My daughter, Hazel, is six years old and will be starting first grade next week. She loves cats, swimming, her cousin, and food. Purportedly, Chinese style barbecue pork buns come first in her heart, even before mommy and daddy (though we are a close second). She also prefers to run instead of walk; and has recently declared that she is Taoist and Shinto. This determination came after some discussion which went something like this:
Sitting at the kitchen table one morning, Hazel declares “My best friend asked me if I was a Christian and I told her I was. I am a Christian.”
Mommy the agnostic is a little surprised. Daddy, the atheist, is biting back a retort—he is somewhat hostile towards Christianity. I am only hostile to abusive, hetero-Patriarchal Christianity. I say to Hazel, “Oh. That’s interesting. Do you know what that means?”
“No. What do Christians believe,” she asks.
“Well, they believe in Jesus—” I start, but Hazel interrupts. “I believe in Jesus. I am a Christian.” I start again.
Hazel and I have talked a great deal about religion and mythology in the past. This conversation was unique though because Hazel expressed a desire to name her religion. I suspect that she may want to have a religion just like her friend—a friend Hazel shocked by telling her that she liked food more than Jesus, a friend who said she loves Jesus even more than mommy and daddy, and whose family has a core that creates all sorts of rules that Hazel doesn’t understand.
I appreciated how her friend’s mother handled some of our differences during a recent play date. After declaring their intention to marry each other, this mom told our daughters, “in our family, girls can’t marry girls.” She presented her family as different, rather than declaring our beliefs wrong. I think her actions were respectful, even though I cannot agree or sympathize with her belief. I hope that I can act similarly respectful while acknowledging difference. That said, I don’t think mom anticipated the results of her pronouncement. Describing the situation to me, Hazel explained that she and her friend had not changed their plans, they had simply decided to keep them a secret. I was kind of blown away. My daughter and her friend, playing marriage in an imaginary future, have created their own “closet” at six; and I have no intention of outing them to the friend’s family. That is respect for my child, all children, and myself.
I appreciate that my daughter talks to me about things she doesn’t understand. I remember coming to my mom once with a similar question and declaration about religion. I asked her, “Mommy, what’s a Christian,” and before she gave me an answer, I said, “because I’m not one.” I remember clearly thinking that “Christian,” was a person’s name. I wasn’t Christian because I was Sara, my mom’s “Sweet Sara,” in fact. But my mother took me roughly by both my arms and with her face in my face said, “Oh yes you are.” I said “okay,” and ran away crying.
I find it interesting how certain or settled we often expect our little ones to be instead of getting curious about them or acknowledging that they are curious.
I know it is/was important to my mother that I be Christian because to her it is/was a matter of my salvation. She believes this; and she has extended her concern to my daughter. “How will you make sure that Hazel comes to know the Lord?” “Will you ever be taking Hazel to church?” Nearly every time I visit with my mother, she inserts this topic into our talks. And nearly every time, she starts to cry. I hate this conversation. Most recently, I cut it off completely. I said, “we’ve had this conversation before, Ma.”
She replied, “well, I don’t remember.”
“You know I’m agnostic right?”
“Okay. Let’s just stop the conversation right here.”
This abrupt end was far preferable to ripping the scab off yet again.
My husband and I want Hazel to have spiritual/religious/existential choice. This sometimes terrifies me. She’s six now, but one day her friends will start asking her to go to church. I know because I did this as a child—tried to convert my friends. So, what do I say? If I say no, then I’ve created a curiosity provoking restriction. If I say yes, do I prep Hazel ahead of time? “If they say Uncle is sick, you can tell them you don’t agree.” “Listen to your gut.” “Don’t do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.” Thinking about all the possibilities, I better understand my mother’s reaction to my honest question. She was scared, so she made me scared too.
I don’t want my daughter to be afraid.
If I am going to give me daughter a choice, then I need to respect that choice, but remain curious too.
So, back to my conversation with Hazel. After some discussion, she shared many conclusions. Hazel likes Jesus but doesn’t think he’s God. She also thinks there are many gods and believes in reincarnation, but she is mostly concerned that her identity reflects her belief in nature spirits. Hazel is obsessed with the Miyazaki films My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. Mommy tells her about some traditions that revere nature spirits, and she jumps on this. “Okay! I’m Shinto. Can I be Taoist too?” She runs to her room and writes her new religions on her door sign. My husband makes a comment about how many religious people do much the same: they claim a title without knowing much about what it means. I scold him for his cynicism.
Hazel is trying on a label that captures a part of what she believes or understands about herself. She’s been doing this a lot lately. Sometimes this is testing, other times its discovery and exploration, or self-assertion, and of course, a great deal of it is imaginary play. I love her play. She doesn’t have to be sure or “right.” She is… becoming. And I am curious as to who she will be.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.