Like Juggling Hand Grenades

It’s easy to be an armchair parent, particularly if one has very young children or no children at all. These people tend to view the endeavor of parenthood simplistically. I know I did. How hard can it be? Feed them when they’re hungry, hold them when they’re sad, change them when they’re wet, done. It’s easy for a mother to look at her plump, babbling, smiling infant gumming a rattle and feel a sense of pride at her good parenting. A smiling baby is a happy baby, a well-fed baby, a dry baby. She’s done everything right. So long as she provides that same brand of nurturing to that growing human as she did when it popped out of her womb, then the next eighteen years should be a cinch. Right?

What mom doesn’t always realize at that time is that babies eventually grow into children, and if she has done her job well, they are thinking children, and as those little brains develop through what must be a blinding and confusing barrage of stimuli, there comes a skill that can put even the most astutely-thinking mother or father to the test: the ability to ask questions. And not just any questions, but the kind whose answers can bear great significance in shaping the mind of a future adult.

I won’t lie. This part of parenthood sort of blindsided me and I’ve come to realize that the stakes of a wrong answer are high, and the thought of society being burdened by one more narrow-minded idiot in the form my spawn is a lot to endure. So the onus is on me (and their father, of course) to make sure we don’t screw this up. Sure, they might still one day be cretins, but not because I fell asleep at the watch, dammit.

Remember in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when all of the knights are standing at The Bridge of Death and the bridgekeeper won’t allow them to pass unless they answer certain questions, and if they answer wrong they get tossed over the side? That’s what being the parent of a child age 5 and older feels like.

Bridgekeeper: "What... is your name?"
Terrified Parent: "Allison. Natalie’s and Elias’s Mother."
Bridgekeeper: "What... is your quest?"
Terrified Parent: "To not raise fucked up children."
Bridgekeeper: "What... will you tell them when they ask about... sex?"
Terrified Parent: "Nothing! I mean everyth-"
[being thrown over the edge]
Terrified Parent: "aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!"

The current topic that is regularly posed by my daughter goes something like this: "Mommy, did God make us?"

Now, I’m sure many of you have either been asked this question by your own kids or remember asking it yourself to your own parents, and I’m sure that the answer mirrored your own beliefs or upbringing regarding matters spiritual. I’ve made no secret of my beliefs; I don’t believe in God. But my views were formed independently, after a lifetime of being raised to see the world in a Judeao-Christian mindset, questioning it, and finding what I believed were very legitimate reasons for rebelling against it. So since Atheism wasn’t hammered into my head by my parents, I guess it just feels wrong to blindly lead my kids down the same path when they might genuinely feel that there is something God-like out there. I want them to come by their views honestly and not just mimick me. So in this instance, I really have no choice but to play it safe.

Natalie: "Mommy, did God make us?"
Terrified Mother: "Well, a lot of people do believe that, sweetie."
Natalie: "Is that what you believe?"
Terrified Mother: "No, hon. I don’t."
Natalie: "Why don’t you believe that?"
Terrified Mother: "Because when I got older and learned a lot about science and religion, I made the decision that the God that they teach us about in church isn’t really there."
Natalie: "But why do other people believe in God?"
Terrified Mother: "Because when they grew up, they saw the world in a different way."
Natalie: "Are they wrong then?"
Terrified Mother: "I don’t know, hon. There is no right or wrong with these kinds of things."
Natalie: "How come?"
Terrified Mother: "Because it’s not about whether or not you believe in God. It’s about being a good person and treating other people well."
Natalie: "So how come people are bad?"
Terrifiede Mother: "Some other time, babe. Some other time."

And this can go on for hours, each new question and answer a potential for disaster. By the time I put a stop to the dialog, my body is wracked with tension akin to sharing a very slow elevator with a skittish menopausal meth addict who may or may not be armed with a taser.

Helping shape a mind requires a painstaking balance. If I lie, I may never be forgiven and I’ll always look at myself as a cop-out. If I am blunt, I will destroy their imaginations and their sense of wonder far too soon. If only kids were born with the cognitive makeup of mostly-enlightened adults. Sure, they wouldn’t be nearly as cute and it would likely have resulted in the extinction of our species long ago, but the current set-up just leaves way too much room for error.

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  1. ...it's impossible to compete with the Gouda brand of awesome....

    And that post is awesome, Allie.

    Thanks for a terrific read, kiddo.

  2. It sounds to me like you are on the right track. I have always made a point of answering my kids' questions, and doing so honestly and openly. Just like you, I don't always delve into the deep subjects as far I would with an adult, but even complex ideas can be understood by kids if explained simply and honestly.

    This has the benefit years later of your children not doubting that you're telling them the truth. It also makes them more apt to ask uncomfortable questions because they know they'll be treated with respect.

  3. Oh man, we must be soul sisters. I'm going through this right now. I don't believe in God either. Maybe I can allow for some spiritual connection or energy, but God? No.

    My husband on the other hand is going through terrific Catholic guilt over not taking our kids to church. I say fine, you want to take them, go ahead.... Of course that generally ends the discussion because he doesn't want to wrangle the kids by himself no matter how much the old guilt kicks up. I guess his religion isn't that strong.

    But the dilemma is how to reach a compromise. I tell hubby I'm fine teaching the content of the Bible for say, a cultural reference, but don't expect me to stand behind it as truth.

    Like you, I'm much more interested in teaching moral strength rather than religious judgement.