How to Talk to Your Kids About God

Most young children have some concept of God. It is important to respond to their questions with sophistication and honesty.

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Tell Stories. Stories encourage children to form concepts of character. To learn about God, tell the stories of the Bible, the midrashic or teaching legends, and incidents from your own life. Children are less adept at manipulating abstract concepts than they are at understanding concrete operational ideas. Along with stories, use descriptive language. Rather than "God knows everything" try to be specific: "God is the one who helps us to grow."

Bring God into everyday life. Tell your children that God loves them. Explain that the world is filled with evidence of God's concern and artistry. If the language seems alien or difficult, find ways to ease into it. "Who loves you?" Go through a list: parents, siblings, grandparents, and God. Remember that Judaism is filled with ideas of God's love in the prayers and in the Bible. And our best known prayer, the Sh'ma, exhorts us to love God back.

Do not be defensive at challenges. Thoughtful children, especially once they enter into adolescence, will challenge our religious ideas. That is a sign of thoughtfulness. When we are angry or defensive, we show our own insecurities, our unease with the religious ideas we profess. Welcome the challenge, recognize that there are many good reasons to doubt God's existence or benevolence. Engage in a dialogue, not a diatribe.

Learn good answers. There are no definitive answers to difficult questions, but there are good ones. Try not to fall into the trap of giving facile answers that may satisfy a six year old, but will be transparently unacceptable when the child is older and more sophisticated. It is better not to be understood yet than to misrepresent the complexity of the issues. Still, in many cases, hard questions can be addressed very early: "If God dwells everywhere, is God in my pocket?" The appropriate answer to this is to explain the difference between physical and nonphysical objects. The wind is invisible, but physical. Love is intangible. Ask a child, "Where is love?" You cannot point to it, but you can feel it. The same is true with God.

father and son

There is no one idea of God in Judaism. Our tradition is as rich theologically as it is culturally and historically. The mystics speak of God with very concrete imagery, talking about the ways in which human beings must repair breaches in God, and help God fix the world. The [midrashic tradition] of teaching stories talks about a God who needs us, who goes into exile with Israel, even a God who feels lonely. The philosophers espouse a God who is beyond human understanding or description, a God about whom we can only say that we are incapable of understanding God's true nature.

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Rabbi David Wolpe

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles and the author of several books on Jewish belief.