What We Don’t Talk About

The delicate intersection of what we believe and how our kids are thinking.

Easter traditions in my family of origin included playing the Hot or Cold Game to find our Easter baskets under a luggage rack or behind the shower curtain in a Best Western hotel. The holiday fell on the last day of our spring break, a casualty of the two-day drive back from Utah hiking trips to our home in Sacramento. The Ten Commandments would always be on TV on Saturday night, so it was like my parents were facilitating a Bible-story binge in preparation for the holy day, with a harrowing eight-hour drive with two kids at its center.

Growing up, my mom took my sister and me to various nondenominational Christian churches, and let sports take over our weekends as needed. She studied the Bible after we were asleep. I’d see her at the kitchen table finishing homework for a weekly community study she attended. But her religion was hers, and I felt like I had space to think through my own ideas about why I was on earth. And, I can tell you that, as a kid, those big-picture questions were often on my mind.

As a mom, even a mom with a specific faith tradition, I’m more comfortable erring on the side of “you do you.” I bring my kids to church, expose them to the belief system that comforts me, and answer questions when they come up, but I wonder if I am doing it right. I have friends single-handedly white-knuckling their offspring out of eternal damnation. So, I want to talk about this, because an important part of growing up is figuring out a belief system, and in L.A. in 2023, we are all over the place.

My best friend lives in Atlanta, where she feels comfortable saying that she goes to church. Out here, I’ve figured out when to bring it up and when not to. I know families raising their kids in close-knit communities where everyone they know holds similar beliefs. Others are rubbing elbows with people from every walk of life. I know that it’s yet to be determined what young people coming out of both worlds will believe as adults. This is where we don’t have control. Are we scared yet, dear readers?

As parents, we are the north star for our children—and then we are not, and the breaches in communication show up. In the ’80s and ’90s, parents weren’t supposed to talk about race or private parts and, where I grew up, most people were openly Christian, were quietly Mormon, or had a Darwin fish on their car. Now we know to bring up anatomical body-part names and skin color with toddlers, and don’t assume anything about, but have utmost respect, for other people’s beliefs. Whether or not we have our own belief system figured out, it’s helpful for our kids to hear from us on the matter.

Last year, I was in a parenting class with a mom whose kindergarten-age daughter was having trouble falling asleep. The girl had started asking her mom big questions before bed. Religion had been pushed hard during this mom’s childhood, and she was raising her daughter outside of any formal religious system. But the girl was feeling scared and asking about death (a common line of questioning at her age). The mom was at a loss, because she didn’t want to say anything she’d heard growing up about heaven or angels. Each night, she changed the subject and felt more and more frustrated that this kept coming up.

Soon all the moms in class were engaged, everyone had a solution, and none of them sounded like they were going to work. I raised my hand. “Thank you for being so vulnerable with us,” I said. “I understand what you don’t believe, and I am wondering what you do believe.” The mom was honest, and she said she didn’t know. She didn’t like thinking about this.

I told her that that makes sense, and that it’s hard.

The next week in class she returned with a conclusion to her story. She spoke frankly with her daughter about not knowing what would happen when she died and not knowing The Reason we are here. But she does know about love, and that love can start before life does, and that it lasts through life and continues after. Her daughter snuggled in and asked more questions, and they continued to talk, and now the entire household was resting more easily.

We all have blind spots in parenting, and they are going to keep coming up. In some seasons, having something to say won’t be what our kids need. Our work will be to listen. The values we want to pass on are what we’ll have to get good at ourselves. We’ll have to serve others, be disciplined, know when to say no, stay the course, be wise with resources, and live boldly so that our kids know that’s just what you do. We don’t know who they will be, but we know it will be a combination of who they are, who we are, and what they experience.

For those of us still feeling out of control, let’s close our eyes and picture ourselves at the Rose Bowl, down on the 20-yard line, looking up at those big yellow goalposts. On one side is pure rigidity. Our children must believe what we do, or we have failed. On the other side, anything goes. We want to kick the football right smack between the two sides. This is where our kids will have enough of our example and enough of our grace to make their own wise choices. In the middle is where they will feel safe enough to connect with us, and that connection will breed long-term trust and the desire to draw on the years of hard-fought wisdom we have mustered. And it’s OK to place some jellybeans, Peeps, and even chocolate-covered matzah in the middle too.

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