From my 3-year-old nephew: "What is a prayer?" and "Did ghosts live at the same time as people?" !?

My sister told me that my nephew (her son) asked her the question about ghosts. Apparently he had already been taught (correctly) that dinosaurs never lived at the same time as people. While reading a Halloween themed children's book with the usual Halloween entities in it he asked "Did ghosts live at the same time as people?" My sister said that this one nearly stumped her. "First of all," she told me, "Ghosts don't really live at all, but how to explain that?"

I said that MY answer, to my own child, would be: "Ghosts are imaginary and people made them up, just like the other things in the book: mummies, Frankenstein, and vampires." My mother suggested that perhaps a more appropriate answer would be "Some people believe ghosts exist, and some people don't." This is how she raised me, and I believe that I came to the right conclusions, but while I agree that would be a fine and true explanation, I have no problem telling children with certainty that ghosts are imaginary.

I got the other question from my nephew while we were playing Guitar Hero together. Well, I play the game and he sings along and plays on his own toy guitar. One of the songs is "Livin' On a Prayer" and he asked "What is a prayer?" Good one! His parents weren't around to help, and though I am pretty certain they are both (basically) atheists, I didn't want to contradict something they had said. My answer was: "A prayer is a kind of wish that you make, where you hope that someone else will take care of making it happen."

I think my answer was pretty good! That accurately describes a pretty wide variety of uses of the word "prayer" including a completely secular type of use. Later, my mother (also an atheist, but leaning much further toward new-agey beliefs than me) suggested the answer: "A prayer is positive energy that you send out into the universe." While that's all warm and fuzzy and nice, I don't think it helps at all to understand the meaning of the song "Livin' on a Prayer!" It's a little like the deistic kind of "God" in that way. It's disconnected from the way people actually use the word. My definition of prayer explains that the song lyric is about living on wishes and hopes.

What do you think?

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Comment by MP Lockwood on April 27, 2009 at 10:04am
I definitely agree with everyone here that you don't have to shield children from religious or superstitious beliefs, and it's probably a good idea to tell them what the bible says. I think that even if you just give a balanced account of differing beliefs, kids will eventually come to the right conclusions. My parents always told me I could choose a religion when I was older, but when I asked How or Why questions, they bought me science books.

As you might guess, religions don't really stand up to an objective analysis from the outside. Once kid start to think about what explanations make the most sense ... it's not really a contest.
Comment by Angie Jackson on April 27, 2009 at 9:29am
My 3 year old is speech delayed, so I've gotten an extension on figuring out how to answer questions when they come. But my all-time-favorite response is : "What do you think?" followed by "Let's look it up!" My son and I research stuff together all the time. If he picks up a rock on our walk and brings it home, then I pull up a science website for kids that shows rocks. I loved geology for as long as I can remember as a child (which is why I dropped the "young earth" part even when I still belived in creationism)
Comment by Dan Gilbert on April 25, 2009 at 9:16am
Vivian, I love the mermaid story! I have an 8-year-old daughter who has probably wanted the same thing at one time or another. :-)

MP, I think you gave great answers all around. Those are tough questions to really nail down.

My approach with my daughter (about God, religion, etc) has been (mostly) to explain that people believe many different things and then explain what I believe. I've also told her some things about what the bible says and about Christian traditions because I think it's important that she know about them (not believe them). We've also chatted about evolution and a few other "science'y" things. It's so much fun to talk with her about that sort of thing because she's very thoughtful... and yet imaginative and creative... which lets us joke and pretend about things like elves, fairies, mermaids, ghosts and the like... without her actually believing in them.
Comment by vivian on April 24, 2009 at 7:29pm
I have a 3 and 4 year old and today my 4 year old told me that she believes in heaven because Nan (my MIL) says that's where her cat (that she was very attached to) went when it died last week. They're more agnostic and believe a higher power is possible, but they know we're atheist and that we don't hide it from our kids.

I was alittle upset by what my daughter said, because I don't want her being anything because someone else is, I want her to be it because SHE wants to be (whatever it may be). I just told her that mommy and daddy don't believe in heaven and that maybe Nan needs to believe in something to make her feel better and that just because Nan believes something it doesn't necessarily make it true.

What's funny is, my 3 year old tells me all the time she wants to grow up to be a mermaid. I tell her that mermaids are like fairies, monsters and god, we have no proof that they exist. My 4 year old gets it (she's got the mentality of a 40 year old), but my 3 year old just shrugs and still says she's going to grow up to be a mermaid. She cracks me up!
Comment by Richard Healy on April 24, 2009 at 6:31pm
Comment by Richard Healy on April 24, 2009 at 6:30pm
Addendum: My favourite question I was ever asked in school was by a five year old who after fully five minutes spent staring at the giant African Snails in the glass fish tank in the centre of the classroom announced quite suddenly to me, sicne I was in the vicinity:

Mr Healy. Do snails have teeth?

I didn't know! I had to go look it up! (It turns out they do - of sorts - rows of hard ridges made out of chitin called Radula which molluscs - which snails are - use to wear and bore away matter. So the answer is Yes - thousands!
Comment by Richard Healy on April 24, 2009 at 6:25pm
I was assisting once in a school and a 6 year old asked me if giants were real. I lacked the confidence of my convictions and hedged.

Later, training as a teacher, I overheard a nine-year old child who had dug up some trilobite fossils in his back garden (almost unbelievable but true - he brought them in to show the class) ask of the teacher, where the oceans came from - and she said God made them.

I was and remain livid that I was too far away to intervene with the real answer.

I think you handled yourself admirably well. Ghost like vampires etc are made-up and a wish that someone else will take care of your problems seem to me to be perfectly fair ways of explaining difficult concepts to a small child while conceding no ground as to their validity or truth.



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