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How To Teach Religion In The Face of Uncertainty

Child prays at vacation bible school.
Lance Cpl. Joseph Abrego
Dept of Defense
Child prays at vacation bible school.

For parents who like to provide concrete answers when their children ask questions, the topics of God, faith and spirituality can be especially tricky. Parents who themselves are not sure what to believe are sometimes at even more of a loss when talking to their children about religion.

As a children’s pastor, Anna Skates has counseled families as they navigate these somewhat confusing and abstract conversations. Skates will give a presentation entitled "How to Talk to Kids When You Don’t Know What You Believe" at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina July 14 at 1 p.m. 

Host Frank Stasio talks with Anna Skates about the questions children ask and how parents can constructively respond.


On providing concrete answers about religion to kids:

I think what is interesting about, often, adults’ approach to kids is we see their questions as – like you said – they need these concrete answers. They’re looking to us to answer their questions specifically. But in my approach, I look at it as, what if your concrete answer to their questions is just your presence and just your validation of their questions? 
Dr. Lisa Miller wrote this beautiful  book about the spiritual child, and her whole thing is … Your kids are asking you questions, and they are looking to you for answers. But more than anything they're asking you these questions – sometimes the big questions – less to get a concrete answer from you but more to feel validated in their wondering and in their questioning. And so perhaps we as adults and as parents can look at those questions and see our concrete answers less as, ‘We need to give them X, Y, Z,’ but rather like, ‘I just need to be here with them and journey alongside them as they ask these questions.’ 

On how we think about providing answers to kids:

In any other realm of information we don’t feel the need to give our kid everything all at once right now. We’re okay to let it be gradual. But for some reason I think a lot of us, when it comes to these sort of religious or spiritual questions, feel like we need to have it all figured out for them right now. And you don’t! It’s really okay to tell your kid, “Gosh, I don’t know. What do you think?” Like maybe ask them what they think. Because likely, they’re asking that question with something already in mind. So ask them about it … Help them unpack their question a little bit and just be with them in that moment. I think that’s the most important thing you can do. 

On the fear that encouraging inquiry will lead away from current doctrine and community:

If your spirituality and if your journey is important to you, you have to allow yourself to not be bound by tradition or creed or doctrine. Because ultimately, that is going to fuel and continue to work that spiritual muscle within you so that it doesn’t atrophy and die within this space that doesn’t feed you anymore. Paul Tillich, who is a systematic theologian and philosopher from the 20th century, talks about religion and religious symbol and rituals. And he says when they stop pointing to “ultimate concern,” they become idols. Ultimate concern being that which is capital ‘T’ Truth to you or feels like capital ‘T’ Truth. When those things cease drawing you into that space, they’re idols at that point. They serve no purpose, ultimately. So I think I would just push people into that. Whatever is drawing you to ultimate concern – you and your family – create that space, enter into that space. Because that’s ultimately what is going to be healthiest for you and your kids on your journey. 


Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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