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Should Your Raise Your Kids in Your Religion?

Posted by Erin nighean Brghde on October 20, 2012 at 2:30 PM

I see this question come up in various pagan fora and am always surprised by the typical response. 


Often there is a sense of knee-jerk reactions to forced church indoctrination as a youth, and a shying away of repeating the same form with a different religion.  The common answers go something like, I don't want to force my religion on my kids they way Christianity was forced on me, and I have a liberal attitude to religion, so I'll expose my kids to -all- religions and let them choose for themselves, because you can't tell someone else what to believe. 


I disagree with this sentiment in nearly every way, and have not arrived at these same conclusions, despite being taken to church myself as a child.  I'd like to unpack this point of view and illustrate why such concerns need not be the case, and why this liberal approach might not be in a family's best interests. 


First, the issue of force.  What is it?  It is compelling a person to act against their will by threat of, or under the duress of physical maneuvering.  Is this something most of us, as thoughtful, conscious parents are planning to engage in?  Likely not.  So let's take that notion out of the equation right off.  Families which take children's typical behaviors and needs into account when creating family tradtiions to observe together will ensure compliant participation of all family members in household ceremonies.  Does this mean one must ask their children if they -want to- participate?  I think not; just simply set the tone that this is what we do as a family, and proceed to do it, without any fuss over the matter.  If they are young they might not focus much and run around, in and out of the ceremony.  Or, they might be fascinated with the special occassion and all it entails and be enthralled with it.  Just let them come to it as they are personally ready, observing as long as they need to before being active participants, or give them little jobs to get them directly involved.  Joyful participation happens on its own in such a conducive environment.  Such family ceremonies build family bonding amongst members and a sense of shared family culture within the household as a unit, and this feeds a child's innate need for belonging.  When a child has a strong sense of belonging, she feels secure in her place within the household and all that being a part of it encompasses.   


What about the liberal idea of exposing children to all religions so that they might make their own choice?  Especially when children are young, I don't recommend this.  Of course religious literacy is important in our pluralistic society, and being educated on the ways of others will help one to better understand and communicate with many types of people, and these are laudable; being educated and erudite are always positive things and to be encouraged towards -those- ends.  But what are we really asking of the child, when we spread the worlds faiths before him like a smorgasbord and say, choose?  We are asking a child to comprehend worldview and theology and mythos and make a decision for themselves as individuals.  Part of this liberal philosophy is understaning people to be essentially separate individuals with personal freedoms which should not be infringed upon, even the freedoms of children.  But young children's brains have not yet developed the higher cognitive thinking to grasp these abstract ideas and cannot make reasonable choices about them at this stage.  Further, it gives a child a sense that he is 'other than' his parents, or might be, which can feel unstable, alienating, even frightening.  Family traditions observed as a family give children a sense of belonging that they inherently crave and which helps them to feel secure.  Removing this security in the name of choice which a child is not yet ready to comprehend does not foster family culture.  Naturally as a child ages he will better grasp these larger ideas, ask in-depth questions, and many interesting conversations can be had as to the nature of the world, the gods, our relationships with them, and what makes them significant.  And ultimately our children will grow into adults, when of course each will choose for themselves what path to follow, as is the natural course of things. 


Another aspect of this speaks to a sociological function of religion, that being, to teach the nature of right and wrong.  Different traditions have different ideas about this.  If you allow your child to go picking and choosing faiths you are allowing someone else to instill their ethics code into your child, which may be at odds with yours.  Do you want somebody else determining what is right and wrong for your children?  Such fracturing in ideas can be damaging to family culture as well.  Again, as children age, they will naturally have questions about these ideas, which can lead to deeper discussions and further thought.  Your older child might not always agree with you, and this can be a healthy sign of a growing and enquiring mind.  But providing a firm bedrock of ethics for the home will always give your child something to fall back on and feel secure in even while they question and wonder as their brains continue to develop and lead them into new areas of thought. 


Such areas of thought then lead us to what we believe, individually and/or collectively.  While it is true that you never can really tell another person what to believe, the good news in traditional polytheist religions is that you do not have to, and in the end it is not the most important aspect of praciting the religious customs.  In traditional polytheist thought, religions are primarily orthopraxic, meaning based on shared custom, rather than orthodoxic, or based on shared belief, as are the Abrahamic faiths.  This means that a family can share household ceremonies together even while various members may have different ideas about the meanings of the ceremonies.  Truth and value can be derived from the customs even if deep theological belief is absent.  And again, as your children grow, this idea is fodder for many wonderful and interesting conversations you and your children can have together.  As they get older they will naturally arrive at their own conclusions, or more likely an evolving set of them.  But these need not impede enjoying family ceremonies together, and further, as practicing together creates senses of belonging and security, it then lead to identity.  When children identify with their cultural orientation they feel a sense of pride towards it and enthusiastically embrace it, or at least feel a comortable sense of knowing who they are in a diverse society.  This helps diffuse some of the anxiety surrounding identity issues youth might face in the world among their peers and help provide them with a strong sense of who they are.  This in turn helps them to be less likely to be influenced by negative peer pressures, or turn to peer culture to meet those inherent sociological needs for belonging, security, and identity.


Practicing the traditions together with your children is a special thing to do for them, and with them while they are young and growing, for the groundedness and closeness and security it brings them.  These can only be positive forces on growing children, and need not impede any of their natural mental or spiritual development at any stage of their lives.  Further, religion is designed to foster relationships with what is deemed important in a given worldview, and helping your children see the meaning in those relationships will give them a foundation on which to build, adding their own insights as they grow.  It is also designed to help people cope with life's difficulties, and giving them coping guidance can benefit them substantially.  Ultimately, they will choose their own ways as adults, maybe even as young adults still living at home, but the core senses of belonging, security, and identity must always be heeded in fostering a strong family culture within the household, and practicing religious traditions together as a family works tremedously towards those ends. 

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1 Comment

Reply Yvonne
3:11 AM on April 11, 2013 
Great post.

I always assumed that teaching your kids about all religions was so they could make the choice *when they are old enough*, not while they're still children. I personally have always said that there's nothing wrong with devising family rituals your kids can participate in, or teaching them your values and the stories that go with your tradition.

Also, I am planning to write a blogpost on tradition at "Sermons from the Mound" and would like to quote from your comment on tradition, if you would permit that.

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