How can I explain religion to my 3 year old without sounding like a liar?

Our neighbours had a dog. A giant, fluffy, friendly, chilled out golden retriever called Max. He was pretty old and really ill. He’d sit on their porch watching the world go by while the little man would come and give him fuss and love in a way that only a 3 year old can. So when Max died and they got a new puppy we had some explaining to do.

The little man took it pretty well and seemed to understand. I was as honest as I could be but I tried not relate it to people. I think that would have been too much at once. Occasionally now he’ll ask about Max or accidentally call the new puppy Max and I have to remind him that he’s gone. I’m hoping this reiterates the permanency of death in the most sensitive way I can muster.

Well last night, during our bedtime conversation, the subject came up again. He said something which had me stumped. I couldn’t come up with an answer that I’d believe let alone trying to convince a 3 year old.

I was explaining that when things die they go to heaven, dogs included. “But you said Max is buried in their garden” This is true. He’s even seen the grave. I then had to try to explain soul. I came up with that it’s your personality, it’s what is inside that goes to heaven and your body stays on Earth.

“So how do I take my body off?”

In that moment I realised just how ridiculous what I was saying sounded. I suddenly became very uncomfortable with the conversation and for the first time ever, I felt like I was lying to my son. Not because I didn’t believe what I was saying, I still don’t know if I believe it or not, but because I couldn’t back it up. I don’t know anything I am telling him.

When I explain or teach him things, I always have something tangible to back it up with. Some kind of evidence that I can use as an example to authenticate my message. I’m not sure I want my son to grow up blindly believing something just because his folks have told him it. Especially when there are overwhelming, abundant, rational arguments to the contrary.

The let off:  “So what happens when a car dies?”

Thankfully this was a bit easier to explain. Although it begs the question of whether he knows the difference between living and inanimate things. Bedtime was not the time to find out.

So why have we, approached this subject so young when we are not regular church goers ourselves?

My wife and I were both brought up in, albeit different, religious environments. I cannot speak for my wife but I was taught to fear blasphemy (for some reason). It never really was an issue for me until the little man first said “OMG” (the actual phrase – I still cannot say it). We corrected him saying that he should say “goodness” or “gosh” instead if he really had to use that phrase but we tried to encourage against it all together. It soon became apparent that everyone seems to say it, not that I’d noticed before. It’s regularly said on telly and we hear it in the street quite often. The little man ALWAYS notices. Probably because we’d made a ‘thing’ of it. He also notices that it is not necessarily “naughty” people saying it and that nobody seems to get offended. Including us. So why are his parents telling him he shouldn’t? I can’t answer that.

Anyway it’s not swearing so we had to try to explain it differently. My wife explained to him who God was and how and when you should talk to him. I’m not sure I would have been comfortable starting that conversation. I’ll take the birds and bees any day over religion. However since we’d started I have now also taken her lead when he has asked me about the subject. Between us we have explained about praying and how God is listening to everything and helps people when they need it, but it’s not going to be long before he’s asking questions about why God is not helping everyone or preventing some tragic situations in the World. I’m not going to be able to come up with an answer. This means that he is going to think that I’ve been lying about what I’ve told him so far and if I’ve lied about that, what else have I lied about? I need my son to be able to trust me and not to doubt what I tell or teach him. Once that trust is broken, can it ever be repaired?

I see no alternative other than to halt any talk of a religious nature and just continue to bring him up to be a well mannered, honest, kind, and mindful person. Surely that is what religion is supposed to teach anyway?

2 thoughts on “How can I explain religion to my 3 year old without sounding like a liar?”

  1. Hello.
    Two picture books about cats, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney and Goodbye Mog, are excellent starters for 10 in the dead pet and religion department.
    It won’t be long before he’s asking when you’re going to die.
    And then there’s the charming, “You’re older than Daddy, so you’re going to die first” observation I had to respond to recently.
    Children. They’re the worst.

  2. It’s a tricky one. We are a liberal faith household (tough to define but there it is) and we talk about Santa and the little uns believe in fairies and some people would say God is in the same bracket (we don’t, but I understand why some do). So, what happens when they start to doubt? On the other hand there is what Wordsworth said about children playing on the shores of eternity – that they have less problems believing and that we do. I wouldn’t want to take that away from my kids.

    THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
    The earth, and every common sight,
    To me did seem
    Apparell’d in celestial light,
    The glory and the freshness of a dream. 5
    It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
    Turn wheresoe’er I may,
    By night or day,
    The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

    And sorry, but I can’t help quoting this by Graham Greene. It’s how I saw life when all I had was doubt and no religion to speak of (can you tell I studied Eng Lit?):

    ‘In childhood we live under the brightness of immortality – heaven is as near and actual as the seaside. Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities: God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such a thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock. Our heroes are simple: they are brave, they tell the truth, they are good swordsmen and they are never in the long run really defeated. That is why no later books satisfy us like those which were read to us in childhood – for those promised a world of great simplicity of which we knew the rules, but the later books are complicated and contradictory with experience; they are formed out of our own disappointing memories – of the VC in the police-court dock, of the faked income tax return, the sins in corners, and the hollow voice of the man we despised talking to us of courage and purity. The Little Duke is dead and betrayed and forgotten; we cannot recongnize the villain and we suspect the hero and the world is a small cramped place. The two great popular statements of faith are ‘What a small place the world is’ and ‘I’m a stranger here myself.’ The Ministry of Fear p. 88-89

    Just a few thoughts.


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