This was strange for two reasons. First, she was pointing to a Golden Corral. And secondly, we don’t talk to her much about God.
You are probably shocked and thinking to yourself, “Wait, what?! That’s awful! If anyone made Golden Corral, it was Satan!” And perhaps it might seem a little strange that the daughter of a chaplain, ordained minister, and devoted spiritual blogger (if not really an author) would not talk to his child about God. You would think God was important to me and that I would be talking about God all the time to my own child, right?
You know what else is important to me? Sharing my financial resources with people and communities who don’t have as much as I do. Supporting political causes that give voice to those who are marginalized. Being faithful to my spouse. Engaging in a regular process of self-reflection and moral examination. And I don’t talk about these things with my daughter either. You know why? Because she’s not even three yet.
We tend to forgive toddlers for not understanding complicated philosophical concepts such as justice, mercy and truth. I wrote a few weeks ago about my daughter’s lack of the developmental capacity to think operationally, which means she lives in a world where fantasy and reality are indistinguishable. A three-year-old can’t understand why a short wide glass holds the same amount of water as a tall skinny glass, so she sure can’t understand why a person might be willing to die for an abstract belief. So I’m struck that we as a culture quickly accept that children can’t understand a concept like “integrity” or “righteousness” and yet we want them to understand a concept like “God” as soon as they are able to talk.
It’s quite hypocritical, really. I mean, do you really understand God? If you think you do, I invite you to read Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics Vol. II.1 and get back to me. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Actually, no, I’m not going to wait, because I’d never see you again. Entire libraries have been written throughout history trying to explain and comprehend the mysteries of divinity, and yet we try to teach our children as soon as they’re in their cradles who or what God is. So read this line very carefully: they are not capable of understanding. On New Year’s Eve this year, Curly Fries asked us if Santa was coming back that night. She doesn’t even understand how Santa Claus works! How could we possibly expect her to understand how God works?
I can hear the protests now. “But don’t you want her to learn? Don’t you think it’s important to start educating children early about our beliefs and values?” Yes, of course. But if you start too early you not only waste the education, you actually harm your children. That’s right, I said it: it is harmful to give your child religious instruction too early. It’s confusing, frightening, and developmentally inappropriate. It turns the rich and complex experience of faith into a pedagogical trick and gives children the impression that parents don’t trust them to grow up at a natural and normal pace.
Teaching your child to believe in God before they have the capacity to believe in anything is counterproductive because it creates an atmosphere of anxiety and conditionality. It would be just as harmful to treat a two-year-old as if she should already be potty-trained. Putting a two-year-old in underwear and expressing disappointment when she wets them doesn’t help her learn to want to be potty-trained; it teaches her that she, by her very nature, is a disappointment to the people she depends upon for love and support. Might it eventually lead to her being potty-trained sooner? Perhaps, but it won’t be out of achievement and growth; it would be out of fear and anxiety.
Coming back to Curly Fries and her surprising announcement that God made Golden Corral, one might ask – as indeed we did when she uttered this declaration – where she got such an idea. If we’re not teaching her all about God, where did this come from? Well, we take her to church. She plays in the nursery and has some activities that center around Bible stories. She hears us talk about God to each other. No doubt she heard from someone in the community of faith in which we are a part that God made everything, and “everything” includes the Golden Corral. Just because the values and beliefs of her parents and her parents’ household are not forced on her doesn’t mean that they are hidden or concealed from her. Developmental psychologist D.W. Winnicott likens values and beliefs to toys in a child’s room. They are there for the child to discover on her own, to play with when and if her curiosity finds them. In his 1962 speech “Morals and Education,” he writes, “An appreciation of the sublime should be a personal achievement, not an implant.”
Curly Fries is inordinately attached to a few toys, without which she cannot sleep. There is her “blankie,” a fuzzy green blanket that was given to us before she was born. And there’s her pink lovey bear, which is named Abby. We had to buy a second one simply so we could give her one while we washed the other. Her room is filled with animals and blankets and other toys, but she discovered these two on her own; we didn’t force her to get attached to Abby. We didn’t name Abby; she did. We put these things in her environment, and she discovered them on her own.
That’s not at all to downplay our parental role in this. She may have discovered and named Abby as her lovey that she cannot sleep or live without, but we are the ones who supplied her environment with Abby. Her sublime attachment to Abby was her own personal achievement, but we are the ones who assured that her environment was conducive to her discovering such a thing. Values and beliefs are the same way. Our role is not to teach her what to believe, but to supply her with an environment within which will be the values and beliefs we want her to discover. At this stage, our job is not to educate her, but to love her.
Of course, there will come a day when she is old enough to start exploring more abstract concepts. Roles change at that point, and we will engage in more direct education. But even then, the purpose of the education is not to inject our beliefs into her, but to encourage her to discover them for herself. I’m sure all of us know people who were raised in the church and have since left it as adults, with no interest or perhaps even active resistance. This is what results when something is taught out of anxiety and conditionality. But if left to discover what is meaningful and powerful, we find our way back to the experiences that most resonate with us.
I imagine that Curly Fries was just as surprised as we were by her declaration of Golden Corral’s divine origins. She was trying something on, seeing how it fit. We played along. “Really?” we said. “Maybe God did make that. God made lots of things!” It wasn’t a “teaching moment,” it was a “discovering moment.” Our role is not to teach, but to provide opportunities to discover. As Winnicott writes, “You must help [your child] to find…treasures. In the area of living this implies that you provide your child with an example, not better than you really are, not dishonest, but tolerably decent.”
Who really understands what “God” means? I don’t. But I do understand what it means to feel loved and supported and affirmed. I understand how amazing it is to discover something new and exciting and life-giving. If I can give that experience to my child, then I really probably don’t need to worry about teaching her the doctrines of my faith. She will find them for herself, and they will be strange and interesting truths that she will know deep in her soul because they are her own. Because if God made Golden Corral, well… the theological implications of that can go on forever.