Many parents are wondering right now: how do I talk to my child about a global pandemic? We parents are still trying to wrap our minds around this situation ourselves. We may be trying to balance working from home, attempting to homeschool, checking in with loved ones and friends, and trying to maintain calm for our children—all at the same time. Fortunately, there are many useful articles about talking to children about the coronavirus outbreak. My local children’s hospital has put together this helpful resource with a downloadable guide for kids, for example.
I wonder, though, about how children are reconciling the current pandemic with their understanding of God. It may seem to adults that children aren’t capable of, or interested in, contemplating God’s role in the pandemic or that they don’t think about why suffering can happen, but many of them do think about these things. And if they aren’t thinking about it now, they might be when they or someone they know becomes severely ill from the coronavirus. We may want to shelter children from experiencing—or even knowing about—suffering, but children live in this world, and they do experience suffering themselves.
In an essay featured in the book Understanding Children’s Spirituality, Eva Jenny Korneck wrote about children and theodicy (answering the question of why a good God permits evil). In the essay, she cites a study demonstrating children’s great concerns about God and suffering. She writes:
“[In a survey] of twelve rural and urban primary schools in north western Germany, children were asked ‘What I would ask God…,’ with no further thematic specification. The 2,634 questions collected were subsequently analysed and classified according to strict categories. The result of this survey showed that the deep need of children to ask theological questions increases during their primary education and moves more and more toward questions of suffering and theodicy. More than 56 percent of all questions concerned suffering. … We can refer to this study and give a clear answer: Yes, children connect experiences of suffering, especially those from their immediate context, with God within the parameters of theodicy. They ask the ‘why’ of suffering. This ‘why’ is addressed to God.” 
It is important that we keep open channels for our children to express their own concerns about God and suffering, and especially now and in the weeks and months ahead.
What should a parent do when a child asks their own version of the question: “Where is God during a pandemic?”
The most important thing, I think, is to acknowledge that the question is valid and important, while avoiding trying to solve the problem of suffering. It is undoubtedly important to reassure children that adults at every level – parents and caregivers, teachers, healthcare providers, religious leaders, and government officials – are working hard to keep everyone safe and healthy.
Korneck gives some suggestions for speaking to children about theodicy:
“Any successful interaction with the issue of theodicy, which might be used as the basis for further faith development in which the child will inevitably be confronted by suffering, can only occur if we do not avoid the topic…and if we succeed in relating two aspects—kindness and omnipotence—in the context of theodicy. … The goal would be to avoid creating barriers for children with ready made answers and well intentioned interpretations. We cannot leave children alone when they search for answers in this area. … In honest dialogue, the educator should not put down any position, but motivate all participants to think further. Like Job, children are able to ask questions.” 
According to Korneck, we must not avoid discussing God with our children in the context of suffering, and we must struggle together with our children rather than giving top-down, oversimplified answers. But what might that conversation look like?
There is a wonderful book by Pope Francis called Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Children Around the World. As the title says, the book is a selection of hand-written letters from children from around the world, collected by priests and answered by the pope. They include a range of questions, from “When you were a child, did you like dancing?” to “My mum is in heaven. Will she grow angel wings?” Two letters and responses from the book may aid in parents’ conversations with their children about coronavirus.
One letter writer asks, “Why are lots of people so poor and have no food? Can God give the poor people some food like he fed the 5000 people?” This question is sent from a seven-year-old named Thierry; perhaps not the sort of thing one imagines a seven-year-old to be concerned about.
The pope responds:
“Yes, yes! He can do that, Thierry!
“And he continues to do so. At that time, Jesus gave bread to the disciples to distribute to all the people. If Jesus’ disciples had not passed out the food, the people would have still been hungry. See, there is bread! And there is enough for everyone! The real problem is that some of those who have plenty do not want to share it with others. The problem is not Jesus, but the mean and selfish people who want to keep their abundance all for themselves. With these people, Jesus is very stern. We have to learn to share our wealth and the food we have. That way, there will be enough for all, and everyone will be happy.”
An important lesson we can take from this response is that children can be participants in helping others. We can let children know that just as the disciples distributed bread, we are doing what we can to protect others: washing our hands well, covering our coughs, staying at a distance others, and calling and sending letters to loved ones. These are things that both adults and children must do, and children can do to work together for the well-being of others.
In another letter, a child writes, “if you could do one miracle what would it be?”
The pope responds:
“I would heal children. I’ve never been able to understand why children suffer. It’s a mystery to me. I don’t have an explanation. I ask myself about this, and I pray about your question. Why do children suffer? My heart asks this question. Jesus wept, and by weeping, he understood our tragedies. I try to understand too. Yes, if I could perform a miracle, I would heal every child.
“Your drawing makes me think: there is a big, dark cross, and a rainbow and the sunshine behind it. I like that. My answer to the pain of children is silence, or perhaps a word that rises from my tears. I’m not afraid to cry. You shouldn’t be either.”
We see in his letter that even the pope does not attempt to answer the problem of suffering. This should encourage parents to understand that they do not need to try to resolve it either. Sometimes there are no easy answers. Pope Francis responds to the question with prayer, with silence, and with tears. He reminds us, “Jesus wept.”
Eva Jenny Korneck, “What Children and Adolescents Think about Theodicy and how the Book of Job Can Help: The Case for Using Job in Children’s Bibles,” in K.E. Lawson (ed), Understanding Children’s Spirituality: Theology, Research, and Practice (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2012) 419-433.
Pope Francis, Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Children Around the World (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2016).
Image: Adobe stock
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Angela Rasmussen has a Ph.D. in biblical studies. She teaches at Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America. She is married with three daughters.