A painting of St. Michael defeating Satan. (Submitted photo)
The question from my young daughter came out of nowhere, in passing, and caught me completely unprepared — as all questions of this nature typically do.
“What happens to you if you don’t go to Heaven?”
I panicked for a minute, before casually replying, “Some people choose not to accept salvation from God. Those people choose to be without God forever. Being without God forever is called hell.”
It was not a stellar answer, theologically, but she seemed satisfied and returned to whatever she had been doing.
It’s tricky to broach the subject of the devil with kids. Spiritual warfare is real, but a complicated and intense topic. There is always the fear of starting nightmares or setting off bouts of scrupulosity in little minds that haven’t sufficiently developed to really plumb the depths of these complicated issues.
But the reality is that I can’t have a real conversation with my daughter about God’s love unless we also talk about what his love rescues us from. God isn’t just a friend; he is a savior. If I want her to believe that Christ loved her so much that he suffered crucifixion and death for her sake, I have to tell her why it mattered that he did so: because long ago, the devil tempted our first parents and tried to separate them and us from the love of God forever, and he hasn’t stopped trying since.
Additionally, it is our duty as Christian parents to address this topic with our kids. Most exorcists will tell you that the worst way to protect your child from the influence of the evil one is to refrain from talking about him at all. If we as parents do not tell our children about the devil, the world certainly will — and it will do so, at best, through the half-baked quasi-theology presented in horror movies and, at worst, through occult practices that are often presented to young people as spiritual movements.
In anticipation of our next impromptu chat, I consulted writings of the saints and a few books by exorcists and papal documents in search of the most basic bits of information about Satan, hell, demons — essentially, everything I definitely don’t want to discuss with my kindergartener. The simple facts I gleaned will hopefully be building blocks for her future understanding of these topics.
The first point I came across was the importance of not dismissing the devil as a symbol. The devil is very real; he is absolutely not a symbol. We often hesitate to make this clear, especially to children, because it can be frightening. But even more frightening is the idea of a Christian child not understanding that some things cannot be abstract. God is real, and his flesh becomes real at Mass. Devils — all of them, and especially the principal devil, Satan — is also real.
You don’t have to put your child through Demonology 101. Beginning the conversation about Satan is as simple as opening the Bible. It’s right there in the first pages. The serpent conspires to make Eve lose trust in God and the rules he has set forth for her and Adam; the rest, as they say, is salvation history, and as Pope St. Paul VI once said, “It is a history that is still going on.”
You can temper the scare factor of these conversations by watching your tone. The devil doesn’t have to be whispered about or spoken of in dramatic terms. He isn’t the boogeyman. You can discuss him in much the same way you discuss dental cavities — something unpleasant, something we want to avoid, but luckily, something we also have the tools to avoid.
The devil wants us to think that he can offer happiness. Eve wanted to choose the pleasure of being god-like over the joy of the perfect life for which she had been created. But she found the devil can only offer pleasure, which is absolutely not the same thing as joy. We only find joy in friendship with God.
“The devil is a dog on a leash.” It’s a common phrase, but it’s true. As scary as the devil is, he is not going to jump out of the closet and kidnap you. Hell is not something that happens to you. Hell is something you can choose. Now, you may make your choice slowly, over the course of a lifetime — a little bit every day. But it is a choice nonetheless.
It is true that the devil often increases his attacks against souls who are very close to God, but this can be talked about in a way that isn’t terrifying to young children, or that will make them fear closeness with God as an attraction for the devil. Perhaps examine how the devil treated Jesus, choosing those times when he was about to do the greatest good to torment him the most. If even Jesus was tempted, then so will we be — but remember, that just means that Jesus knows what the temptation of the devil feels like, and will help us if we ask him.
It’s important to know about the devil. But it’s equally important not to focus on him — instead, we need to focus on God. God has never and will never stop fighting for us. He will never stop protecting us if we ask him to. In the words of St. Teresa of Avila — a saint who had a great deal of personal experience with Satan — “God will not permit him to deceive a soul which has no trust whatever in itself, and is strengthened in faith.”