managing doctrine.

    But be aware they will face an environment in which scoffing kids are the loudest, and caring kids are quiet. Rules are the enemy for a fairly large segment of their age group for a number of years, and they will feel the tug of that rebellion. I think it is good for them to have a community which offers a quiet forum for a counter-conversation. Not indoctrination, reflection.

  • Anna

    We, too, are wandering in the midst of parenting. We’ve ended up in the Anglican church where we can be open about our doubts. Where or not we actually believe, we are welcome there, and so is our child. So for the moment, what our daughter knows about church is that she is part of the community, and that no one minds if she needs to run around during the service. She knows that they welcome her loud, enthusiastic singing where she makes up the words to the hymn as she goes along, and that she can participate in communion like everyone else. She’s only two, and her verbal skills are limited, so she can’t really tell me what she thinks of the whole thing, but when I see her happily running through the church, I know that it’s something she’s enjoying be part of for now.

  • Elizabeth F

    I’m in a very similar place, Carly. Thanks so much for writing about this- it’s so good to know that I’m not alone.