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PARENTING : The Question of God : * Children's wonderment can pose a dilemma for those who aren't religious or whose families combine beliefs.

March 04, 1994|ROBERTA G. WAX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Roberta G. Wax writes regularly for The Times.

Sandy was sitting in a crowded McDonald's restaurant when her 5-year-old son asked in a booming voice, "So who was this Jesus Christ guy anyway?"

In the hush that followed, Sandy--who asked that her real name not be used--replied: "He was a man who lived a long time ago, a kind of teacher. People who call themselves Christians believe in what he taught."

Although the answer satisfied the boy briefly, other questions quickly followed: What are Christians? How are they different from other people? What are we?

Sooner or later, whether their parents are prepared or not, children begin asking about God. They do it, according to Rabbi Steve Tucker of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, because it gives them a feeling of belonging and "a sense of a larger community."

"Kids want to know, who am I in the world?" Tucker said. "Religion helps the child process the world and provides the community, which the parent alone can't provide. That's extremely important."

Important or not, it can pose a dilemma for parents who either aren't particularly religious or whose marriage combines two different traditions of belief.

*

Sandy, who grew up in a non-religious home, is nevertheless reluctant to deprive her son of the comforts of faith. "Although I don't believe in God or organized religion," she explained, "I wanted to give him information in case that is what he wanted to believe."

Eric Mason, youth pastor for East Whittier Friends Church (a Quaker group), says he thinks that it's important for children to believe in something. The alternative, he says, is that "they'll believe in anything," good or bad, that comes along. In his words, "there's an empty space inside that longs to be filled."

Judy Spence of North Hills reports that going to church not only brings her family together, but also gives her children more security, especially in times of stress such as the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake.

The feeling extends to the grown-up Spences too, she says. She cites an injury her son suffered as the event that made a churchgoer of her husband: "He realized he can't always protect his children and started going because he felt maybe God could help protect them."

Even adults who aren't observant can bring an element of religion into family life. Anyone "can be religious without believing in a deity," said Father Allen DeLong, president of Chaminade College Preparatory, a Catholic school in Chatsworth.

Julie Price, a Studio City mother of two, agrees, adding that without benefit of institutional guidance, "I taught (my children) to be good to others, to be kind and honest, to give to charity."

Some clerics, however, believe that such messages may be more powerful when presented in the context of faith.

"Religion teaches absolute morality," said Tucker, "that you don't cheat, not because you might be caught, but because it is wrong, period."

While that may sound gratifyingly simple, parents often find it far from simple to talk to children about God. Tucker offers his own answer to a young one's question, Who is God?: "I tell them God is a force that we can't see but we know its effects, like the wind. God is what makes mommies love daddies, parents love children. How did you know to love your dog? No one taught you; you just do."

Religious leaders agree that in marriages of mixed faiths, problems arise not only over concepts of God, but over the rituals of faith. DeLong advises parents to discuss ahead of time how they plan to raise their children and avoid making faith an arena of conflict.

Bob and Barbara Tarlau of Northridge resolved the issue before they even got married. Bob, who is Jewish, told Barbara, who is Catholic, that since her faith was stronger than his, she could be in charge of their future progeny's religious upbringing. Said Barbara, now the mother of a 4-year-old son: "We both felt it was important to have the moral guidance that religion provides."

Whatever choice parents make, DeLong maintains, if they attend services, their youngsters should go along. Sure, they'd rather play than go to Sunday school, he says. They'd rather play than do their homework or clean their rooms, too. "But these are part of the responsibilities of parenting. This is part of bringing a child to maturity."

The message to convey, Tucker said, is that "this is just something this family does; this is part of who we are. It brings meaning to our family."

DeLong admits that many services are boring, and said the onus is on clergy to "make it appealing . . . to win their hearts."

The bottom line, though, says Mason, is that whatever rituals you follow, you can't force a child to believe in something. If they don't believe, he advised, "you just love them anyway."

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