Did I Do It Right? Explaining Church To My Three-Year Old

“Mommy, what happens in a church?”  That’s the post-hysterical-meltdown inquiry lobbed at me by my three-year-old once we settled our parking lot hysterics (she wanted to ride home without her seat belt, and I refused because I am “the meanest mother in the world).   Before her tears had dried, her supple mind had flitted to a brand new topic: religious institutions. (NOTE: We don’t attend church.)

The question itself, so simple and so earnest, cracked my cynical heart wide open as I imagined telling her something simple and true, leaving pedophilic priests and hypocritical televangelists with perfect coifs out of it.  For now, at least.

I wanted to get this right.  I’d already botched the “where did the dog go?” (dead) conversation and the “why does Gus have two mommies?” conversation with long-winded pedantry.  It has to be simple.

But I don’t really do simple.  I wanted to channel Anne Lamott and assure my daughter that church is full of real-life good Samaritans who will pick you up when you stumble, broken-hearted into a ditch so deep you think a shovel can’t reach you.  I wanted to tell her about the best Church stuff that I know personally: the corporal works of mercy and the songs.  Oh, the songs.

Definitely start with the songs.

“People go to church to be together to sing and pray.  Sometimes stories are read.  It’s like school in a lot of ways. The songs I sing to you at bedtime I learned in church.”

I patted my own back for keeping it simple and relating it to some of her favorite things in the world: school and songs.  I checked her face in the rearview mirror– she was thinking as she chewed a bite of the apple we grabbed on the way out of the gym.

Who am I to let silence pass when I could just as well fill it up with my wordy word words?

“You know how we say prayers at night? Some people like to say prayers with lots of friends and community.  Church is a place to do that.”

Another glance backwards. She’s still munching and either considering what I’ve said or wondering where her princess crayons are.  Either one, really.

“Which side will the church be on when we drive down our street?” She asks this question every time we drive down our one-way street, and never appears fazed that the answer is always the same. “Sweetie, it will be on your side. I’ll tell you when to look out the window at St. Andrew’s.”

By the time we drove by the church, we were deep in a conversation about what kind of birthday cake her little brother will have in three weeks (“Spiderman, Mom”).  I still point out the church and promise that we can look at some steeples next time we are on the computer.

And I wondered, for the 67th time this weekend alone, whether I had done it right.  Had I given her age-appropriate information that was true and unbiased enough for her to make her own decisions when the time comes for her decide whether she wants to participate in a church or a temple or a mosque?  Had I given her actual tools for discernment or just vapid explanations that reveal nothing about myself or the actual world?

How the f*ck should I know? This self-doubt feels like pure agony. It’s the hardest part of being a parent with a brain like mine, that is always analyzing and wondering if I gave my children tools or a bomb that will detonate in a few years.

I assumed there will time for all that self-revelatory crap if she happens to ask again when she is old enough to understand my piece of luggage labeled “church.”

It was hard to put the perseveration away.  It was hard to tell myself believably: “You did it just right.  You struck all the right balances.  You can show her steeples or church services on YouTube later. You did it right.  Move on.”

But I said it, and I almost believed it. I’ll get another chance to say more, or less, or something better.  I didn’t have to do it all today.

I did it just right.

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38 thoughts on “Did I Do It Right? Explaining Church To My Three-Year Old

  1. You did it just right. I think it’s right that she know all the good and happy things about church (or temple, or anything having to do with religion really). In some religious Jewish pre-schools and kindergartens, when the kids learn things like the hebrew alphabet or certain prayers the teachers give them honey, or something sweet, the point being to allow the kids to associate Judaism with sweetness and good at that young age. It may be kind of weird, but I like the idea of offering any kind of religion to little kids with a big fat spoon full of sugar. There is plenty of time to learn about the aspects of religion that are not so good and pretty. Keeping it simple, happy and fun seems like the way to go for now.

  2. “How the f*ck should I know? This self-doubt feels like pure agony. It’s the hardest part of being a parent with a brain like mine, that is always analyzing and wondering if I gave my children tools or a bomb that will detonate in a few years.”

    Honey, truer words have never been written. Thanks for expressing what so many of us feel every single day. And, yes, you did it right. (We go to church [sometimes], so I know these things.)

  3. I think you handled it beautifully, but your kids won’t give a shit about my opinion. The thing that matters most – to me and your children – is the way you care. My parents effed up a LOT when I was little. I mean seriously. Like if CPS knew they would have snatched me away in an instant. But as an adult – and even as a teen – I never blamed them. I always knew they cared and tried their best and that eased so much of the pain I might have otherwise felt. You far exceed that. You are a great mother.

  4. You did do it right. The second guessing, for me, has dissipated a bit as my kids have aged and are inundated with information from other sources. Now, though, it’s switched from being asked what something means/is to is this true/false — which is always SO MUCH FUN because now you get to fix all the worng shit that the parents who don’t care whether they’re answering correctly or not have given. I believed hickeys caused neck cancer for many many years, Mom.

    You are answering your kids’ questions. That is a big step. As long as you follow your heart, follow up, keep talking, and they know they can ask? Hell, you’ve already won.

  5. Yes! You did it just right. You are exactly the mom Sadie needs and deserves – one of the amazing ones. Because my brain is wired similarly to yours, I know the pain of perseveration around parenting decisions. I’m hear to tell you I have no doubt you are one fucking amazing mom. So there’s that. And you write like a dream. So you’re all set.

  6. Love your wordy word words too. I try to do what you do. Think of the truth and then break it down to its simplest age appropriate form for her to hear. Then I ask her ” what do you think about that”. So I can get feedback as to if she is thinking of her crayons or the topic at hand.
    I did explain to Lily what cremation was the other day. I just figured I didnt want to lie to her as I dont want her to grow up in the freak show of not knowing what is going on in our household ( as I did ). I kept it simple — and she didnt even seem fazed by it. Who knew.

  7. LOL. Most of the time when we talk about spiritual items, I often ask her what she thinks and she has told me that God looks like a unicorn and the unicorns share their magic with their horns. Works for me. She also asked me, for when I died, if she could cut off a piece of my hair and keep it. I told her that she could have all of it.

  8. What is parenting if not a comedy of errors riddled with self doubt? I always wonder if I did things right…. If someday there will be a payoff that works in my favor or one that will forever haunt me. Only time will tell!

  9. My niece asked me this question a few years back and I said, nothing good, stay away. Except to admire the artistry of the stained glass and the gargoyles. (12 years of Catholic school will do that to a girl). Fortunately my niece has parents, who like you, frame a more pleasant, reasoned response. If your girl inherited your brains, and I’m sure she did, you have nothing to worry about. She’ll figure it out.

  10. Saying just the right thing with these tough topics–not too much beyond their level or too little so its too trite— is not my strong suit. As a doctor, you should have heard my birds and bees with my oldest. Poor kid. It was just hard for me to stop talking. I did a little better with my daughter. If I had three or four kids I’d probably end up doing a pretty good job with these talks by the 5th one (except I’d be insane so it’s not worth it.)

  11. I’m pretty sure i failed this excersice when my 6 year old told me in church to “grab her a tortilla” as i was going up for communion becuase she was hungry. Obviously we didn’t go to church often enough to enlighten her that these were not in fact tortillas or some sort of snack we got after sitting for 45 minutes. You’d think she would have figured this out as she did attend her sister’s first communion!

  12. This is my take (not meaning to push my agenda on you): I want my little ones to know a personal and loving God who extends grace and loving discipline; not a big, bad, punishing, judging God like the one portrayed in my childhood. My husband and I find it probably THE most important aspect of parenting — nurturing our boys’ souls. To us, life without our faith is meaningless. To be sure, we want our boys to appreciate and respect other faiths (as I find intolerance despicable). And of course, it is ultimately their choice what they believe.

  13. My answer to all the big questions like this come down to: what is he asking, what is true, and what is minimal? So the church answer was similar to yours: “it’s a place where people who believe in a god go to be together and hear about their god from someone whose job it is to know all the stories and rules about their kind of believing, called a religion. So all the people who believe one way, in one religion go to one church, and the people who have a different religion go to a different church, even if they believe in the same god. And most religions have some stories the same and some stories different. In church some sing, some kneel, some talk. But no matter how they do it, church is about their god.”

    He’s kind of analytical, I’m kind of analytical, and I always think my primary job is to teach that there are different ways of looking at things and never just one answer.

    His answer, for now, is a bit like unicorns. http://naptimewriting.wordpress.com/2010/03/16/thank-you-jehovahs-witnesses/

    • Nicely done. I can’t tell if Sadie is analytical….not exactly, but it’s good to always let her know that there are many ways to skin that cat.

      On Wed, Jan 9, 2013 at 10:29 PM, Outlaw Mama

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