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As I understand it, the ability to understand abstract concepts develops gradually in kids and is certainly not all there when they first start having conversations. This comes into play when kids learn about God, who figures in all of the Parsha stories, deserves thanks for all of our food, etc., but can't be directly apprehended.

In most other situations, we have words we teach kids to use for entities they hear about in stories that can't be seen or touched, such as "imaginary" or "pretend."

As a result, more than once, when God has come up in conversation, my 4-year-old has offhandedly pointed out that "God's not real," or "not a real person."

How does one explain to a small child the distinction between God and (lehavdil) imaginary things in stories?

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Pre-emptive note to atheists who may come upon this post: The obvious answer to this question from atheist doctrine is off-topic in the context of this site. –  Isaac Moses Dec 9 '11 at 16:39
    
Is there a way to word this question so that it doesn't have tons of valid answers? –  avi Dec 10 '11 at 15:45
    
A six year old told me recently that even though we can't see Hashem or touch Him, our neshama can see Him. To me this is a really good way of saying it for kids, because it keeps a distinction away from anthropomorphism while also staying away from the abstract. For adults, you could also say something similar, knowing that all created things are made by Him and that He is not among them... that we can't understand Him with our minds but we can experience and think about His actions, and also our hearts can know Him personally. –  Annelise Aug 7 '13 at 5:41
    
Alternatively you could talk about the feelings that we have for our friends and families, of love and thankfulness, and talk about how God blesses us with lots of things we can see and touch... so we can be very close to Him by realising He loves us and loving Him back. For older children, the fact that He causes every moment to exist... that we don't exist on our own, but He holds us in existence... means we're very close to Him because our very being is directly coming from Him, and we can look back to Him closely in thankfulness. –  Annelise Aug 7 '13 at 5:42
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4 Answers

" my 4-year-old has offhandedly pointed out that "God's not real," or "not a real person.""

In response to this exact line of conversation I would suggest the following.

  1. Admit to the child that based on how they understand "real", or how you have taught "real" to them in the past, they are correct.
  2. Explain to the child that some things are real even if we can't touch them or see them. Like Germs, or the other planets, or feelings.
  3. Explain that Gd is very complicated, and is not actually a person, but you can have feelings, a relationship, and talk to him just the same.
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Fortunately with my oldest child this has not been an issue, she innately believes in Hashem, and I have learned a lot from her! (A day after we learned we were expecting another child she told her teacher "mommy has a baby in her belly". There is no way she could have know this. The teacher checked it out with me as 3 year olds often tell stories and when we asked her why she thought mommy had a baby in her belly she responded "Hashem told me")

I find with my other children, stressing the Hashem is everywhere instead of stressing that you can't see Hashem works well. The song "Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere..." helps a lot with this.

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Obviously depends on the child, especially their age, but also their personality. One of my daughters used to make similar statements, "I don't like Hashem" "Why?" "Cause, where is He?", when she was about four years old, but her twin sister never did. (I actually praised her for the question, calling her my "little philosopher.")

The problem usually is simply that they have difficulty understanding the reality of something that they cannot see or feel. To this I would just point out that there are lots of things that we can't see or feel that are still very real (examples can range from air to radio waves).

For the most part, the best response is usually just to shmooze about it with your kids and to make awareness of God something that is a real part of daily life in the home. Over time, kids will simply pick it up.

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Although a person can't see or feel radio waves with their own bodies, they can "feel them" with devices such as radios or sticking their head in a plastic bag. But you can't do that with Gd. –  avi Feb 1 '12 at 14:06
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@avi, I recommend against kids trying the second detection method you mention. Pinwheels would be a safer alternative. –  Isaac Moses Feb 1 '12 at 14:29
    
I wasn't recommending that anybody try that! –  avi Feb 1 '12 at 14:31
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Yes, and when they are capable of formulating such a question, then they will also be capable of understanding some of the answers. –  LazerA Feb 1 '12 at 15:29
    
I guess an important thing is to work with them in their own thoughts and experiences about this... sharing your own understandings and what you've learnt about it... but also letting them have the clear impression that you're not just telling them 'an answer' just to defend Judaism. You're really sharing with them part of the human process of coming to know God with real integrity that they will also be taking for themselves, as they learn to question and to understand more and more. –  Annelise Aug 7 '13 at 5:45
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One approach could emulate the Torah, where God is described in very concrete terms, and his actions are described as if they were human. As Chazal tell us, the Torah was written in lashon bnei adam, or "easily comprehensible language." Perhaps we could avoid the fact that children don't understand abstract concepts by concretizing them and anthropomorphising God. While this does violate the Rambam*, I feel that done correctly it could prove to be very beneficial. For example, in davening, prayers, we describe God as our "Father" and "King." Teaching children that God is like a parent, albeit one they can't see but that is nonetheless real, and showing how His kindness and mercy sustains them, could be a beneficial approach.

(*Re the Rambam: Prior to the Rambam there were opinions that did take anthropomorphism in the Torah literally. (See Marc Shapiro's book.) Also perhaps the Rambam would condone such methods to teach little children.)

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