Figuring out how to talk to my daughters about religion

little girl holding candle looking down at it

Katherine Sargent


My daughter Ena asks big questions. Do alternate dimensions exist? Can I trust people who believe in them? Can I believe in them myself, and have that be okay?  She thinks about the universe, heaven, souls, vastness and all of the things that can’t be known. And it confuses her, but she’s not scared. She is certain that there are worlds inside of her and galaxies outside, spreading to infinity. Everything is both big and small.

When it comes to big questions, I let my children lead. I have two daughters, now eight and nine. I listen to what they want to know, and let things come up organically. Christmas, of course, is littered with questions about religion.  There are questions in holiday cards and roadside nativities. Who is that guy? Why are there so many donkeys? Each Hanukkah, I read a story of a girl who wants a Christmas tree, but instead finds meaning in her menorah and latkes. Museums are filled with questions too, like crucifixes, holy wars, and Buddha statues. At school, Ena’s best friend wears a hijab. So many different colors, sometimes with rhinestones. They’re so pretty. Why?

I never tell my daughters what’s real or what to believe, but simply lend definitions. The girls take the information I give them and run with it, let their imaginations go wild. I hear them talking through their thoughts, spinning wild inaccuracies, and I let it go. They’re working together. They’re wondering.

My nine-year-old, Matilda, is attracted to pagan ideas. She wants to create mandalas with sticks and rocks. She likes to sit in the wind, close her eyes and listen. She wants to summon demons with black candles in her bedroom. She knows that she will not and cannot summon a demon, but there’s an energy behind the idea that she wants to touch. She’s interested in dead things—collects skulls and bones and butterflies in glass. I think she sees peace in them. Matilda accepts death. Ena holds on and asks, asks, asks.

In my own youth, my brother and I had gone through the motions of communion at my mother’s Catholic church but, even as a child, I had a sense that this didn’t hold much spiritual importance for my parents. We were merely ticking off a box, doing what was expected for our grandparents. My mother’s mother was an adamant church goer, as were my Baptist grandparents on my father’s side. 

At home, we didn’t talk about Jesus or the things that we were told on Sundays.  I didn’t wonder about what any of it meant and, to my memory, I was never encouraged to. If I sat through my bible lessons quietly and didn’t misbehave, I was doing everything that was required. Once my post-communion party was over, church became a place we visited only on holidays. My prize—a 14-karat-gold cross—served as a point of pride, my first real jewelry, and not as a symbol of a promise I’d made.

Towards the end of my Baptist grandfather’s life, he started a new practice around the dinner table. After blessing our meal of baked beans and macaroni, he’d begin a carefully planned speech. As a deeply religious man, it weighed on him heavily that his family had strayed from the church. Pray. He’d urge us. Find God. I’m scared to leave you this way. No one would say anything back. We’d sit as a family in awkward silence until my aunt would venture to say, “The chicken looks good. Let’s eat!” He’d dig into his meal with a look of utter disappointment on his pale face. 

I felt guilty, and talked to my now ex-husband, Alex, about my feelings. He encouraged me to be honest about my conflict and tell my grandfather whatever I could that was true. In the letter I wrote, I said the hard thing. I wouldn’t be attending church and neither would my children. But I reminded him that I’d had a lifetime of learning from him, and of absorbing his values. He taught me so much about family, devotion and love. I promised that I’d teach all of that to my own children. I told him, also, about an exercise I’d recently started with my daughters.

At the time, we lived in a little house on a busy street corner. We were often seated at our kitchen table by the window, where the girls would watch cars drive by, dogs amble down the street and our neighbor’s confused chickens scramble out into traffic. One day, an ambulance shot past our house as we sat eating pancakes.

“Why it make that noise?” Ena asked.

“Well, someone needs help, and the truck needs to get there fast. So it’s telling everyone, GET OUT OF THE WAY! I’m coming to rescue you!”

Ena looked concerned.

“When we hear that sound,” I said, “we can whisper, I hope you’re okay. And we can thank the people in the truck for helping. You can hold a good thought in your heart for whoever the truck is racing to.”

The three of us said these words, and it became our practice whenever a siren passed our house. Sometimes, Matilda would ball her first over her heart and release it towards the window, sending her good thoughts into the world. The girls were so young then, just two and three years old. There was so little that they could understand. But I hoped I was teaching them what I believed to be at the bottom of most spiritual practices—care about one another and be good.

I hoped by my grandfather knowing this, he would feel a small amount of comfort. That his values did reach me and my family. I wasn’t raising heathens. But I also knew that I needed to follow my own gut. To give my daughters a choice. To make spirituality a conversation and not an order. I wanted my girls to engage with their own thoughts about religion, death, humanity and the many secrets of the universe. These were the matters that consumed me, and I wished only that my children would follow in my good intentions.

Now that my girls are older, they’ve started coming to their own conclusions about life, and their beliefs are always evolving. Maybe someday their thoughts will settle into some specific idea or common religious practice, and that would be fine by me. Maybe they will settle into nothing. For the time being, Ena has decided that if there is one God, there are many. It seems obvious to her, a given.

“Why did the Gods make things this way?” she’ll ask.

“Why do the Gods make people die?”

For a while, she asked if it was okay for us to pray to them before we ate, like she’d seen done before. We’re grateful for our food, and for our lives. Thank you, Gods. She says that the Gods are both male and female at once. She talks about them often. She wonders about what they want and how they perceive things. She says they’ll come back to earth. This isn’t a bad thing. She speaks of them like cherubs. Or like puppy dogs descending from the clouds. One for each human that has died.

Ena is a kind and sensitive person. She can tell when someone is sad and will give them a hug. She imagines wonderful things, like castles filled with pizza where anyone could come to eat. She thinks often of what she can give to people—unexpected gifts and surprises. She says that, when she’s older, she wants to have a job that helps people, probably a teacher.

Ena believes in magic. Not like what magicians do, she knows that those are tricks. But she believes that magical things happen every day, all over the world, and we’re always looking for them. She radiates warmth, even when she’s sleeping, even when she’s sad. The things she believes in, I believe in them too.

Katherine Sargent is a non-profit development & communications coordinator and writer living in Portland, Maine. She is a single mother to two wild and wonderful adventure buddies.

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