My son, who at 3 years old was certainly a talking machine but not terribly comfortable composing verse and rhyme, sat down one night at the dining room table, regarded his cutup hot dog, looked at Mom and me, then looked down, folded his hands and intoned, and I quote:
“God our father, God our father
Once again, once again
Thank you for our blessings, thank you for our blessings
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.
What’s his name?
The first verse was deployed to the tune of “Frere Jacques.” The second he punctuated with a merry grin, one hand splayed in the air as if he had just drained a three-pointer at the buzzer in a teen sports movie from 1986. Then he dipped his hot dog in his “bar-de-coo” sauce and demolished dinner. He was delightfully oblivious to the fact that his mom and I were watching him, stone-faced, forks held mid-chomp, as if he had just informed us that he’d been working on a unified theory of physics and would soon be leaving to return to his home planet of Flthhhpbt.
Now, I’m not saying we were stunned in a bad way, but, then again, I’m not saying we weren’t stunned in a bad way. That sentence doesn’t make a lot of logical sense, of course. And that leads rather conveniently into the subject of religion, which evidently had been broached at my son’s day care well before I had begun considering how to sort of think about maybe formulating a plan about what to do with it. All I knew at the time is that when your usually bubbly toddler begins reciting theology that you have not taught him, the net effect is that you are stupefied, or at least you briefly find it difficult to enjoy your own hot dog.
Before I continue, I should point out that I spent much of my own childhood in church, and, by extension, extremely little of my adolescence and much, much less of my adulthood there. But at this shapeless, head-spinning stage in his development as a child and mine as a not-child, it’s a minor miracle if I can decide how I want this kid’s hair cut from month to month. Or if organic crackers are necessary or merely expensive. Or if it’s all right for him to eat a Three Musketeers when it’s all that’s in the car. Or if he should really be watching this much “Polar Express.” I surely haven’t decided how, or if, I plan to introduce God stuff.
Luckily, we have some help in that regard. As I mentioned, he picked up grace at his Christian day care, which will lead many to wonder if, when we entrusted Jake to a place with a cross on the door, we maybe expected them to teach him Buddhism. But in my naive little dad-head, it was supposed to be years before the school or anyone would address this stuff — the Looming Galactic Questions, the evangelical song parodies, the pre-hot dog prayers. (Also, we selected our day care as I imagine many parents do: partially on the grounds of faith, but more on the grounds that it was reasonably affordable, close to my work and they had an opening.)
I placed him there, my sweet and sort of fierce Slovak grandmother would be horrified to read, despite falling under the popular religious category of Lapsed Catholic. That first word is scrawled in giant red magic marker and, if possible, fitted with a speaker that makes a loud honking noise every three seconds. It’s been years since I’ve attended a Mass that didn’t have a wedding in it; it’s been years, even, since I abandoned the standard Lapsed Easter/Christmas Policy, the one that says “I Dread Eternal Damnation But Am All About Sleeping Until 9 a.m.”
These days, Sunday mornings are spent not on a pew but on my floor, with coffee and a little Sunday playlist and, in all likelihood, Candy Land. I haven’t begun considering how best to shepherd my son’s spiritual existence, but trust me, it’s on my list of things to do, right after I succeed at teaching him where the potty goes, why punching me in the face is frowned upon and, somewhat later, if there’s time, how to live a rich and fulfilling life. (Also, why he can’t take two turns in a row in Candy Land.)
At the risk of sounding uncaring, I’ll get to it. We’ve talked about whether to expose him to religion, whether to go to church when we’re not really into it, and how to contextualize stories that really don’t make a lot of sense when you’re not reading them every Sunday. At the risk of writing a really lousy ending, we’re sort of kicking that incense-smelling can down the road. Keeping him in the dark about it seems limiting; taking him to church every Sunday seems fake.
So for the time being, we’ll teach him good values: judge not, do unto others, love thy neighbor and the other simple, crystallized truths that people tend to forget or ignore or follow selectively for one reason or another as they grow out of the phase with the hot dogs and Bob the Builder (or, for that matter, the one with the coffee and Candy Land). Frankly, if grown-ups could stick to those, I’d consider dropping by on the occasional Sunday morning myself, provided the service starts well after 9 a.m.
You might also be interested in: