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The secular parent’s guide to talking to kids about faith

August 10, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
How do you explain religion to your kids when you don't follow a specific faith? Author, journalist and NewsHour online parenting columnist Wendy Thomas Russell sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss her new book, "Relax, It's Just God."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the latest addition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

Raising children is a journey generously sprinkled with what many view as teachable moments, perhaps none as challenging as those surrounding faith and religion.

Author, journalist and NewsHour online parenting columnist Wendy Thomas Russell comes at this from a different angle in her new book, “Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious.”

She recently talked with Jeffrey Brown and explained how the book came to be.

WENDY THOMAS RUSSELL, Author, “Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious”: I was in the car, and my daughter announced to me that God had made her and that God had, in fact, made all children and all people. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: And you thought?

WENDY THOMAS RUSSELL: And I was so — you know, she was so incredulous because she just thought, this seems like really big news, and how you don’t know it, mommy, is really beyond me.

So — but it did. It struck me. I was really caught off guard by it. And it…

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did you say to her?

WENDY THOMAS RUSSELL: I didn’t say much at the time. I sort of stumbled through the conversation, oh, who is God? And I sort of stumbled through the conversation, and then later went home and talked to my husband.

And he said, you know, it’s not what Maxine believes, but what she does in life that matters. And it was a turning point for me, this idea that, if we raise kids to be moral and ethical and kind and generous, then what they believe is secondary. And it was — it’s been a guiding force to the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to ask you about the title. For so many people, God and their religion are a basic component of who they are. It’s not just God.


JEFFREY BROWN: And yet you use that, just God, relax, it’s just God.


JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean?

WENDY THOMAS RUSSELL: I don’t mean to be flippant or insensitive in any way, but it does seem like there are certain topics that are hard for parents to talk about and to broach with their children.

And, increasingly, religion is becoming a one of them, and in a lot of secular families, the word God is almost replacing sex as kind of this taboo subject. So…

JEFFREY BROWN: The hard discussion that parents might have.


What I was getting at was that it’s not such a difficult subject if you approach it in the right way. And so we can all sort of lighten up.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are coming at this as a secular, nonreligious parent.


JEFFREY BROWN: You see a growing need for this kind of discussion.


Religion isn’t going anywhere. Religion is going to be around for a very long time. But it’s true that secularism is on the rise. And it’s growing rapidly. And it’s grown in the last 20 years. The problem with a lot of parents in this particular group is that they are trying to raise their kids in this era of transition or this era of change.

So let’s come up with a way that we can talk to our kids about religion that’s completely honest, that values critical thinking, that values religious tolerance and literacy, and that kind of leaves the door for kids to really make up their own minds.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give me an example of a common dilemma that parents find when it comes to raising their children vis-a-vis religion.

WENDY THOMAS RUSSELL: There are quite a few.

And I did a survey of 1,000 nonreligious parents to find out exactly that. And the top reason cited was, people weren’t sure how to talk about religion without indoctrinating their kids into what they believed themselves. That was a hard line.

The other one was interacting with religious family members and keeping the peace in families. When you’re raising a child who is in a secular household, how do you bridge the gap between the older generations who may be more rigidly religious?

JEFFREY BROWN: This word indoctrinating is an important one, because it comes up time and time again here. What’s the difference between indoctrinating and guiding children, right?


Indoctrination, I see, as almost the antithesis of critical thinking. Of course it’s fine to guide your children, but I see indoctrination as sort of this middle ground between full-on brainwashing and guidance. it’s stronger than — it’s stronger than just merely guidance.

I see indoctrination as telling children that there is only one way to believe, and that all other ways and people who believe all other things are less worthy of our respect, less intelligent, less moral. It’s that — that’s the crucial issue, because I think that, when you do that, you set up your child to be bigoted against those who don’t believe the way that you do. You know, we are — it’s not a black-and-white world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so give me an example of the most basic question of — your child says, mommy, does God exist and what is God or who is God?

WENDY THOMAS RUSSELL: The way that I go about it is to say, that’s a great question, and I’m glad you’re thinking about it, that there are a lot of different ways that people describe God and describe what God is.

And this is what some people believe, and this is what other people believe. And this is — and I don’t believe in God, but that’s OK. It’s all OK. And you get to make up your own mind about what to believe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Isn’t that kind of mushy? Isn’t it the job of a parent to guide — I will use the word guide again — their child to say, well, no, it’s not just this, it could be this, it could be that, whatever you think, whatever goes?


Well, I think within reason. And I do — I see a difference between guiding your child to be a moral person, an ethical person, a self-respecting person, a critical thinker. Those are all really important things.

Guiding them to believe in a certain way, in a certain God or a certain prophet, that is not so important. I really want to focus on what people do in life and not what they believe, because if we can judge people on their actions, and not what we think the reasons behind their actions are, it makes for a more tolerant world and a better world.


The book is “Relax, It’s Just God.”

Wendy Thomas Russell, thank you so much.