Teaching My Children About God: Information Versus Indoctrination

I’ve thought a lot about how to teach my children about God. I have a strong faith. I pray every single day. I talk to God. I listen for God. I long for a closer relationship with God.

But we stopped attending church this summer. When walking the line of monotheism, rainbow flags in our front yard, a desire to spend time with families who are pro-God, a firm conviction in evolution, no willingness to believe in Satan, tears at the chorus “They will know we are Christian by our love, by our love” and a strong desire to stand up and clap along, it’s hard to find a church.

We have non-religious books like Where is God? and more religious books like The Children’s Illustrated Bible, which is VERY illustrated and VERY biblical and a little terrifying.

My husband and I talk about God in our daily conversations, but as a family, we only occasionally pray together.

If we’re homeschooling are kids on God, we’re definitely falling short. And I can joke about it, but I’m not okay with it.

I don’t have a lot of desires for my children. I don’t care if they are doctors or lawyers or run a mall kiosk for Furbies.

I don’t care if they have purple hair and tattoos. Or if they’re a peppy blond cheerleaders. (At least, I’ll eventually get over the cheerleader part.)

What I truly want is for my children to grow into caring adults with extraordinary integrity.

And I want them to find God.

I know that the key to integrity is to explain the choices I make and lead by example. (Man, is THAT tiring.)

But the God part is trickier. I’m cool with my children finding ANY God, Christian or not, as long as s/he is nice. I have some fear over them finding the unfriendly god who smites gay people and Muslims, but maybe the integrity piece will keep them from praying too hard to that guy-in-the-sky.

I don’t even need them to be pro-choice as long as they use that energy to help women, who are pregnant or have small children, instead of mulling around Planned Parenthood yelling at people.

I just desperately want them to have something bigger than themselves to rely on.

Something not human.

Something that can’t let them down.

Because that’s what God is for me. The only permanent in my life. No ulterior motives. No bad moods. God loves me as I am and hopes that I’m willing to grow into the person that He believe I can be — even when I can’t imagine being THAT patience, kind and honest.

I want God for my children even though I have nothing against atheism. I don’t think that not having a God creates a less fulfilling life. I happen to need God in my life, and I don’t know why some people don’t.

I can even concede that my children could possibly be people who don’t need God.

But I can’t let go of the desire to have my children believe.

Which makes me a hypocrite.

And forces me to understand the parents who PUSH stuff. When I read these Facebook statuses and tweets and hear these playground comments about kids being forced to DO STUFF and LOOK GOOD, I think quite smugly: HOW AWFUL…. Psst, let’s pray for them, kids!

OMG! I’m doing it, too!

Maybe I’ve misunderstood the parental pushers all these years. I’ve always thought it was about living vicariously through their children. Making up for an emptiness in the parents’ lives. Showing off to others.

But maybe it’s a desire to have their children do and have better. Because I only want my children’s lives to be more gentle. Easier. And I believe that a relationship with God makes that possible. Because my life is better with God.

But there it is. I’m forcing my experiences on my children because it was best for ME.

Would I disown my children for atheism? No. I wouldn’t even flinch.

But, deep down, I would be afraid for them. I would worry that it was due to a lack of thoughtfulness. Or a belief that they are too smart and too important to need something bigger than themselves.

Friends, who have found atheism after a thoughtful exploration of faith, are fine by me. Friends, who embrace atheism because God and religion is stupid and believed by stupid people, are not okay by me. They seem as sad as those who embrace religious doctrine before their own spirit and understanding of God.

I am going to walk this invisible line. Between guiding and pushing. Between independence and indoctrination.

I won’t pray to get my way with my children. I don’t think God works that way.

But I will pray for my children to find their path.

I will pray for my actions to speak louder than my words.

I will pray for God to teach me acceptance of their choices.

And I will teach what I know and believe while listening carefully to what my children know and believe.

I will pray that we both grow into the people were are so very capable of being. People well beyond my own vision for myself. Or my children.

Because good people are not always God people. And I know my children are good people.

Disclaimer: The books are amazon affiliate links. Which means if you buy something during your click-over from this site, 4-6% goes to me instead of Amazon. But that’s not why I picked those books. God told me to do it. JUST KIDDING. We own and read those books.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on LateEnough.com, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

31 thoughts to “Teaching My Children About God: Information Versus Indoctrination”

  1. I don’t think you have to push God on your kids. I think they will find what they need on their own.

    My parents are strange. My mom is a Bible thumping, hard-core Christian. A true believer. My dad is an atheist. (They are still married.)

    As a kid, I didn’t realize my dad was an atheist. I just thought he didn’t want to go to church. I didn’t know what he believed. They had an agreement that we would be raised as Christians. Now, none of us four children go to church. Forcing church and religion might work on some people, but not smart, thoughtful people, which you are, and your kids likely are.

    Funny thing is, I ended up believing a lot of the same things my dad believes, and he never told me any of it. Your kids will figure it out.

    I’m not an atheist. I never could go that far. But I’m far from what most people consider to be a Christian.

  2. I believe in a higher power, though I’m not Christian by any means. My mom very much is and has condemned me to hell. Her choice.

    My children go to church with my mom. They are half way being raised Christian and I support that. It is, after all, the more popular and easy faith. When they are older and able to decide for themselves, I’ll support them, as long as it doesn’t involve sacrificing cats in graveyards or being cruel to others. They will find their way, whatever their way is. And as long as they find comfort in it, it can’t be all bad.

    I can see the value in wanting my kids to believe what I believe, but having myself fled from what my mom believes, I understand on a personal level, why that doesn’t always work.

    Meanwhile, you are a Christian I could stand behind. Which is rare. Just lead by example, and your kids will find the(ir) way.

  3. so I found atheism after a long battle of faith. I was raised Mormon and went to a Christian school until 9th grade. needless to say, G-O-D was a big part of my youth. but even though it was clearly forced upon me, I’ve always been fascinated with religions. I studied religions in college and for fun and I’ve read most of the different holy texts (and all of the Bible, several times. we had to memorize the thing.). so my brand of spirituality comes from much study and intuition and, of course, Star Wars (I’ll tell you about it sometime.). I don’t believe in a god, but, much like Buddhists or Taoists, I believe in energy that connects us all and we tap into that energy to learn and grow. I also believe in reincarnation.

    why did I share all that? I guess to say that we all find our own paths. did I find this because I grew up as I did? I don’t know. maybe it’s my own personality. I think you can just be the awesome, accepting, supportive mom that I suspect you are and hope for the best. no matter what your children believe when they’re adults, you know they’ll be happy and that’s in part due to you.

  4. I have many of the same issues when “church shopping,” the non belief in Satan, wanting to ditch all the fear based b.s., conviction in evolution, etc. I send my boys to Waldorf school where they gets lots of God (in the verses, and the songs) and it’s not Jesus-centered. I also pray with them and I do teach them about Jesus, but I have never uttered the words “only way” or “hell” to them once. Unitarianism is a little too wide open for me (I was raised in a Christian church, left it, and now I like a little bit of that tradition). I did find a liberal Christian church called Unity (they have them all over) in Boulder, but I live too far. Check you city and see if there is one, might be a fit.
    Love this post, btw.

  5. This is 100% our approach.

    And we have gotten flack from our Christian friends over it.

    They say, “religion is not a choice.”

    I don’t want a “religion” for our kids, I want a “relationship” for them.

    It’s what I have, and it has made the WORLD of a difference when I needed something HUGE in my life.

    And the older I get, the bigger my relationship with God gets. It’s based on love, need, honor, admiration, gratitude. And my list goes on.
    rchit’en f

  6. This really hit a spot in my heart. I have one grown daughter and two nearly there. Over the years we have shared what we believe and allowed them to explore. We all discuss what we feel and will even argue our points but the main thing is that it is always an open discussion. We encouraged them to educate themselves and they are free to bring belief and doubt to the table. It is deeply important to me that they have faith because I have seen and felt God work in my life and have no doubt. I know I cannot ‘make’ them believe anything. I have learned that the details and full spectrum of the conclusions they have drawn are not always the most important point. Nothing could ever change my love for them and I only pray they never lose faith in that love that is larger than themselves, even if their path to it is not the one I take. I understand when you say you, ‘would be afraid for them.’ I would be sad for mine if they had nothing to believe in but it would not change my love. It’s true though that we may not agree on every point but when they say,”I do believe” my heart feels at rest.

  7. Alex, I love that you want to teach your children to make the choice on their own…while also embracing your belief, because, well it makes you so happy. I too struggle with what to teach my children. I wish it was easy like those who have no qualms about indoctrinating their children into their religion from the get go. I am one of those atheists. My parents were fairly non-religious while I was growing up, but we did go to the Methodist church when I was little, (it had a really good baseball team for my Dad) then we moved away from their church, and they never found another they quite liked so much, or one with a baseball team.

    As a teen I chose to go to a Lutheran church. I went without my parents. I loved religion, loved the comfort of it. As a young adult and college student, I studied religions along with History. For me, I found so many hypocritical beliefs, so much false information in religions that I began to doubt. Doubting and not believing is easy for me now. But in some ways, I wish I could believe because, boy would that be comforting. It would also be easy when explaining death to my kids.

    I am spiritual, I more adhere to the Buddhist belief than anything else, and I teach my kids tennents like the 10 commandments and the 8 fold path. But I just can not believe, what really caused me to question, to not believe was when my best and closest friend lost her son to SIDS. My friend has one of those lives where when you hear about it, you are thankful for everything you have. All those little inconveniences are just that, an inconvenience. She was a devout Christian, believed in the Bible, in it’s messages. She embraced religion in middle school, not from her parents. She went to church, she tried to live her life uprightly, yet she was delt the crap card in life. Alcoholic father, sexually abused, poor, married young to get away from said abusive alcoholic father, only to choose an equally messed up spouse. And then the loss of her son. I was glad she had religion. Glad she had something to hold on to in those dark days and months and years following. But, for me it made me a non-believer, the idea that God would take something so precious from someone who had done nothing but live according to what was in the Bible. That God was cruel, that God was non-comforting, for me it made me look at Buddah and his ideals in a new light. Made me see that understanding that life is suffering is more realistic than God loves me and is always there.

    For me I hope I can teach my kids to be warm compassionate people, who respect all religions, who recognize how they came to be, how they all are intertwined, and deep down how most have the same message of hope and love. If they choose to be religious, I will love them, I just hope they choose one that lets them love this atheist.

  8. I would love to find a church that spoke to me. I never have. I definitely believe in a higher power and I pray every night. I don’t really care what my kids believe as long as they are kind and want to help other people. I hope I am teaching them that.

  9. I’ve struggled with this myself. With my nearly-14-year-old, I have found that he did find meaning and comfort and the belief in something larger than himself, which is ultimately what I wanted him to have. We have open conversations, and have attended church with family members on occasion, but the one thing I want them to do is find it for themselves. It was forced down my throat– and I would never do that to my sons. There are terrifying moments when I think I’ve gone about it all wrong, and there are other moments, when I realize that things are progressing, just as they should.

  10. We pray all the time with our kids. We pray for parking spots, for food, before bed, to thank God for things…. But we just do it spontaneously as a couple – we offer sometimes if we want to pray too, but if they say no then it’s no biggie. (Most of the time they want to though).

    I am a hard-core Bible-thumping Christian (grin). It sounds so aggressive, doesn’t it? I never thought I would be that way growing up since I totally made fun of them. But nevertheless, I believe the Bible is true word for word. However – I vote left and my best friend is a hard-core Koran-thumping Muslim. I would never protest an abortion clinic even though I don’t agree with abortion in the general sense. But I do believe in people’s choice. After all, God gave us the choice whether or not to follow him.

    I don’t think that it’s impossible to reconcile Christianity with being kind, loving and accepting – all religious evidence to the contrary. So that’s how I live my life. I hope my kids follow, but I will absolutely not push them.

  11. I struggle with this too. I was raised by parents who were “saved” when I was young. I grew up in an Assemblies of God Church and so did my husband. It’s not that I believe anything different than the way I was brought up, but I don’t want my children to have the same “church” experiences that I had.
    I don’t think you can teach someone to love God, and that is where the problems lie. I want my children to love God, but I can’t teach them that. I think Church in general tries to package a love for God as something you can teach or something you can buy. Like there is a formula or a method that works better than anything else.
    I feel like I love God in spite of the church I grew up in, not because of it.
    We still go to church, and I think we found a fairly good one. But I still worry a lot about how my children will view God and if they will love him.

    This was a great post. Very thought provoking.

  12. I wrote a massive post about my own journey from Christianity to atheism, how I got there, how there is still plenty (in fact more) metaphysical wonder and mystery in my life, and how it has made me a more compassionate and tolerant person. But it was a million pages long, and it’s already been said here. So I scrap it and move on to more interesting fare in your article.

    Let me first say if all people, religious or not, thought as you do and faced up to the heavy parenting and spiritual issues as you do, we would be in a wonderful place as a society. Thank you, sincerely, for that.

    But I want to explore some of your concerns and deeply-held beliefs, in contrast with my own. In particular I’m interested in the line, “I just desperately want them to have something bigger than themselves to rely on.” I get out of this that in your life, your belief in God’s love as an unshakable constant comforts you. And naturally, you want that same comfort for your children.

    But even more interesting to me is this: “I’m cool with my children finding ANY God, Christian or not, as long as s/he is nice.” This is beyond fascinating to me, if only because it’s a sentiment I almost never heard expressed. This is something deeper, or at least different, from “do you believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth?”

    You fear, while keeping your rationality about you, that atheists are missing something in their lives that religion can provide. “Something bigger than themselves.” But not just bigger than themselves, unless I’ve misinterpreted – bigger than society, humanity, the physical universe (?). Something, in a word, supernatural. Something they can rely on.

    But can you really mean anything other than a sentient supernatural being, with the capability for emotions like love? If not, how about gravity as a bigger-than-self constant? Gravity may not emotionally comfort me when life becomes difficult – but that’s what I have my friends, family, and self-reliance for.

    I may not understand how someone of Christian, or Islam, or Jewish, or Hindu, or any other faith reconciles the positive morality lessons with the violence, intolerance, and claims of supernatural beings, miracles and divine powers present in all the sacred texts and beliefs on which each religion was founded – but I can certainly understand wanting an unshakable comfort when nothing else seems constant or caring.

    I would only suggest you think deeply, for your own peace of mind, about what exactly it is that God provides in your life (while suspending your belief, if only for a moment) that you think is difficult or impossible to have without faith in a sentient, compassionate, supernatural being. In return, I promise I will continue thinking deeply about what it is that makes so many religious people such as yourself kind, passionate, and happy people and how I can find the same in my life.

    1. Reading over the responses from the passionate and by all appearances very tolerant group here, I feel more at ease to voice the ideas that have fueled my beliefs with fear of ridicule. And believe me, while there are plenty of atheists out there who love nothing more than to give ridicule out, just about any openly atheist person can tell you what its like to receive plenty of it it as well.

      Phrases that catch my eye are ones like “let Jesus guide my choices” and “not participate in my life but BE my life.” These sentiments worry me – because as she said when these things are THE focus of your life, and you truly believe they are imperatives to SALVATION – who in the world could tell you not to push your children to the same beliefs. When this translates to doing unto others, being kind and understanding, I can scarcely bring myself to even address what is or isn’t “true” – but then I remember what joy there is in being that same sort of good-hearted, compassionate person without having to rely on something I have no reason other than tradition, convention, and a curious book to believe in.

      My life is my own! My compassion, understanding of the world, and value of life comes not from a belief that someone is watching over it all – but my understanding that WE shape our world, that our decisions and actions in this life aren’t going to be judged by a divine scorekeeper, but in the legacy we leave in the hearts minds and lives of the people and world around us.

      And if any god out there wants to punish me to an eternity of suffering for living my life based on the human values of tolerance, intelligence, compassion, and fun instead of faith in the supernatural (and I’m not saying they’re mutually exclusive! Just not…related), then have at it.

  13. I definitely sense your struggle in your post. It’s so hard to know what the right thing to do is. I agree that most churches and temples don’t always “fit” our true beliefs. It’s hard to reconcile all of our beliefs into one small ill-fitted mold. We homeschool our children in our religion because our place of worship became more of a burden to us than a help. I, too, believe in God and want my children to believe too. All we can do is teach them our beliefs and let them eventually find their own way.

  14. Way to go Alex for picking a big topic! Not just parenting but faith too! Love how you don’t shy away from the biggies. :o)
    I am Christ follower. It’s not a religion it’s an “I talk to Jesus, spend time with him, let him guide my choices and not just participate but BE my life” kinda faith. So, that has to flow into how I parent my child because it changes my goal, in fact my whole focus in parenting, that they too will have a true relationship with Christ also.
    My mom did that for me and I am so grateful. While our family was far from perfect, she modeled true Christianity for me. She loved EVERYONE. She gave until it made her uncomfortable. She made it clear that under no circumstances was I to use my faith to put someone down or isolate someone. Truly Jesus was the most “liberal” Christian there was right? I mean he socialized with prostitutes and tax collectors which back then was the most despicable job was there was. But he was also firm in his faith and message of God. That he was the one true way to salvation. Now, my kids are going to test this. I tested it and you know what? I am glad. Because then it moves from something you’re taught/book knowledge to actual FAITH. And that’s what I want. Not for them to “look good” or “be good”. But to have a faith in Christ that they know is real no matter what. That God loves them no matter what. And that what they believe in is not just a story, but life. Not a “something I do on a Sunday” thing. but Real. Life. And it will only get better in the end…even on their darkest days. Then perhaps they will be world changers and can repair what the “church” and ill meaning Christians have broken.
    We will all never see eye-to-eye on God or faith. We were created different. Yay for differences! But I do think there are some salvation issues that can’t be fuzzy. Or else Jesus was just a lunatic.

  15. A very thoughtful piece.

    Many people are trying different ways; and why not, the conventional ways are not working. The status quo is making for unhappy, violent children.

    We need to be more about spirituality than religion; more about cooperation than competition; more about education for the sake of learning than for test scores; and more about making a better world than making bigger profits.

  16. Alex, well said. I have two goals in raising our girls – to help them find their faith and teach them to make good choices. I think if we can do that, they will be able to get through life safely and happily. And that’s what I want most for them. I don’t think you are being pushy by wanting that for them and trying to show them how to achieve it. Here’s hoping we get the job done!

  17. We brought our children up in the Baptist church. We both grew up there, and I had a 20 year break before returning. My theology was very different from the original Baptist church I attended, but we considered it an open-minded group.

    We took the kids to Sunday School, and they were both baptized. They stopped going when they were about 12. We never forced him to go. When eldest was about 16 he told me I had influenced him spiritually more than anyone else in his life. This made me very happy and not a little, dare I say it, proud. A month or 2 later he told me he was agnostic, which I celebrated because I wanted him to be a seeker, etc. etc.

    Now he’s an atheist. It bothers me for a couple of reasons. It speaks to the part of me that is still afraid I am going to hell. Yes, at 47, it’s still there, which is why I find religion disturbing. It also saddens me, only because my sons’ birth mother, my husband’s first wife, died suddenly when they were 2 & 5. I want them to know they will see her again, and that she is and has always been in our lives. I choose to believe that they still believe that.

    Regarding God and religion, I always told them my wish for them is to have humility, hope and gratitude. I think our children learn all the important things by the example we set. I always wanted them to be critical thinkers, and thankfully they are. Now they can judge all of my fallibilities!

    Our youngest is an agnostic.

    1. I don’t have kids, but I one time heard a quote from Princess Diana (of all people) and wrote it down. I don’t know exactly where the quote is now, but she was talking about trying to teach her kids that their privileged lives are a blessing and many people don’t have them. She wanted them to WANT to help others in need. She said something like, “I take my sons to countries and places where people have little or nothing and try to teach them compassion. I can’t force them to have it, but I planted the seeds. It’s up to them if they nurture the seeds or not but I know I’ve done my part by planting them”. That’s not an exact quote, but it made an impact on me about what good mothering should be about. Dunno if that helps but that’s what I thought of when I read this.

  18. It’s so ironic that I’m reading this post right now, because I’ve been having a lot of the same issues. Only difference is that I don’t seem to have the faith you do. I want to, I used to, but I think I lost it somewhere. And now the question of what to expose my children to, where to guide them, where to direct them. That has been haunting me lately.

  19. “When walking the line of monotheism, rainbow flags in our front yard, a desire to spend time with families who are pro-God, a firm conviction in evolution, no willingness to believe in Satan, tears at the chorus “They will know we are Christian by our love, by our love” and a strong desire to stand up and clap along, it’s hard to find a church.”

    I could have written that line myself. ~Your newest reader

  20. I kind of wish your posts had a “Like” button for lazy people like me- I am in love with your Thoughtful Thursday posts, but I feel like I can’t post as thoughtful a comment as they deserve! I love that instead of raising your kids to follow a specific church/belief system, you are guiding them to find their own spirituality. You are one thoughtful and awesome mama.

    1. I’m so glad that you loved the book! I think there’s several although we only have that one. It’s SOOO sweet.

      And I’m glad you liked the post, too. xoxo

  21. I can certainly relate to this post. I’m a Christian but I don’t really fit the mold either, and I’m not big on forcing my son to believe anything, but then again I don’t want him to learn about God from other people, namely those who might teach him to judge people who live differently from they do! I pulled him out of preschool for many reasons, one of which was that they teach the scary stuff to three-year-olds. I don’t think he needs to know about Jesus dying on the cross yet, or someone being sold into slavery, etc. Too many people I know believe that if it’s in the Bible, a child needs to hear it. Most adults don’t understand that stuff (including me) — a three-year-old certainly won’t.

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