TEN COMMANDMENTS ARE NOT ENOUGH FOR A TODDLER: Teaching morality from a secular point of view.

This article was originally published in the Premiere issue of The MotherHood Magazine, March 2006. In it we speak with our dear friend, Rabbi Nina H. Mandel of Congregation Beth El in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. We were inspired to reprint it here by our friend from Twitter, Bruce Van Horn (@BruceVH). Thanks Bruce, and Nina!

One spring a robin built her nest above our porch light. I was delighted to have an opportunity to teach Alice about the birds and the bees (literally). So, I ran to the local library for books on robins. When we got home, our cat, Peanut, had decapitated a bird and left it by the back door. Different lesson!

Alice asked what happened to the bird. I explained that the bird was dead; Peanut had probably killed her, cats do that sometimes. “Mommy?” she asked. “Will you take care of the bird now?” Before I could think about my answer, I said, “No, baby. God will take care of her now.”

Well, I’m a lapsed Catholic. So is my husband. He gave up his belief in God a long time ago. Me, I’m not sure what I believe. I began to wonder what I was going to tell Alice next. What could I tell her about morality and sin? Can I preach with any authority given my own uncertainty about the big questions? I decided to ask the only expert on God that I personally know and trust, Rabbi Nina Mandel, a Reconstructionist Rabbi with a congregation in Sunbury, PA.

PDJ: So, Rabbi, did I do wrong in telling Alice God was involved?

RABBI MANDEL: First, let’s get rid of the language of “right and wrong.” Too often it’s the language of guilt. What you’re really asking is: “Was I good or bad mother in this situation.” What you did was tell your 2 & 1/2 year old something to comfort her, that’s what good parents do. (If you had said, “no, this is what happens to babies who are bad —their mommies let them get beheaded and then no one takes care of them,” that would be bad.)

Let’s look at her question, which is a great one and very telling: she asks, “Mommy, will you take care of the bird now?” How wonderful that she recognizes that the bird needs care, and that she knows you to be one of the people in her life who takes care of things when they go wrong. What she wanted was to know if Mommy could handle even this new situation. Your answer, “God will take care of her now,” implies that there may be situations which Mommy can’t fix, but there is some greater force, which we can’t see, that handles many of these scenarios.

PDJ: I do believe I have an obligation to teach Alice that there are greater forces in the world than Mommy and Daddy.

RABBI MANDEL: We often idealize about children as spiritually pure and insightful little beings and in some ways they may be. However, just as there are stages in your child’s learning and emotional development, there are stages in her spiritual development. It’s no surprise that the images children often learn about God relate the Divine to a parent. Look at all the bible stories that focus on babies: baby Moses, baby Jesus, and baby Samson, the young David. We convey spirituality in ways that children can understand, – often in terms of primary relationships that can be mirrored in their own life experience.

As they get older, the lessons may become more complex as children’s thinking becomes more complex. They begin to question the idea of a force they can’t see controlling their lives, they may rebel against organized forms of religion, they may focus or fixate on a tradition very different than their own. All of this is part of their process of ideation.

It’s normal. The bigger problem is that in many cases, we, and our children, never get beyond that “pediatric religion.” In Jewish communities it is fairly common for children to end their formal Jewish education at age 13.

PDJ: In Catholic communities as well.

RABBI MANDEL: That means that while their thinking about life, death, morality, good, and evil will progress and become more complex and informed as they age, they don’t end up having a similarly maturing concept of God or the role of their faith in their lives. I often find myself asking adults to tell me about the God they don’t believe in. “He” is usually old, with a beard, who sits in heaven judging and handing out reward or punishment. In this scenario, God is not much more than a supernatural Gepetto, controlling us from above and holding out the promise of reward if only we do the right thing. Most of these adults are surprised to learn that I don’t believe in that God either.

So it is not uncommon for adults to not have a clear idea about what they believe. This can pose a challenge when Alice asks the next logical question: “Who is God?” It is natural to revert back to what we instinctively think about God, even if we aren’t comfortable with that image for ourselves. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, in most cases, unless your child isn’t allowed room to explore and question God, as she is ready. For those uncomfortable with perpetuating the anthropomorphic idea of God, a different way of asking the question is “What is God?” Your answer to that question might be “God is a power in the world that can help us do good things and help other people.”

PDJ: I can live with that concept. Right now, for me, God is the power of people joined together in love and good intention.

RABBI MANDEL: As your child ages that explanation will become more complex: God as the impulse to do good; as the energy created when people work for justice; as the power to find love and relationship in the world; as the energy to support you in a time of crisis. There is a wonderful little book called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel. It’s geared towards Jewish parents but it gives great examples of how to use your faith tradition to, in her words, “raise self-reliant children.”

Part of the job of being a parent is imparting a sense of right and wrong, social responsibility, ethical decision-making skills. Religion can help you do that. I liken it to a paint box. Depending on your beliefs or your tradition, your paint box is going to be stocked with the colors and brushes needed to fill in your life. Maybe it includes Jesus, maybe Allah, maybe the mitzvah system. Periodically you may need to sort through that box and get rid of the dried up tubes of paint that no longer work, or revive the ones that you haven’t used in a while.

PDJ: …and perhaps even change from paint to pencils, to allow for mistakes.

RABBI MANDEL: However you work the metaphor, your religious tradition should be an enhancement to parenting. The idea that you are going to let your children figure out on their own about matters of faith should be counterintuitive. You wouldn’t expect your children to learn math or science on their own, so why should they have to learn these other important skills without support.

I also understand that there are people who would rather lose a limb than engage their children either in organized religion or in the faith of their own childhood. This doesn’t mean you can just ignore the issue. We live in a time when the term Christian-values is invoked as the reason to do just about everything. Your child will be exposed to faith and God talk whether you like it or not, so you need to be prepared. One day she will come home from kindergarten and ask “Mommy, what are we?” The answer to that question should not be based on when you get presents in winter.

In addition to, or perhaps instead of, grappling with your own idea of God, try creating a moral inventory for yourself, with your partner. Ask yourselves what values you want to impart to your children about love, relationships, responsibility, health, their bodies, their sexuality, money, and whatever else is really important to you. Go for broad strokes at first: truth, respect, tolerance, and then parse out what you mean. Most importantly, figure out how to model that in your life through your own relationships and work.
Religion, technology,  divorce, au pairs and babysitters: we’re talking about it all in our new series, The Modern Village: Continuing Education for Parents. Click here for complete information on our classes in Maplewood, NJ and Manhattan. Series starts: Thursday, October 4.

Lisa Duggan

Lisa Duggan is the Founder and CEO of The Modern Village, and publisher of TheParentduJour.com and TheMotherHoodBlog.com.

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