Any advice for a parent trying to teach his kid about God and Christianity?

I was raised rural Southern Baptist; the really fire and brimstone kind.

It took a long time for me to accept that their view of Christianity need not have any bearing on my relationship with God.

So, when I became an adult, I joined a suburban Methodist church. They took a more temperate view of spirituality.

But over the last few years, I have decided I am not really a Church guy. Too often, the sermons, while well meaning, suggested that I needed to let others do my thinking for me (not novel to organized religion).

However, I still have a relationship with God. I read the Bible, try to follow its valuable lessons, and spend time praying.

We put my son in a Mother’s Day Out Program at the Church, so he is getting some (positive) exposure in the chapel.

However, I am about to put him in a secular Kindergarten and I want to make sure he develops spiritually.

So I have started reading him Bible stories at night before we say our prayers together. I figure this is the best way cultivate his relationship with God.

But my problems are two fold:

  1. There are some bizarre stories in the Bible. It has been a long time since I read some of the Old Testament stories. I am more of a New Testament/Psalms kind of guy. I am a big picture sort of Christian and not a literalist. So, while I think many of the Old Testament stories are valuable teaching tools, I have trouble presenting them as my own beliefs. The talking Donkey story was tough for me. Yet, me kid is a little too young to poison with my cynicism, so I just read on. Have any other parents encountered the same problem? I believe in God, but I also believe in dinosaurs. Any ideas other than making my kid “that kid” who tells everyone else that Adam and Eve aren’t real?

  2. The Bible is freaking scary. Lot of killing. Lot of tough issues. My kid is a typical three year old. Killing is scary to him. I have actually skipped over stories or glossed over them to spare him from being scared. I totally re-wrote the Cain and Able story and Job got off a bit easier in daddy middleman’s version. I am not sure I hold dramatic license with the good lord’s book, but there are some tough issues in that thing.
    I invite advice from people of all faiths on how they raise their children.

I don’t just want to teach morality, I want to raise my kids as Christians. But, I want to do it in a way that encourages Christian virtues rather than a serving as a manifestation of dogmatic group think.

My thoughts: one, you’re already doing what’s most effective: modeling. By seeing you read the Bible, pray and have a personal relationship with God, you’re presenting your son with the right motivation and tools to do the same.

Two: kids love gory, scary stories where Bad Guys are punished and Good Guys are rewarded. The Bible is full of them. I think you should read him what your comfortable with, but remember that he can probably take more than you think. Remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Red-riding Hood, Snow White, etc.? Read some of Bruno Bettleheim’s work for an insightful theory as to why dark stories are so good for children’s moral development.

Do let him know when you skip stuff, though. Just say something like, “This is a story best saved for when you’re older - let’s read about Joseph’s coat tonight!” Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for a huge bout of anger and betrayal when he’s old enough to figure out you picked and chose.

As for the literalist issue, I’m not so sure you should worry about that yet. If you feel the Bible is stories that tell us important stuff about the world and not the literal history of early man, just tell him that. If you feel that’s true of the Old Testament, but feel the New Testament is historical, then tell him that. If you want to be “fair and balanced”, tell him that some people believe this is real history, but you don’t. Then (and here’s the important part, IMHO) ask him what he believes. Kids are often stunningly amazing with their spiritual insights, but all too often we forget to ask them to share, since we’re so worried about teaching them what we think!

Your son is just at the exploratory age, and it should be pretty easy to link examples to “what Jesus would do” or “Jesus wouldn’t do that.”

As for the Bible stories, be real, real selective in the ones you read. At that age you wouldn’t read your son the entire encyclopedia chapter on electricity just because you want to explain that the light goes on when you flip a switch. The Good Samaritan is a nice positive story; the Resurrection is tough to explain.

Agree with the above, but also–at 3, it’s alot to know that Jesus (God) loves you.

simple prayers, Bible stories, pointing out the beauty of the world to him–these will comfort him and make him feel secure.

I used to know (since I was Chair of our Children’s Ministry committee) the developemental stages of God for kids. IMS, God (or Jesus) is just viewed as kindly (or terrifying) uncle or grandpa at three. It’s around 8 or so that things get more abstract.
I don’t see any need to delve deeply into the harshness of some Bible stories just yet. When he is a bit older, they may appeal to him more. (I hate scarey stuff, so they have never appealed to me!).

If you feel strongly about this-I would not hesitate to tell him that Adam and Eve are like a fairy tale or a myth etc.
So says the practically heathen, no longer church attending me.

I’d get a children’s book of bible stories to read to him. They would be more age-appropriate and still give him some scriptural background. Being an example is the best thing, and you’re doing that. Also, when he starts questioning some of the more improbable things, you can explain that the bible is a collection of oral stories. In time, some of the details of the stories got changed, because that’s what happens when people hear something and retell it. And some things they just didn’t understand completely, so they came up with the best explanation they could - like the Lord creating the earth in 6 days. Tell him that Jesus loves him, loves everybody, but especially kids, and that He want your son to love other people, by being nice, doing the right thing, etc.


While I’m no longer religious, I was raised in a strict Christian faith, and here are some things I wish the adults around me had realized*…

I took things really literally, and often misunderstood or confused things I was told in church. I believed it was bad to say the word ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ (perhaps a misunderstanding of the “Don’t take God’s name in vain” precept?). While of course I couldn’t pay attention for three hours straight on Sunday, things would stick, and I don’t think my parents understood that what I did ‘understand’ of the lesson was often confused or incorrect. I didn’t get sarcasm or allegory at all.

I think I would have had less of a struggle with faith if, from the outset, I had been able to couch it in my own terms - of course, the terms of a young child are usually reduced and overly-specified/ generalized…but because I was always told about all things religious, rather than trying to make sense of it for myself, I didn’t really think much about it. Since I was wholly unaccustomed to thinking critically (not in the sense of criticism) about religion and faith, when I was able to, in my teens, it was a hard and fast backlash, and a lot of backpedalling as I tried to make sense of my past beliefs.

*All all IMHO, and I don’t mean to presume that you or your child haven’t already worked these knots out. It sounds like your family has a healthy perception of faith, which is commendable.

Introduce your child to the idea of “personal honor”.

No church is needed, to have principles.

I second the idea of getting a book of bible stories for children. I would think any major bookstore would carry a selection, certainly a Christian bookstore would. You can provide different books through the years as he ages and matures. There are Bibles for children available, and sites on the net such as this: (notice they don’t include the blood and gore Old Testament stories).

Atheist parent here. My wife and I have taught our kids that a story doesn’t have to be TRUE to be GOOD. Human beings like to make up stories and many of these stories have valuable insights for us if we pay close attention to them. My wife and I often teach our kids moral lessons using stories from different faiths and mythologies even though we don’t believe in their literal truth. You could take the same approach to the parts of the Bible that make you uncomfortable.

Jew weighing in.

IMHO the best approach is slow, gentle teaching combined with immersion in culture. If mommy and daddy pause and say a brief grace before eating, the kid will want to know why. Mix in some fun religious songs (Three Jolly Fishermen, etc) with the Wiggles and other songs when singing with your kid. Do special things on Sunday.

My neice (ken a heyra) is five. She knows that Unc Unc wears a special hat and won’t eat certain foods. She knows that relatives sometimes sing songs and lullabies in Hebrew and Yiddish. On Friday nights, she and mommy light special candles and say a prayer.

My parents never tried forcing Judaism on me. But, I was taught to call my grandparents Bubby and Zeide. I had relatives who spoke Yiddish. My family life was filled with Jewish songs and stories, and Jewish food. As a result, I associate Judaism with family and happiness. As I grew older, I asked all kinds of questions on my own.

Almost every person I’ve known who attended a private religious school (regardless of what religion the school taught) know all the Bible stories, the liturgical calendar, and are fluent in Latin or Hebrew. But, almost none of them place any importance on these things. All their religious education is just more pointless stuff with no relevance to the real world.

Beware of Christian children’s entertainment. The majority of it stinks. I do recommend Veggietales. Every episode I’ve seen has understood that it needs to be entertaining first and educational second.

My advice…don’t.
Teach morality, leave the church out of it. If there’s anyplace that shouldn’t be a model of morality it’s the church. The contradictions you speak of are one of the many reasons why I think it’s inappropriate for children.

Religion is fine when it’s a choice, indoctrinating a child who doesn’t have the resources to make his own decisions about spirituality is unhealthy and exploitative.

What I see coming through in the OP is that you, Middleman, are not personally comfortable with the stories that are in the bible. You seem to be saying that there are a lot of stories in it that are scary to you, and that you, yourself, don’t understand the importance or the context of the stories.

I understand the desire to foster faith in your child, but how can you believe that reading your child something that you don’t even understand can be good for him?

My advice is to seek out someone whos knoweldge and interpretation of the Bible you respect, who feels comfortable teaching your child from it. If you can’t find anyone who fits that description, then you have two choices: 1. admit that the Bible really isn’t so important to your life (and ask why it should be so important to your child’s life), or 2. Buckle down and actually do some of the independent thinking that you write of, and get a good handle on the Bible. If you understood the importance and context of the stories in the Bible yourself, it should be clear to you which ones are suitable for your child at his current developmental stage, and which ones aren’t. It may be that none of them are! Perhaps at this stage, the most your child can get from the Bible is having a father who is well versed!

Since you express doubts yourself, you might think about not giving the kid any religious instruction. That’s the trouble, as you point out, with organized religion. A simple belief in spirit separate from the physical gets turned in to mandatory belief in thousands of separate religious tenets, only a fraction of which you believe in.

One of the problems is trying teach that any book written by humans is the word of of God or that it has any unique moral authority.


It’s also a book that a child should be educated about and can learn from. I think that the best way to approach it from the outset is not to teach that the bible is the word of God or that it cannot be wrong (an assertion which is virtually guaranteed to bite you in the ass) but that it’s a book written by people who were doing their best to understand God and that sometimes they made mistakes. When teaching Adam and Eve or some of the more kid-friendly Bible stories, tell him that they are, first and foremost, stories which are intended to teach lessons about God but that every word may not be literally true. You can point to Jesus himself as an example of someone who told stories (parables) in order to teach lessons and that the literal truth of stories wasn’t the point. You can tell him that some of the characters and events described in the Bible might be based on real people or events but that sometimes the people who wrote the Bible would exaggerate things or make up extra details to teach something about that person or about God. It might be helpful to use an example like George Washington chopping down the cherry tree as an example of people inventing a story about a real person in order to teach something about his moral character. The “truth” in the story is not that a young George Washington chopped down a tree but that he was an honest person.

When it comes to the violence, that’s pretty difficult. Some of it may have to wait until he’s older. I skip that stuff completely with my own (6 year-old) daughter. I was pretty stuck for an explanation the first time she saw an image of Christ on the cross. I do think you can stay with the theme that the Bible was written by people and that sometimes when bad things happened, they believed that God must have been mad at them and they would try to figure out what they had done wrong.

There are going to be some things in the Bible which are going to defy sanitization or moral explanation no matter what (the slaughter of the Amekelites, for instance, in which God orders the Israelites to kill men, women, children and infants). In some cases, I think you either have to just put the stories off for a few years or (perhaps) explain that sometimes the people who wrote the Bible wanted to believe God was on their side and so they would imagine that they were doing God’s will, even if they weren’t. You might even explain that this was one of the times when the authors made a mistake.

I think if you make an effort to present the Bible as the work of human hands, you’ll be better off than trying to teach it as “perfect.” you can still teach that it has valuable lessons, that sometimes people understood God better than other times. That sometimes they told stories in a way that made sense to them rather than what actually happened (a local flood would look like a flood of the "whole world. The sun looked like it went around the earth. etc.). You can also teach (if you believe this) that the words of Jesus himself are the most important ones and the only ones that can’t be mistaken.

Good luck.

Wow, that’s just something else. I don’t want to get too far from IMHO and too close to GD, but that just blows me away. How can you embrace a religion that has the fundimental precept that Christ died for your sins on a cross, that uses the cross as its symbol, and yet expect children to embrace that religion at an early age, and yet, think that children are too young to be exposed to violence. Christianity is founded on violence. How can that be appropriate for a child if violence isn’t appropriate for children?

To me, you have to go one way or the other: either children are too young to appreciate Christianity, or even children should be exposed to the notions of violent persecution and sacrifice. Where is the middle ground?

And if children are too tender to appreciate a noble sacrifice, how can they appreciate all the more subtle lessons in Christianity, like turning the other cheek, and not throwing pearls to swine?

I might have given a false impression. I’m not a Christian, I’m an agnostic/weak atheist. My wife is a practicing Catholic, though, and she’s determined to raise our children in the Church so I sometimes am at a loss as to what to say to certain questions. I don’t want to undermine their mother (just yet) but I also have no idea how to explain something like that in neutral terms. At this point. I’m still trying to hold my tongue on my own (lack of) beliefs but that’s not always the easiest thing to do. I try to use the evasive “Christians believe…” a lot, but even that can be hard to explain. Sometimes I just have to say “ask mommy.”

Along the lines of what StGermain suggested, I recommend reading books about Christianity with your son. When I was little one of my favorite books was “The Woodland Gospels,” by Jeremy Lloyd. It’s a story book about woodland creatures who discuss the life and teachings of Jesus, and try to apply them to their lives.

amazon link

That makes sense. What does your wife say about the violent elements of Christianity?

I think it might be more politic to call it the violence in the Bible rather than the violence of Christianity but be that as it may…
The only really violent aspect that has come up with our daugher so far is the crucifixion. My wife told her that the people who killed Jesus did so because they didn’t understand who he was and they were afraid of him. To paraphrase her words- (remember, this is being spoken to a 6 year-old) Jesus just wanted to love everybody and teach them to do the same. Some people were calling him a “king” but they didn’t mean he was a king on earth but a king in Heaven. The Romans thought that he wanted to take over on earth and be the king of earth. They were afraid of him and though he was dangerous so they killed him. Crucifying people was how the Romans killed certain kinds of criminals. Jesus could have escaped or killed all the Romans but he let them crucify him anyway because he wanted to show people how much he loved them and he knew that he could come back to life and show them who he was.

That the gist of it anyway, and I guess my daughter accepts it. I just bite my tongue. I’ve agreed not to contradict my wife on any of this stuff until the kids are a lot older. That’s our deal. They get the Catholic upbringing now (including Catholic school) but when they’re teenagers (or thereabouts) I get to expose them to some more critical ideas. By that time they should have started asking some some skeptical questions anyway.

I almost forgot- regarding some of the other violence in the Bible, my wife does what I was talking about above- she says that Jesus’ message is the one that counts- that the Bible was written by people, but Jesus was God, so as long as you do what Jesus tells you, you’ll be fine and if you think Jesus would tell you not to do something, don’t do it.

essentially, she simple assigns a higher authority to the words of Jesus than to the rest of the Bible.

Some of this stuff may not be exactly orthodox Catholicism but my wife is- to put it mildly- a rather liberal Catholic.