Family life

What does God mean?: Answering the tough questions

How does one answer a four-year-old's questions about God? One mom tries to find the answer.

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Anna has started asking questions about God. Photo: Tara-Michelle Ziniuk

My four-year-old daughter, Anna, has been asking a lot of questions lately.

This morning, she wanted to know what a magician is. Last night at dinner, she asked what the army is. I’m now calling this the “what” phase. Often her line of questioning begins with, “What does _____ mean?” Occasionally, they’re quite endearing. For example, the other day she said, “that is unacceptable,” and a moment later asked, “what does ‘unacceptable’ mean?”

While explaining the army to her was not a short (or easy) conversation, the most difficult question I’ve faced so far has been, “What does God mean?”

“God means different things to different people,” would be the quickest, vaguest and most dismissive answer. And I was tempted to tell her just that, but I’m quite committed to giving my child as honest an answer as I possibly can.

Read more: How to deal with constant questions>

Beyond God specifically—which I think she became curious about when she picked up saying, “Oh, my God!”—she’s been inquisitive about Christianity, in general. It’s been extra awkward for me because we’re Jewish, and I don’t know the answers to all of her questions.

Her curiosity comes from an innocent enough place: There is a church on the corner of our street, and she’s expressed an interest in what’s going on inside. She just started junior kindergarten, and while most of her daycare friends went to the school adjacent to the centre, one of them started Catholic school this week. Religion seems to be coming up in various forms, and I’m never as clear as I’d like to be when explaining different religious sects to Anna.

Maybe part of this is that I’m not as clear as I’d like to be about what I personally believe—I often use the phrase “we believe” (in order to leave room for her to form her own beliefs). I know that it’s important to me to identify ourselves as Jewish. While I don’t belong to a synagogue for various reasons, I did have a baby-naming ceremony for Anna when she was born, and I gave her a Hebrew name. We do some holidays at home, with our mostly non-Jewish friends, and usually attend a Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year, which happens in the fall) dinner at a friend’s family’s house.

Read more: Why we go to synagogue, even though I’m an atheist>

My attachments to Judaism are largely based around tradition, a sense of ritual and, to a certain extent, spirituality. Because I’m not close to my family, having something larger to connect myself and my daughter to is meaningful to me. But none of this speaks to my actual core belief system.

I can explain to Anna that some people believe God created the world, and some do not. It feels akin to explaining how some kids believe in Santa and some do not. But I can’t tell her exactly what the people are doing inside the church on our street, and I’m still struggling to find accessible words to explain what it means to pray.

“Can I go to the school Krysta is going to?” Anna asked me the other day. I told her no, and that it is in part because we are Jewish (though I do know there are Jewish kids who go to Catholic schools), and in part because I’ve decided the school she is attending is a better fit for our family.

I guess while I’m trying to figure out the right answers to all of her questions, I can also focus on being clear with Anna about the important decisions I have made.

Read more: Debating religion in my child’s life>

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice, and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.

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