“Do you believe in Allah?” my six-year-old recently asked in the middle of dinner.
Her question wasn’t just – The A question, some might say – it stopped me in the middle of a bite. Her tone was casual, conversational. There was none of the usual awe that I associate with questions of faith and existence. It was as if she was asking for dessert. Ice cream sandwiches, and here, let me explain my shifting agnosticism.
At this point, I was taking off a sliver of cheese from my enchiladas. I was thinking Kim Kardashian Pumpkin Cemetery I wonder if I should take sightings of coyotes in our area more seriously. In other words, my mind was focused on everything Except Glowing questions about spirituality.
So, hence, I used my most dependable parenting tool: the stall. I said “hmm”. “Tell me more about what you think.”
My daughter started talking about stardust, the sky, and death, one of the topics occupying so much of her young mind. Part of it wondered about reincarnation. But for the most part, she obsessed with God, referring to the Pledge of Allegiance they recite every morning at school and how her grandparents said a blessing before every meal. I wondered: What was God like? Was he even huh?
At lunch, I overheard some kids at a nearby table discussing the existence of God — heavy first-grader conversation. Some described going to church or temple. They mixed their inherited beliefs with burgeoning questions or doubts. No wonder it has questions, no wonder kids often negotiate their beliefs, even from a young age. It is a rite of passage for many.
And yet. I was well into college before I started exploring spirituals that were different from my own. On one of our first dates, my husband and I discussed the religious traditions we were raised in. He was baptized into the Catholic Church. I grew up believing in a version of Buddhism mixed with ancestor worship and bodhisattvas. To both of us, notions of a higher being were so sacred that there was no room for discussion in our families of origin.
In my childhood home, our religion lived every day. Once a month, my grandparents abstained from animal products, as a way of honoring our ancestors. We lit incense and filled the family shrine with fresh fruit. The evening was never over until I saw my grandmother kneeling between her fingers and sticks of incense, touching her forehead to the ground three times. Before bed, I prayed to Bo Tat’s patron saint, Kwan Yam, and kept my eyes downcast in front of her effigy. On special occasions, we drove the hour to the temple, where with dozens of worshipers we removed our shoes at the door and handed offerings to monks in mustard-coloured robes. The religion I grew up with was deeply purposeful, rich in traditions that grounded me, even if I no longer followed its teachings.
One thing my husband and I knew is that we’ll talk openly about debt to our child, and welcome any tough questions, even when we’re stuck. We promised that we would be sympathetic, and as judgmental as possible. Most of all, we knew we were going to learn with her, helping her to form a personal or community belief system as she wishes.
So, during Thursday night enchiladas, we prescribed our separate versions of the religion to our daughter. I was afraid we’d confuse her. But kids have the ability to hold onto nuance more than we give them credit for. My husband went in first, explaining that he believes in the life we create on Earth, rather than the possibility of an afterlife. I told her that I had seen divine logic that I could not understand, and yet I believed in it. We also explained what each of her two groups of ancestors believed, explaining the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as the life of the Buddha. Honestly, I don’t know that we did a great job. I watched her process our words, muzzling unfamiliar concepts.
She finally said, “Okay.” “I’ll decide what I think at another time.”
fair enough. I will too.
This season brings out something contemplative in me; I find myself asking the same questions as first graders. Our little trio are spending Thanksgiving alone this year, but for a while, before we raise our forks on the table, I’ll think of my grandparents, bowing before their shrine, their fingers covered in incense. My in-laws, muttering the same supper grace they have recited for sixty years. Perhaps the thing that unites us is our shared search for grace, as well as the hope that our wonder will eventually find a resting place.
Thao Tai She is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her first novel, Banyan Moon, will be released in 2023 from HarperCollins. As I wrote in Cup of Jo about maternityAnd the alternate parents And the physical affection. You can subscribe to her newsletter over here.
(Photo by MaaHoo Studio/Stocksy.)