© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Cross purposes


“Yeah, B.”

“I want to wear something to school tomorrow but it makes me feel weird to wear it. I don’t know if I should.”

It’s completely in character for Erin (10) to open with a “should” question. Erin is as tightly concerned with values questions as the other two are with empirical ones. Most of all, she is intrigued, fascinated, curious, and ultimately repelled by the dark side.

I wrote last year about her long-ago entrée into this ambivalent dialectic, watching Snow White at age four:

Her epiphany came as Snow White entered the deep, dark forest, fleeing the wicked Queen. The Queen had certainly gotten her attention, but Erin’s eyes didn’t pop – and I mean POP — until Snow White fled into the storm-whipped forest.

“Daddy, LOOK!!”

“Oooh, yeah, look at that.” The whipping branches of the trees had transformed into gnarled hands, which were reaching ever closer to Snow White as she cowered and ran down the forest path. I looked over at Erin, whose dinnerplate eyes were glued to the screen.

“What ARE those?!” she asked, breathlessly.

“Looks like some kind of evil hands, B.”

“Daddy,” she said in an intense hush, “…I want to BE those evil hands!”

(For the record, she now talks about pursuing a Pre-Med course of study in college, with only a minor in Evil.)

I wasn’t surprised to hear that she was puzzling over the morality of clothing choice, pondering the implications of spaghetti straps or a too-short skirt. It’s her stock in trade. But this time, there was a twist.

“What is it you’re thinking about wearing?” I asked.

She slowly revealed a pendant necklace, and dangling at the end, a cross.

I remember when she bought it at the dollar store on a Florida vacation last year, selecting a cross of pink plastic beads from a huge display of hundreds of cross necklaces. (I remember the sign over the display reading ALL CROSS NECKLACES $1. I’d added a line in my mind: Jesus Saves—Why Shouldn’t You?)

“Why does it make you feel weird, B?” I assumed she was feeling out the reaction of her secular dad. And there was a time I would have frozen like a moose in the headlights at such a thing, unsure of the right response. But this isn’t some church-state issue. This is about letting my child explore the world for herself. I don’t have to engage anything higher than the brain stem for these situations anymore. But it wasn’t about my views–it was about hers.

“I feel weird wearing it when I don’t really believe in god. Like I’m not being honest. But I just like to wear it.”

“It’s fine, sweetie. It’s a pretty necklace.”

She paused. There was more, I could tell.

“It makes me feel good to wear it.”

Uhhh, okay, there’s at least one unfortunate way to read that sentence. “You mean it makes you feel like a good person to wear a cross?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “It just…” She smiled sheepishly. “It makes me feel good to rub it.”

I’ve been ready for that sentence for years, but the context is all wrong.

“When I’m worried, I rub it with my fingers and it makes the worry go away.”

Aha, okay. It’s a simple talisman. And Erin does spend more time worrying than she ought to. I told her about the jade worry stone I carried in my pocket throughout middle school. Same deal. It did make me feel better. Her cross has no more connection to God than my worry stone. In fact, her concern is that people might think it did when it didn’t.

I asked if I could feel the cross. The pink beads are threaded on two axes and revolve pleasantly beneath the fingertips. “Hey, that is nice,” I said. “Better than my rock!”

She laughed. She’s worn the cross for a week now. And if I know my girl, the compulsion to explain what she does and doesn’t believe is eventually going to surface. It’ll be a conversation starter for her. I could have found a reason to disallow it — something about disrespecting the beliefs of others, perhaps — but I wasn’t fishing for a way to disallow it. On the contrary, I fish for ways to allow things. Here’s a chance for her to engage and think about issues of identity and belief and symbolism. Why miss that chance?

Most important of all, I know it isn’t likely to cast a spell on her—in part because I didn’t treat it like fearful magic, and in part because I know my girl.



This was written on Sunday, 19. October 2008 at 08:17 and was filed under belief and believers, My kids, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. ““No, of course not,” she said. “It just…” She smiled sheepishly. “It makes me feel good to rub it.”

    I’ve been ready for that sentence for years, but the context is all wrong.”

    Seriously, Dale. That is the second time you have made me choke while reading your blog. You should have a disclaimer that suggests against eating and reading.

    Comment: Jamie – 19. October 2008 @ 8:36 am

  2. great post! I really admire your stance on this. I’m sort of dreading the day my 4 year old daughter starts to ask religious questions and I hope that I can handle those situations with the sense of grace, tolerance and humor you exhibit.

    Comment: antimattr – 19. October 2008 @ 10:05 am

  3. You are wonderful. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I hope I have the same presence of mind when my girl brings up such opportunities to explore.

    Comment: kathryn – 20. October 2008 @ 12:40 am

  4. “I’ve been ready for that sentence for years, but the context is all wrong.”

    I’m not ready for that sentence, how can you be ready for that sentence.

    Comment: Belgian Atheist – 20. October 2008 @ 6:17 am

  5. You can’t let her touch a cross! Atheists will burn at the touch!

    Comment: boonxeven – 21. October 2008 @ 8:48 am

  6. You can’t let her touch a cross! Atheists will burn at the touch!

    Well then it’s a good thing she’s not an atheist. My kids have opinions, and they change all the time, but I try hard to keep labels off them. The cross must know this, for lo, she is unscorched!

    I, on the other hand…

    Comment: Dale – 21. October 2008 @ 10:00 am

  7. an atheist would only burn at the touch of a cross if the Christian God actually existed. Since no such being exists, I think we’re pretty safe.

    Comment: antimattr – 21. October 2008 @ 10:50 pm

  8. […] I blogged about one such situation in 2008. Erin (then 10) asked if she could wear a pink beaded cross necklace to school. She’d bought it on vacation at the dollar store, but now she said “I feel weird wearing it when I don’t really believe in god. Like I’m not being honest. But I just like to wear it.” […]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » Let ‘em drive! Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 27. July 2010 @ 1:17 pm

  9. […] something on for size is classic Erin, and she left the church knowing what both feigned conformity and sore-thumb honesty felt like. […]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » The children of the revolution Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 29. November 2010 @ 12:58 pm

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