The question pops up in some families with young children. Here’s a summary of my favorite approach to answering many questions asked by children:
Some people think X
Some people think Y
Some people think Z
[optional] I think Z because___
What do you think?
Here is how this approach plays out with Santa Claus.
There are many opinions on this subject. Below are quotes from children about whether Santa is real, courtesy of Answers.com, and in general they can be broken down into three categories.
The first group of children says that Santa Claus is real
He wears a red suit, and he lives at the North Pole, making presents for kids and delivering them all over the world on Christmas Eve in his sleigh.
Yes, Santa Claus WAS a real man. He lived in Turkey.
Santa is real and everyone knows it! He is so real because he has brought me presents every year and he will do the same every year. I love him too!
The second group of children says that Santa Claus doesn’t exist
….and those things are impossible.
Totally not, it is just a silly rumor to get children to do what they are told.
No, sorry. He was derived from a person named to be St. Nicholas. He gave toys to children, and wore red bishop’s clothing. He also is believed to have dropped things down chimneys at night, to avoid being seen. But this was a long time ago and he died.
No there is no Santa Claus as we know him, but there are nice people out there who are like mini-Santas. So yes your mom or dad were buying the presents, and there’s no point writing letters. I actually cried when my mom first told me.
The third group admits that he doesn’t have a tangible presence but is nonetheless real
… in the hearts and minds of parents and children and in the spirit of Christmas. We as a society make him real.
Well, Santa Clause is sort of real and sort of not because St Nicholas is Santa Claus and he lived a long time ago and gave to the poor and the wealthy making gifts out of wood.
Santa Claus is real to some people but not to others. He is real to all those who believe. Keep believing!
Tweetable: Here’s an idea of what to say when children ask if Santa is real. Click to Tweet
For young children, Christmas and Halloween are very much alike: one is a time to get presents and the other is a time to get candy. Older children are more likely to hear friends speak of Christmas as Jesus’ birthday, which may give rise to questions about why Jesus is so important that his birthday is a holiday.
I asked some adults this question and here’s what they say:
Jesus was a good teacher. We can read the book of Luke in the Bible to learn more about what he taught.
Jesus was born, not just as an ordinary baby, but sent by God to show us how to get closer to God and understand better what God is like.
Jesus was God’s gift to us, so we celebrate his birthday by giving gifts to each other.
It is not only Jesus’ teachings which make him so remarkable
…although these would be enough to give him a holiday of his own. It is a combination of the teachings with the man himself.
Here’s what Jesus himself said about why he came into the world
My purpose is to give you a full and satisfying life.
I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.
The one who sent me is with me–I always do what pleases him.
Ask children why Jesus’ birthday gets him his own holiday
Ask them what they think about Jesus and Christmas. Their answers in this 2 minute video may surprise you, bring you the biggest smile (laugh) of your day, and inspire you to ask them some questions.
Tweetable: Children try to answer simple questions about Christmas in a 2 minute video here. Click to Tweet
How do we do that in a way that informs, yet leaves the door open to explore and journey and be curious as they grow up? What words can we use to introduce God in such a way as to do the child no harm?
Here is a description of God that may prove useful, written in a child’s vocabulary.
This view is acknowledged in every area of the world from sub-Saharan Africa and tribes in the South Pacific to urban centers in Europe, farms in the Americas, and Middle Eastern deserts.
It is not the view of a particular religion, yet is found in the majority of world religions. It is mainstream.
Who is God?
God is a being. God does not have a body. God is invisible. People are beings too—human beings. God is a being who is greater than human beings. You can’t see God but you know He* is there. God has always been there.
God is love. All love comes from God.
God knows everything. He knows what will happen in the future. God knows what you are thinking. God knows all the facts about any subject you can imagine.
God is everywhere at once. He is not limited by time or space.
God does only what is right, good and just.
God has no beginning and he has no end.
God is pure. There is nothing evil about God.
God has unlimited power and authority.
God never changes. He is the same today as God has always been.
God is one-of-a-kind.
God makes himself known by displaying these qualities so that any child can recognize them. The human mind cannot understand God completely. God exceeds our brain’s capacity. But you can understand a lot about God.
*God is spirit, but I use the male pronoun because it is what I encounter most often when people talk about God.You may substitute the female pronoun if you wish.
God exceeds our brain’s capacity but a child can understand a lot about God. See the basics here. Click to Tweet
Wondering what to say when a child asks about God? Here’s a description that does no harm. Click to Tweet
Since 1991 I have sat with children in support groups as they process circumstances that upset them. Sometimes an older child will ask me why God didn’t stop it or why God lets tragedies happen. Here are two principles I use to guide these conversations.
Principle #1: Find out why they are asking.
From Dr. Becky Bailey I learn to discover first whether the child wants information or understanding. I can find a clue by listening to their tone of voice–the force behind their question. I watch their facial expression and reflect back what I see. I will ask what situation they are thinking of.
Are they asking because evil and suffering have touched them personally and often? Have they been treated cruelly by others? They are more likely asking for emotional support and a way out of the hurtful experience right now in their own life circumstances.
Are they asking because they have they seen and heard about evil and suffering around them: violence, poverty, abuse, natural disasters and more? When looking at it globally, their interest may tend toward information about what God’s character is really like. Is this the kind of being that God is?
Principle #2: Then….Respond.
Some responses are obvious. For example, an incident may need to be reported. Or a child may need empathy or a chance to express their feelings.
If they are asking for information about the nature of God’s involvement in pain and suffering, you could say that nobody really knows for sure. But what are some things you found to be true as you have wrestled with this question for yourself? Use those as talking points–seeds of discussion that give children space to work it out in their own words. Here are mine:
God wants a good life for humanity.God intends to bless us and not to hurt us.
God created the possibility that people could choose to make a different choice than what he intends.
People, not God, hurt people. God could make people stop–if he wanted to control people’s lives–but he gives us freedom and the right to do good or bad, feel hate or love.
God allows nature to take its course and that includes extreme weather and all kinds of disease.
Suffering people often say that they see God’s involvement after a tragedy though the hands, feet and voice of the people who bring relief and order into the situation.
In our relationship with God we work alongside him when we involve ourselves in the response to pain and suffering in the world.
Tweetable: When children ask why bad things happen, the child-sized ideas here may shed light on a very tough issue. Click to Tweet
Boston University professor Dr. Nancy Ammerman organizes spiritual and religious experiences into four packages. I share her research as one way to help children understand and define these terms.
1) Godless (nontheistic) spirituality
Spirituality is not framed in terms of God but rather as a kind of transcendence that is “bigger than me” and beyond the ordinary. A secularist from Atlanta said:
Experiencing things that are calming and healing in what might almost be a spiritual way–I’ve had that from lots of things: music, movies that I love, and books.
2) God-centered spirituality
Spirituality is about God, especially one’s relationship with God, and any mysterious encounters or happenings that result from it.
I love to be out on a boat on the ocean for the same reason I like to be in my garden, ’cause I feel close to the Lord and the beauty of the world.
3) Ethical spirituality
Spirituality is living a virtuous life by helping others and transcending one’s own selfish interests to seek what is right. This is a definition of spirituality that all survey respondents, from the most conservative Christian to the secular neo-pagan, agreed was the essence of authentic spirituality.
4) Belief and belonging
This spirituality package is defined differently by those who are active in a religion and those who are not. Ammerman wrote,
Believing, for instance, could either be a way of talking about devout spirituality or a way of describing superstition. Belonging can represent a positive identity or a symbol of being trapped in an authoritarian tradition. Tension between the two definitions sheds some light on why people would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.
Conclusions of interest to children:
Spiritual and Religious are rarely at odds but intersect often in the daily lives of people as they describe their spirituality.
When conflicts/tensions arise it is almost always when individuals/groups use religion to draw political and moral boundaries.
Research shows more common than uncommon spiritual practices and beliefs between those who say they are religious and those who don’t.
Link to complete article by journalist Matthew Brown.
Get help here when your older kids ask the difference between religious and spiritual. Click to tweet