“Mommy, why did Jennifer* get cancer?”
This probing question from my nine year old daughter caught me off guard. Her friend had been diagnosed with leukemia a year earlier.
All three of my kids had taken the news fairly well, I thought. They asked questions about her treatment, felt bad about all the needle pricks she had to endure, and made ‘get well’ cards. They even imagined God holding Jennifer in a giant hug.
But the ‘why?’ question had been a long time coming, and I had forgotten it was likely lurking somewhere waiting to be asked.
When it comes to spirituality and religion, children’s questions tend to fall into four categories: 1) informational, 2) analytical, 3) experiential, and 4) wondering.
Informational questions are those that have factual or demonstrable answers, such as “When is Diwali?”, “What are the steps for meditating?” or “What kind of tree did the Buddha sit under?” These are the sort of questions for which we can search the internet for an answer if we don’t already know it.
Analytical questions require some interpretation of information or ideas. A child might ask, “Why did Francis of Assissi give up all his money to become a monk?” or “Does meditation work?” There are plenty of opinions about the answers to these questions, so you and your child can research different answers and decide which you think are most helpful.
Experiential questions arise out of a child’s observations and reflections. This is the kind of question my daughter was asking when she queried the reason for her friend’s cancer. Other questions of this sort include things like “Why are people marching with signs outside the police station?”, “Why do I feel so peaceful in the woods?” and “Where did oompa go when he died?” Answers to these questions come from our own experiences and belief systems and often evolve as we move through life.
Wondering questions pertain to the mysteries of the universe, such as “Is there a God?”, “Is there life after death?”, “Is Santa Claus cold at the North Pole?” and “Are there other inhabited planets in outer space?” These questions invite us to draw on science, personal experience, and our belief systems to explore possible answers with our children. Often we wonder just what and how much to say about these topics, particularly with small children, especially if we would like them to make up their own minds about major spiritual issues when they are older.
The first two types of questions are generally easier for parents and caregivers to handle because we can look up the answers to informational questions with our children or walk through a reasoned response to analytical queries. Experiential and wondering questions may push us to admit what we do not know ourselves and, if we’re willing, invite us to ponder alongside our children the deep concerns of a spiritually attuned life without having to have all the answers.
*This name has been changed.