The God of Toddlers – Explaining God to my three year old

“Maman, what does “Adonaï” mean?”

I knew the question would come up at some point, when Samuel would start wondering what the Hebrew words we say every morning, most nights and on Shabbat mean. I had tried as best I could to prepare an answer that would suit his understanding of the world, but at that point, I did not feel I had found a good one.

I had looked at a few children’s books and websites on the topic (see below), but found that even the better ones of the lot tended to circumvent the answer rather than give one.  I had asked a few friends and family members how they did it with their kids, but knew that what had worked for them would not work for me:

I cannot explain God to my children as a sort of all powerful, omniscient, omnipresent human-like figure who watches, rewards and punishes everything they do, because that is not my understanding of God.

I find it creepy. It reminds of the disturbing Christmas song (“he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…) that, for all the jolliness of its tune, is bound to elicit a few nightmares in young minds.  It makes God into a somewhat scary, authoritarian grandfather figure who must be obeyed, instead of a source of awe, moral fortitude and inspiration. Young children have enough anxieties as it is, I don’t need to give Samuel another reason to summon me in the middle of the night. Plus, it would take all of three days before his clever toddler mind found a way to use it to his advantage. (“Sam, what do you think you’re doing, going through my drawer?” “Don’t worry maman, God said it’s OK.”) Finally, even his young mind is able to see that bad things happen to good people, and that reality simply doesn’t jive with that representation of God.

So, I knew what I did not want to say, but I was not sure what to say when Samuel asked this all important question. I started with the simplest answer:

“That is one of the names we give to God, because we don’t know its real name.”
“What’s God??”

Oh boy, here we go… “Er… I…”

And then, a flash of inspiration hit. Out of my improvised answer, basically, came the God of B’rechit (Genesis). I didn’t have that far to look after all:

– “Well, we’re not sure exactly, but it is what created the plants and all the animals, the Earth and the sky, the rivers, the stars, the sun and the moon, and people too.”
– “And snow too?”
– “Yes, snow too.”
– “And also castles?”
– “No, actually, people build castles. God made all the things we need to build them, like sand and stones and water and wood, and people build castles.”

It’s not perfect, but it is simple enough to grow as his curiosity and intellect develop. For the time being, it did exactly what it was supposed to do:

When we say our brachot  (blessings) and prayers now, Samuel will have an idea of whom (or what) we are thanking: not an intimidating figure who is always watching him, but the source of all Life and of all the things people needs to build castles.

I figure this will hold until Passover comes around and we have to explain a God who sends things like pestilence and slays an entire people’s first-borns to free another (ours…) from bondage. That gives me a good, what, six weeks, to come up with something decent?  Oh boy, here we go…

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3 thoughts on “The God of Toddlers – Explaining God to my three year old

  1. Zhu says:

    This is funny because even as a neutral atheist (i.e. the “meh, just don’t know” kind of person, not the “I shall prove you there is no God!”), I wondered recently how to eventually explain the concept of religion to a kid. When we were in Mexico, we visited several churches and cathedrals because… well, I don’t know. Because religion is a big part of so many people’s lives that you can’t really ignore it, I guess. Because maybe, deep down, I want to give Mark “options”: I shall cut all ties with him if he becomes a Justin Bieber fan but I wouldn’t mind if, growing up, he becomes religious–any religion.

    I have time though. I think…? 😆

    I think (again, as an atheist) the concept of God can be a powerful ally in someone’s life. Because we all need to believe in something, someone, somewhere.

    • What a great gift you are giving your kid: to not fear our wonderful crazy world, but to understand it. I think what matters is that sense of awe, that curiosity. I am raising my kids Jewish, so that will be their launching base, so to speak, but I do hope they make it their own and become students of the whole world, not just Judaïsm. Le monde est grand, la vie est courte!

  2. Zhu says:

    I agree with you on the sense of curiosity. The great part with kids is that they ask questions, demand answers and are willing to embrace pretty much anything. They make you reconsider everything, from your house (“really, that many Lego can fit it under the couch?!”) to life (multitasking, anyone?). It’s up to us, the parents, to show the way and to be as open-minded as we can 🙂

    I think religion can give them a sense of direction, a sense of belonging. And I see this in a very positive way as long as the parents are also students of the world… which I know you are 🙂

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