Is Santa real? What about God? Or Mr. Stranger Danger? A 5-year-old’s curiosity is a wonder to behold — more than a wonder if you haven’t had your coffee yet, or if you’re trying to get last-minute Christmas shopping done at Target and your son says he wants to die right now so he can meet God.

To be a parent is to feel the force of this curiosity like a live spring uncoiling with unpredictable energy against the day’s agenda and the furthest reaches of the known universe, pushing you into a possible future not yet imagined.

“When did people first realize there was a God?”

This is my great-nephew Jackson, doing curiosity handsprings across the academic discipline of theology and squeezing an open-mouthed pause from his mom, Carmen, my niece — with whom I had a lively chat over the holidays about such matters when she had a moment to relax. This was a conversation of puzzlement and gold, and I’ve been thinking ever since about childhood and the precious possible.

“There are things you expect — the frustration of bedtime, meal-planning, defiance,” said Carmen, who besides Jackson is mom to year-and-a-half-old Joey. “The cliché questions: why this, why that? Why is the sky blue? This is what we think will happen before we’re actually parents — what’s out there in the parent magazines, in our cultural awareness.

“When you are a parent, and it’s 9 a.m. and you’ve just changed your second dirty diaper of the morning, and you haven’t taken your shower yet, and the older kid is maybe an inch from a timeout … that’s when he throws a zinger at you ‘When did people realize there was a God?’ Did I hear him right?”

This had started out, a few days earlier, as a discussion of Santa and magic, Carmen told me. Fully on his own, Jackson had decided, logically, that there was no Santa. The fat man’s alleged attributes didn’t quite compute. “I think Santa’s a myth. Am I right?” he asked Mom.

And here was one of those moments, Carmen realized, when huge swaths of future hung in the balance. The wrong answer might shut down something valuable. What, in fact, is the point of the Santa story anyway? Isn’t it a celebration of the magical thinking phase of early childhood, a stage, like crawling and cruising, through which young humans must pass before they can maneuver with confidence in the world they are inheriting?

Something seemed premature about her son’s question, but still, he had come to this remarkable conclusion on his own, so she said: “Technically, yes. But don’t blow it for your friends or your little brother.”

That night, after Jackson saw “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” with his dad, he told Mom he believed in Santa again and even added, in reference to their earlier logic-driven discussion about what happened to the treats set out on Christmas Eve, “So make sure Daddy doesn’t eat the cookies this year.”

Well, phew. “I wasn’t ready for him not to believe in Santa Claus,” Carmen conceded to me, though she was intensely curious about what was really going on in her son’s mind, and how he was able to embrace belief and non-belief with such cheery lack of conflict.

And then came the zinger in the parking lot of Target: “Mommy, I want to die right now so I can go and see God.”

Mom did another quick regroup. “No, no,” she said after a silent, groping pause. “The greatest gift God gives us is the gift of life. If you want to be with God,” she said, “you just need to open your eyes. Or say a prayer.”

This was not a glib answer. She didn’t realize she believed that till she said it. “My understanding of God is less concrete than what I’m telling him,” she told me. “But being asked these questions makes me believe in things more. When you talk about the miraculous …”

And this, I thought, is what it means to raise a child without rigid answers or, even more crucially, rigid fears. In the course of our chat, Carmen brought up a book she’d recently read, “Protecting the Gift,” by Gavin de Becker, in which one of the country’s leading experts on violent behavior counseled parents to encourage their kids to trust their instincts rather than being taught to fear, for instance, all strangers unconditionally.

When Carmen talked to one of the moms in her son’s playgroup about the Santa situation, the mom said, “I’d just freak out if my kids ever questioned that right now.”

This response, Carmen said, was far more dismaying than any zinger Jackson could throw at her.

“I believe to be afraid about kids’ questions is going down a dangerous road. There could be so many ways to answer something — but don’t be afraid of the question itself, or the act of questioning.”Originally published 12/28/06