It's Sunday morning at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, and 8-year-old Ethan is looking a bit glum — not because he's in Sunday school rather than playing outside on a gorgeous day. Ethan and his six classmates have just begun a weekly ritual called the "joys and concerns bowl." At the beginning of class, each child takes a small stone or two, which is meant to represent something in the child's life that made him or her happy or sad that week. Then, each child shares those joys or concerns with the class and "releases" them into a bowl of water.
Ethan, who goes first, lets out a long, exaggerated sigh. "I have something sad to say," he begins. "My dad has two pet rats, a girl and a boy. One of them died. She had tumors."
"That's very sad," consoles his teacher, Brian Lloyd-Newberry.
Ethan drops his pebble into the water and passes the bowl to his left. Rory, the next child, shares a "joy": an upcoming play date with a friend after church. As the bowl moves around the circle, it fills with more joys, such as a favorite pet or toy, and concerns, such as a sick grandmother.
When the bowl returns to Ethan, he asks for another turn.
"I also have a joy," he says, more upbeat. "This is about the same rat that died. You see, she didn't die that long ago, and here's the good part. She had two babies before she died."
Discussions like this offer an opportunity to explore cycle-of-life issues with children. In fact, this particular class actively encourages students to ask hard questions about life's great mysteries: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I go after I die? And, most importantly, what kind of person do I want to be?
Unlike many other forms of religious instruction, however, this UU Society class doesn't emphasize one specific tradition or dogma. Instead, its lessons and parables are drawn from many of the world's major faiths, reflecting the UU Society's overarching goal of creating "an intentionally diverse community" of people from different racial, ethnic and spiritual backgrounds.
Explains Martha Dallas, the UU Society's director of religious education, "Unitarian Universalism focuses on asking really good questions and supporting one another. This is not a place where we give you all the answers on a plate and tell you what to believe."
Apparently, many Vermonters don't want to be given the answers. A 2009 Gallup poll found that the Green Mountain State was the "least religious" state in the country, with just 42 percent of Vermonters agreeing with the statement "Religion is an important part of my daily life." New England generally had the highest rate of "unchurched" people of any region in the country — its abundance of postcard-perfect churches notwithstanding.
Yet such findings may belie a deeper truth about Vermonters: Our minimal emphasis on religious affiliation and weekly attendance at houses of worship doesn't necessarily mean that we're less spiritual than other Americans. Indeed, many Vermonters choose to forge their own spiritual paths outside the religious mainstream.
But wherever you fall in that spectrum — whether you baptized your children or are raising them as atheists — you still have to answer those hard questions. So, what should you keep in mind when talking with kids about God, death and the Easter Bunny?
Kids VT asked some local experts on religion and spirituality for some pointers. Among the questions we posed: What's the best way to broach the subject of God and religion with kids? What should a parent tell a child if religion is more important to one parent than the other? And, is it wrong to tell kids to believe in things — whether Santa Claus or the resurrection of Jesus — if the parents themselves don't believe?
Kids VT also spoke with Vermont couples of mixed religious backgrounds and beliefs to find out how they're handling it themselves. Our conversations spanned a wide variety of topics, from Christmas trees to dietary restrictions to the pros and cons of circumcision.
Many of the parents expressed a common sentiment: When it comes to teaching children about faith and spirituality, there aren't necessarily "right" and "wrong" answers, just good questions. Oftentimes, finding the best answer is like climbing a mountain: one destination with many paths.
Talking God to toddlers: What parents say
Still Catholic at Heart
Nicci Micco and Jon Olin, Burlington
Micco and Olin were both raised observant Catholics. As a child, Micco was very involved in Catholicism and attended Mass weekly. However, as an adult, she parted ways with the church, largely over its stance on abortion and homosexuality — her uncle is gay.
Now the couple are unsure how they plan to introduce their boys, Julian, 3, and Kai, 1, to religion. Nevertheless, Micco admits that conversation is fast approaching. Recently, Julian began asking about a dead lady bug in the house.
"I didn't want to lie and say, 'The lady bug is sleeping.' I know I need to figure out how to talk about death," Micco says. "So I said, 'It's not moving. It doesn't work anymore.'"
This wasn't the first time Micco was taken off guard. Last summer, she and her husband took the boys to her grandparents' graves in western Pennsylvania. While walking through the cemetery, Julian asked about the gravestones. But rather than offering her 2-year-old an answer he could understand, Micco blurted, "Oh, there are dead people under the ground."
Wrong answer, she admits with a laugh.
"I just get so flustered thinking about death, and explaining it to him in the context of my own beliefs, that I can't even think straight," she says. "Little things like that come up that make me wish I could just say, 'Oh, people die and go to heaven,' like my parents said to me."
Today, Micco and Olin say they're still open to the idea of attending a Christian church. They both like the structure of organized religion and want that to be part of their boys' upbringing. Recently, the couple has been considering the more liberal Episcopal Church, in part because its rituals are similar to those of Catholicism
Still, Micco admits, there's something very familiar and reassuring about the Catholicism that she practiced in her youth. Years ago, when she and Olin were in Italy, they attended Mass. And though some of the service was in Italian, most was in Latin, which they both immediately recognized.
"I go and there is this comfort ... It's ingrained in my being," she says. "There is still that element that's part of our identities."
Christmas Tree and the Koran
Helene Arnold and Wafiq Faour, Richmond
Arnold was born and raised Roman Catholic but no longer practices that faith. Faour was raised Muslim in Lebanon but doesn't consider himself a practicing Muslim, mostly because he doesn't observe all five pillars of Islam.
For Arnold and Faour, religious instruction for their kids has less to do with what their children call themselves than what they know and understand. And that means learning about all the world's major faiths.
Nevertheless, Faour says it's vital for his two children — Kamli, 12, and Zane, 9 — to know religion so they understand their heritage and the history of their ancestors.
"We bring to the discussion all faiths, mainly the one-God faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam," says Faour, who studies religions extensively. Often, he draws his lessons from the Koran, Islam's holy book, because it contains elements of all three religions. "Jesus is mentioned 30 times in the Koran, Mary, 130 times, Moses, tens of times," he says. "These are our prophets, too."
Faour also fasts during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, but doesn't expect his wife or kids to do so. And, like other modern American families, Faour and Arnold also put up a Christmas tree in December and exchange presents: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," says Faour.
When I point out to him that his reference to the Romans isn't far from the historical truth — that the celebration of Christmas in late December was co-opted by the Romans from the pagan holiday of Saturnalia — he says, "Yes, I know. I teach them that, too."
The Santa Clause
Erica and Erik Andrus, Ferrisburgh
Erik was born and raised as a Quaker. Erica grew up in a nonreligious household. Her father's family were Jews who fled Lithuania in the early 20th century. Her mom's family were Protestants from Great Britain; her grandfather's family were Unitarians.
"I grew up in a household where, there was ... an attitude that religion was something humans would eventually outgrow," Erica says. "That we could live full and happy and complete lives just relying on science to answer our questions instead of religion." Ironically, Erica went on to teach religion at the University of Vermont.
Erica admits that she and her husband never explicitly discussed how their kids would be raised. But from her standpoint, it's OK if she tells their kids something different than her husband.
For her, it's been important to pass on certain Jewish traditions to her kids. "It's important to me to keep doing Passover," she says, explaining that she wants her kids to know something about their cultural identity even if they don't grow up to practice Judaism.
The Andruses also celebrate Christmas, primarily as a secular holiday. "It's like Thanksgiving with presents," she explains.
Admittedly, the couple's children are still young — 3 and 5 — so, thus far, the only real "conflict" that's arisen has been over Santa Claus. "I never believed in Santa Claus," says Erica, "but Erik believed it'd be sweet if our kids believed in him."
Their resolution: "I basicallyagreed to keep my mouth shut," says Erika. "I don't want to lie to my kids."
Rachel Jolly and Adam Walker, Burlington
Jolly was raised in a "conservative/progressive/reconstructionist" Jewish household. Walker grew up in a nonreligious Christian household. According to Jolly, her husband never expressed any interest in converting to Judaism, though she made it clear to him that if they had kids, they'd be raising them Jewish. And, that meant having a bris, or ritual circumcision.
A few months before her child was born, however, Jolly attended one and recalls it being "extremely emotional" to her. Although the experience raised doubts in her mind, Jolly says she eventually came to peace with the ancient rite as another integral part of her faith, not to be rationalized away but viewed as another symbol of one's devotion to God. And when her daughter, Shayna, was born, she admits, "I was very relieved not to have to make that decision."
Nevertheless, other religious issues have arisen in their house around child rearing — including whether to have a Christmas tree. "I really struggled with that one the last couple of years," Jolly says, "because I have some real biases about Christmas and how it's celebrated in this country. And, I have some adverse reactions to my daughter getting caught up in that."
Jolly, a member of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, emphasizes that her reaction to the symbols of Christmas has more to do with her attitudes about consumerism than anything involving her husband's family's holiday observances. But while neither Santa nor the Easter Bunny will be making appearances in their home anytime soon, Rachel says their daughter's holiday observances will continue to be "a work in progress."
A Little Bit of Everything
Harjit Dhaliwal and Jenny St. Onge, Milton
Dhaliwal was born and raised in Malaysia in the Sikh faith; St. Onge is a French Canadian raised Catholic in Montréal.
As Dhaliwal explains, their two children — Sabrina, 13, and Hannah, 10 — were baptized in a Sikh temple, primarily to please Dhaliwal's "very traditional" mother. Since then, the kids have been raised to understand and respect both religions.
St. Onge isn't a practicing Catholic anymore, but her girls have attended Mass and are familiar with Catholic rituals. Likewise, when their family visits Dhaliwal's mother in Toronto, the children know not to expect beef, a common dietary restriction among Sikhs. "My wife and I are not practicing," Dhaliwal emphasizes. "We just teach our kids what we know."
And that means giving them a healthy dose of both religions' symbols and celebrations, from Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to the Indian holiday of Diwali, or festival of light, which falls in late October or early November. "Yeah, we do it all!" Dhaliwal says with a laugh.
As for which religion his daughters will eventually adopt when they grow up, Dhaliwal seems unconcerned. "For us, religion is a guide," he says. As he tells his girls, "You can believe in whatever you want, so long as you believe that there's something bigger than us."
Talking God to toddlers: What the experts say
"Is Santa Claus stronger than Jesus?" "When does God sleep?" "If my goldfish didn't go to church, will he still go to heaven?"
Children ask questions like these all the time. Sometimes one vaguely worded response will provoke a whole line of inquiries as your child tries to assimilate new information into his or her small but expanding concept of the universe.
Some parents dread trying to explain God, death or religion to their children. If you're not a minister, rabbi or religious scholar, how do you respond? Kids VT asked some experts for advice on how to brace for the inevitable onslaught of life's big questions. Don't worry, they say, such conversations need not be stressful — or complicated.
Don't shy away from the hard conversation. "I think the most important thing is not to be afraid of it," says Erica Andrus, a lecturer in the University of Vermont's religion department. "A lot of people in our culture are intimidated by talking about religion. In some way, there's a sense that religion is private and you're not supposed to ask people about it. So it becomes this scary, mysterious thing."
Keep it simple and let your child lead. A question such as "What is God?" doesn't have to provoke a two-hour explanation of the origins of the Holy Trinity. Don't get hung up on names and terminologies. Martha Dallas, director of religious education at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, suggests that when a child asks one of life's big questions, it's important to gauge his or her attention span, interest and maturity level. Sometimes, a simple age-appropriate response will suffice. "Then you see if the kid wants to keep talking or if that quiets them down for the time being," she says.
Seek professional help. Most members of the clergy or their education staffs are more than happy to offer suggestions and material for introducing religious ideas to young people. Many houses of worship have resource libraries with books, CDs and videos designed to help children learn the origins and meanings of holidays, rituals and festivals.
Be true to your own beliefs, but teach tolerance. Both Andrus and Dallas urge parents who feel strongly about their own faith to stay true to it. If a certain observance or ritual is important to you, explain and share it with your kids. But parents shouldn't be afraid to teach their kids that different people have different worldviews. It's one way to foster a respect and understanding for all differences.
If faith is important to you, make it a regular part of your kids' lives. "There is an old saying: 'Faith is caught more than it is taught,'" suggests Monsignor John McDermott of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. "If children have been raised in a household where prayer and faith are a regular part of everyday life, and not just on the occasional Sunday or holy day, the more likely the faith will take root in the children's lives." A daily acknowledgment of faith doesn't have to mean formal worship or religious education. Something as simple as slowing down to reflect on a beautiful sunset or the appearance of the first robins of spring can be enough to instill in a young mind a curiosity and wonder about the miracles of life.
Be prepared. Couples or caregivers should decide in advance what they want to teach the little ones. In situations in which one party holds stronger religious beliefs than the other, it's advisable that the two negotiate their approach to religious upbringing in advance, before broaching those topics with the kids.
Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know. What do you think?" "Parents are godlike figures in the life of a toddler," says Dallas. "They have these powers that are beyond the comprehension of a little child." That said, it's not a bad thing for children to discover early on that some questions don't have definitive answers. Children who are encouraged from an early age to be inquisitive are more likely to become lifelong learners. Listen to what they have to say and embrace these moments as opportunities to stoke your child's curiosity and imagination — and your own.