Something funny happened the other day. The mother of my kids’ friend brought my daughter back home after a play date, and asked if she could speak to me privately for a second. At these words, I felt a chill, because my daughter is something of a loose cannon. She is five years old, and has silky, honey-colored hair, large doe eyes, dimpled cheeks like a rose in bloom—and the mind of an unhinged baboon. Not to mention that she idolizes her brothers, ages 7 and 9, and strives mightily to keep up with their sophisticated culture of violence and poop jokes.
So I was worried. But the mother was concerned about something different: It seems that my daughter somehow found out that her daughter, who is four, doesn’t believe in God. And my daughter’s tactful response was, “You don’t believe in GOD?!?!?!? You don’t BELIEVE in God?!?!?! YOU don’t believe in God?!?!?! You DON’T believe in God?!?!?!” and so on for several minutes.
I admit, I laughed and laughed when I heard this. And I was glad to hear that the idea of atheism had never occurred to her. It was as if someone had said, “Oh, I don’t believe in the color blue.” Inconceivable!
But I realized that I really needed to speak to her. There is a time for evangelization, but letting the 5-year-old tell the 4-year-old that her worldview is nutty is not the best way to bring people to Christ. The girl’s mother was really nice about it. She said she wasn’t upset, but that she had had to cut off ties from another religious family in the past. It seems her son mentioned Halloween, and the religious child gave him a long lecture about how many years he would spend in Hell for dressing up as Michelangelo the turtle. (I’d cut off ties with that family, too!)
The mother said that she finds herself in an awkward position pretty often, because she doesn’t feel that it’s right to celebrate the secular parts of Easter and Christmas, since they are at least originally religious holidays. Their family celebrates the Solstice and so on, but she isn’t sure what to say when her kids ask why everyone else is making such a fuss over their holidays. She’s not the type of person to sneer, “Well, children, some idiots are so benighted that they still believe in fairy tales, and that’s why everything at Target is red and green right now.” But she doesn’t need my kid treating her kid like a freak.
I want my daughter and her daughter to be friends, so I explained to my girl that I was happy and proud that she wanted to talk about God; but that her friend was very young, and we didn’t want to upset her mother. It’s good to talk about God, but it’s not good to upset people, especially kids or moms. So next time she felt like talking about God, she should say a silent prayer instead: “God, please help my friend believe in You some day.”
I know some people will say, “But we have an obligation to spread the word of God, so the heck with the parents—the kid deserves to know the truth.” I think this bombastic approach can be very damaging to a child. It will not help you achieve your goals, and it doesn’t show respect for the authority of the parents. (And no, I don’t believe in letting my children play only with other Catholics. I believe in letting them play only with decent people, which this family is.)
On the other hand, I don’t want my kids ever to be ashamed of their faith, or to feel like it’s something that polite people don’t talk about. But I need them to understand that timing, context and tone are extremely important—but timing, context and tone are far beyond the reach of any 5-year-old.
What do you think? Have you ever come across a situation like this? What if the friend were a little bit older—say, 12—and the parents were atheists, but the child was curious about God? I’m especially interested to hear from people who’ve had experience with this situation. What did you do, and how did it turn out?