Parenting

Do our Kids Really Believe in God?

October 17, 2018

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the sense I have that there isn’t enough talk about God in schools. By this I mean not that you don’t hear the Name being mentioned–certainly in a Chumash or Navi class it is (almost) unavoidable–but rather that we don’t always talk about Him as if He is in the here and now. Nor do we talk much about our relationship with God, our struggles or beliefs or faith in general. There are lots of reasons for this as it relates to schools, and I have been exploring ideas lately for how to make our classes more “spiritual,” but in the present context it pays to think about how much God-talk goes on at home.

One reason for this absence (outside of the fact that many of us are uncomfortable with it. Why is that?) is that in Jewish life so much of our faith is dictated not only by belief but by practice. Halakhah is all about what you do rather than about what you believe. Whether or not someone is considered “religious” is often a description of how observant they are rather than whether they ascribe to a certain set of beliefs. It has always seemed to me that this is less true in those faith communities where there is no halakhah per se. And so, consider the advice of Justin Barrett a Christian theologian from Oxford who published a book called Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief.  Barrett, taking some cues from cognitive, evolutionary and psychological studies, believes that young children’s brains are wired toward belief; not toward a particular belief, mind you, but toward belief in general. As such, some of his suggestions can apply to any of us who seek to parent religiously.

1. “Start early.”
If kids can handle thinking about God from very early ages, then we do them and ourselves a disservice by not speaking about God more.  Children are automatically (= cognitively) inclined to see patterns in the natural world and to see function and purpose there. I once described the practice of someone who gave his children a small amount of money every time they could point to a place in the world where God’s presence was to be discerned. There is also some evidence to suggest that kids can “do” philosophy if it is framed the right way. Asking young children about God — Do you think God can see into this closed box? Where do you think Hashem lives? — is not only important cognitive training. It is also important training of the soul, even if we don’t always have the answers to our own questions.

2. “Don’t say you believe in it or have faith in it; talk as if there is no question about it.”
When people talk about germs or oxygen, they don’t say “I believe in oxygen. I believe that oxygen is here around us.” Nor do we say “I believe in that chair” or “I have faith in the chair.” Yet we do often use those words when we talk about religion. For young children in particular, that may be an introduction to doubt. There is plenty of time for kids to have those doubts as they grow older. We know that parents are powerful influences, indeed, the most powerful influence in how children come to live a religious life. There is therefore a big difference between a parent saying “I believe in God” versus her saying “I trust in God,” or “I rely on God;” “I davened” versus “I had a conversation with God.” Always talk about God as if He is real, not only because He is, but because our kids need to know that we think He is.

In this vein, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski tells the following story: “I thought I knew something about prayer, but I found out otherwise. I was at the Kotel saying tehillim and thinking that I was really praying. I saw a blind man being led down to the Kotel. He ran his fingers over the stones, feeling thousands of years of history. Then he kissed the Wall, and began talking to God. He spoke very rapidly, and I could not understand anything he said. Abruptly he stopped, paused momentarily, then said, “Ok, I told you about that yesterday,” and resumed his communication. I realized that he was really communicating with God, and knew that He listened. I resumed saying tehillim, but with a much different kavanah.

3. “Talk about God in actual contexts in which God’s action can be detected.”
Fairy tales are all about fantasy and young kids are remarkably adept at discerning the difference between “once upon a time” and the time in which they live. Yet too often people talk about God as if He were only alive in Biblical times, causing the Sea to split or the sun to stop or striking down enemies by opening up the ground. If, however, God is to be real, then He must be alive in the present and we need to tell kids that He is a force at work in our lives as well. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t natural phenomena or processes that cause events to take place. But there is also a First Cause behind them all. “I felt Hashem’s presence when that happened.” “I saw Hashem’s hand in history when I lived through that.” “Let’s not forget next time we daven to thank Hashem for what just happened.”

4. “Use religious ideas in mundane circumstances and not just special ones.” 
To take but one example: consider the importance of using phrases like Barukh Hashem, usually meaning “Thank God.” It’s one example of acknowledging God’s presence in our lives at all times and not just in the good times. Kids need to hear the language of God-talk in all aspects of life so that it can be seen as a natural and organic part of their lives. Of course, it needs to be uttered with the right feeling and tone as if we really mean it so that it doesn’t become as mundane as “have a nice day.” As Rabbi Lord Sacks has pointed out:  “In the shtetls, where Jews were poor and persecuted but deeply religious, if you asked: “How is business? the answer would come back: Barukh Hashem. How is the family? Barukh Hashem. Your health? Barukh Hashem. You might be ill, your children rebellious, your business terrible, but you thanked God. Jews knew how to rejoice in the midst of hardship. They laughed, they celebrated, they had the gift of simchah, the Jewish word for joy. They were not fools. They knew their fate was wretched. But they felt close to God. After all, He prayed in the same synagogue that they did.”

Barrett has some other suggestions but I trust you get the point. In this he follows the lead of some theorists in England who maintain that even if we are hardwired for belief, as we get older society forces us to suppress or repress and lose touch with those feelings and inclinations. As such, whether or not children ultimately will believe and whether they decide to do so Jewishly, has much to do with us. But there is little hope that they will walk the walk unless we continue to talk the talk.

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Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.