"Mommy, What's Catechism?"

1959catechism_class

This segment of "Mommy, What's That?" — a series where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas to children in non-religious ways — comes courtesy of a reader, Chris. Chris told me that some of his daughter's friends are in CCD — short for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine AKA "Catechism" — and he is having a little trouble coming up with the language to explain it to his little one.

1959catechism_class

If you don't know already, CCD is basically Catholic instruction for kids who attend secular schools. It's meant to 1) teach about the Catholic faith and 2) ready children to become Catholics. In a sense, it's indoctrination in its most classic form: Teaching children to believe, through "classes" — because, you know, it's educational! Like school! — to adopt one, single perspective to the exclusion of all other perspectives. I'm not a big fan.

BUT, hey, other people I like and admire see it as a harmless way to introduce kids to the Catholic culture. And if balanced out at home with other perspectives and the assurance that Catholicism is a choice, like any other choice, then I think it's just fine. My aim is not to keep secular children away from religion — or from people who wish to indoctrinate them! — but rather to teach kids to think critically, value science, and to take charge of their own belief systems.

Now back to Chris' question. How can you explain Catechism in your secular home?

The short answer:

CCD is a school that teaches kids how to be a part of a religion called Catholicism.

The long answer:

Many people think it's important for their children to grow up to know about and believe they way they believe, so they will send their children to special schools to learn these things. Jewish kids might go to Hebrew School, Catholic kids might go to Catholic School, etc. CCD is a special type of Catholic school that is only held on weekends and week nights, and where kids can learn all about Catholic beliefs and what it takes to be a Catholic.* Any child can take CCD classes — including you! — but the kids who take them usually feel pressured to believe what they learn there. And we want you to learn about lots of different religious — rather than just one — and make up your own mind about what to believe. If you want to know more about the classes, though, why not ask your friends what they are learning? I bet they'd love to share that with you."

* If you want to take a minor tangent, Chris, you might tell your daughter that Catholics have sacraments, which means that they believe God wants them to take part in certain activities — and then give her an example or two. I'll touch on some of them — baptism, confession and communion — in the coming days. So look for that!

And let me know in the comments if this answers your question!

When Opinions Expressed Are Not Your Own

Opinionated GuyFor many of us, strong opinions are like pheromones. They attract us. They lure us in. People who believe what they believe with passion, and who aren't afraid to state their truth — these people hold certain powers. The power to make us laugh. The power to make us think. The power to move us to share our own opinions.

Of course, we're not going to agree with all these opinions — or even find them valid! (Even Einstein expressed some bullshit opinions now and again.) We may even be offended and put off by certain assertions.

But the point remains: There is an underlying attraction that many of us feel to people who possess the courage of their convictions — perhaps because so many others lack it. I find this is particularly true in my relationships with women. It's incredibly hard for me to connect with passive women who soak up what others say and offer little of their own, who look to please others rather than challenge themselves. But when I meet a woman with a strong, clear voice and the willingness to share it, I'm very likely to want to take that woman out for dram of Pappy Van Winkle's.

Of course, there are caveats. (Pappy's is too expensive for their not to be caveats.) Certain things will flat-out "ruin the mood." Hate and bigotry are two of them; aggression, ridicule and ill-humor are three more. Also, in my opinion, in order for a loud, proud assertion to hold any "pheromonic" power at all,  it must truly belong to the opinionated. If someone is simply regurgitating what they heard, without thinking critically about it, it doesn't count. That's just gullibility masquerading as opinion. And, forgive me, but gullibility never got anyone laid. (Not well anyway.)

So where do religious opinions fall in all this? Are strong expressions of of religious views an automatic turnoff for an"unaffiliated" type, such as myself?

Not at all. Most of us are open-minded enough (in the real world, not the one that exists online) to move right past opinions we don't care for and focus on other things.

But it is complicated. Not because of the nature of the opinions, but because so many really wonderful, kind, compassionate, generous and strong people believe in their religion because they were told to believe in their religion. They were raised to believe it. They were never given a chance not to believe it.

And when a person has been indoctrinated to hold a certain opinion, is it really their opinion at all?

I really am attracted to people with strong viewpoints on a whole matter of subjects — including religion. I just wish I could be sure the beliefs and opinions of the religious were truly theirs to share.

Measuring the Space Between Indoctrination, Brainwashing

"I don't want to brainwash my kids with my own views. I want them to decide for themselves what they believe."                                                                           — Pennsylvania mother of three

In secular circles, indoctrination and brainwashing are used almost interchangeably. It's not all that hard to understand why. Instructing young, vulnerable children to pledge their blind allegiance to certain authority figures can, especially for the most cynical among us, evoke rather disturbing images. (Karl in A Clockwork Orange, anyone?) And because hell is so often dangled as a punishment for disbelief, religious indoctrination possesses a fear factor that seems, well, kind of mean.

Clockwork BrainwashBut, for all the sometimes-unpleasant underpinnings of indoctrination, there is a significant difference between what happens to children in CCD and what happened to Karl in Room 23. In short, indoctrination is not brainwashing. And I think that's worth talking about — because parents who blow indoctrination out of proportion will hinder their kids' ability to understand the difference between most religions and harmful cults. And I think that's important — really important — especially if they don't want to, ahem, indoctrinate their kids.

So here's the deal: The Oxford English Dictionary defines brainwashing as pressuring someone to adopt radically different beliefs by using systematic and forcible means. It often implies mind control, and other unethically manipulative methods of persuasion. Some religious sects and many cults are famous for employing classic brainwashing techniques. In his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, author Lawrence Wright touches on a number of them. He writes of policies that prohibit church members from reading articles, essays or blogs that criticize Scientology, and he describes incidents of violence, threats and systematic punishments employed by church leaders to keep members from speaking — or even thinking — ill of Scientology themselves.

Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist, has devoted his life to the study of mind control. His books include The Nazi DoctorsCults in Our Midst and Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. In the latter, Lifton lays out "Eight Criteria for Thought Reform." They are:

  1. Milieu Control — The control of information and communication, resulting in extreme isolation from the outside world.
  2. Mystical Manipulation — Experiences that appears spontaneous but are actually planned and orchestrated to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or other insight.
  3. Demand for Purity — The requirement to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. Guilt and shame are often employed.
  4. Confession — Ways to monitor the personal thoughts (“sins”) of individual members — which are then discussed and exploited by group leaders.
  5. Sacred Science — The idea that the group’s ideology is beyond questioning or dispute.
  6. Loading the Language — The use of jargon and terminology that the outside world does not understand as a means of gaining thought-control and conformity.
  7. Doctrine over Person — Subordinating all personal experiences to the ideology of the group.
  8. Dispensing of Existence — In order to be saved or enlightened, individuals must convert to the group’s ideology. If they are critical of the group, or decide to leave the group, they are rejected by all members.

It's clear that, under Lifton's criteria, few religious parents are actually brainwashing their children. They may be employing one or two of these methods — I know quite a few Catholics very familiar with No. 3, for instance, and a few Mormons familiar with No. 8, and, Oh My God, can we talk about the broad employment of No. 5?— but not more than a few, and certainly not all.

I'm not saying indoctrination is a good thing. To be honest, any degree of intentional indoctrination makes me twitchy, whether it's associated with religion or with atheism. But, after viewing Lifton's list, it's clear that what most parents are doing — on both sides of the aisle — falls far outside the bounds of brainwashing. And that, at least, is a relief.

12 Reasons We Indoctrinate Kids — and Why We Shouldn't

Jesus Camp

In nonreligious circles, “indoctrination" has become a pejorative. Something to resist and avoid. The way secularists see it, instructing children to accept any religious faith uncritically deprives them of their own unique reflections, observations and opinions. At its worst, indoctrination is a requirement to blindly follow, to believe without question, to respect and obey authority figures simply because they have been branded as such. Yet, millions of parents throughout the world indoctrinate their children. Why?

1. Comfort: The idea of heaven can be undeniably comforting, especially to children with anxieties about death or dying. By instilling a child with belief in an afterlife, parents may feel they are protecting him from existential pain. And, indeed, in the short-term at least, they might be right.

2. Fear: Devoutly religious parents who believe in hellfire and damnation will indoctrinate, in whole or in part, out of fear for their children's eternal well-being.

3Calling: Those who feel they've been "called" by God to fulfill a duty may see it as their divine obligation to bring children into their faith.

4. Morals: Despite reams of evidence to the contrary, many people still believe there is a necessary connection between religion and moral acts. Parents who have been brought up in a religious household may not know how to instill morals without the aid of religion.

5. Community: Parents who derive a sense of belonging from their religious community may deem it in their children's best interest to be members of that community, too.

6. Tradition: For some families, religion acts as an heirloom — something of personal value handed down from one generation to the next. Religion can provide a structure for family get-togethers, a way to pass on memories, and a vehicle to understand one another.

7. Protection: Places of worship can be safe havens from the less desirable sides of the youth experience — early sex, drugs, alcohol. Getting children involved in a church, mosque, synagogue or temple can be a parent's attempt to stave off those things.

8. Ignorance: Sometimes the blind lead the blind. Those who have been brought up to believe a certain way just because may not think twice before doing same thing with their kids.

9. Parenting style: A parent with an authoritarian parenting style is likely to demand certain behaviors of their children, and this bleeds over into the religious spectrum. Kids may be expected to obey God, just as they are expected to obey Mom and Dad.

10. Truth: Many parents believe they possess the "truth" about the universe — whatever that means. Some believe that the wisdom of their own life journeys not only can, but must, inform the beliefs of their children.

11. Politics: Those whose religion is completely wrapped up in their politics may indoctrinate their kids as a means to an end.

12. Fairness: Parents who perceive that others are indoctrinating their children may indoctrinate their own as a way of balancing things out.

Unfortunately, the problems with indoctrination are many and striking. Not only does it take advantage of children’s undeveloped brains, but it can hinder their ability to draw their own conclusions about the world, independent from their parents. And that’s a skill that relates directly to their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth — the very attributes that will enable them to resist peer pressure and make wise decisions in adolescence and beyond.

What’s more, indoctrination breeds religious intolerance. It's difficult to teach compassion and acceptance while sending a message that your child is obligated to believe the way you do. True tolerance starts at home. If you're going to tell your child it's okay for others to believe differently than you do, you've got to be okay with your child doing the same. Otherwise, you're kind of a hypocrite. And by "kind of,” I mean totally.

The Inheritance of Anxiety

Sometimes, in looking through the responses to my Survey for Nonreligious Parents, I'm faced with perfect examples of What Not To Do. Here's one from a mom:

My child just yesterday stormed out of her classroom telling the teacher that she was 'indoctrinating' her in the telling of the Christian Easter story. I was very proud my child was so confident, assertive, and sure of her own non-belief that she was able to do this.

Confident and assertive? You bet! But sure of her own non-belief? In elementary school? Hell no. Most likely, this child was simply repeating what she'd heard at home — that talking about religious stories is called "indoctrination." (Ain't irony grand?)

In trying to protect her daughter against religious pariahs, this mother has managed to set her child on high alert over the freakin' Easter story. Religion is an unescapable part of our country and our world, so why try to escape it? Teaching our kids to be tense, anxious or sensitive about religion does little more than set them up for a lot of tension, anxiety and hurt feelings. God is a part of our culture's language, its songs, its poetry, its monuments and its works of art. God is a part of human history, and many of us happen to live in a Christian-majority country.

The trick is to get some perspective.

Is it really all that terrible that our kids hear about Easter in school? Or Passover or Eid or Diwali? Who does it hurt? I can think of many situations in which schools (particularly those with a religious bent) could play a role in influencing our kids. But, generally speaking, secular schools with irregular exposure to religious ideas aren't going to make a damn bit of difference, unless the schools are getting some serious "backup" at home.

Sometimes it helps to think of religious references, events and activities as "cultural" rather than "religious." Would it anger us to know that stories about Native American traditions were being shared in the classroom? Or if a teacher from Turkey talked a lot about the customs and beliefs of her home country?

Just as there's a difference between learning and being indoctrinated, there's also a difference between behavior and belief. We need not load everything with meaning. Kids may pledge their allegiance “under God” (or say they'll "try to serve God" as part of the Girl Scout Promise) not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they may sing Christmas songs or say “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Why not just explain to kids that the pledge and the Girl Scout Promise have God in them because their authors believed in God? Why not tell them that that people sing Christmas carols to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but that non-Christians can appreciate the carols, too. Why not say that schools may decorate for certain holidays because those holidays are important to so many people in this particular country?

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: If our kids want to a draw battle lines for themselves on these matters, so be it. But (for the love of God!) let's not nudge them toward the battle.

4 Reasons Not To Indoctrinate Kids Against Religion

 

Indoctrination, whether it be religious or nonreligious, requires that parents send a clear and convincing message that there is only one way to think about God and, in doing so, imply that other ways are wrong, silly, short-sighted or dangerous. There is a pretty major difference between revealing our beliefs to our children and insisting our children — and the world around us — believe the same things we do.

Severe indoctrination leads to the opposite of critical thinking — that is, reflective thinking aimed at deciding what to believe. Part of what makes severe indoctrination so scary is the fact that it can hinder a child's abilities to draw her own conclusions about the world, independent from her parents. And that's a skill that relates directly to a child's level of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth — the very attributes that will enable her to resist peer pressure in adolescence and beyond.

Indoctrination, whether intentional or accidental, can and often does drive a wedge between parent and child. Parenting coach Linda Hatfield once told me that our voices become the voices our children hear for the rest of their lives. If we say "You can do it," for instance, that becomes a mantra that plays in their heads even when we can't be there to say it ourselves.

So when a parent disparages the intelligence of a person who believes in an all-knowing, all-seeing God, that parent is giving his children information that may very well echo in their ears for years. If ever a child, say, chooses to experiment with religion or falls in love with a person of faith, such words would most definitely be remembered — and, very likely, resented. In short: The more we push our rigid opinions onto our kids now, the more we risk having our children withdraw from us later.

Here are four more reasons to avoid inculcating our children with nonreligious or anti-religious beliefs:

1.  Indoctrination often fails. More than a quarter of American adults — 28 percent — have left the faith in which they were raised, according to Pew Forum's 2008 Landscape Survey. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, that number spikes to 44 percent. Think how you would feel if your kids failed to believe something you have given them no choice but to believe? Talk about an ego-killer. And it's no fun for the kids either, by the way, who probably want nothing more than to make you proud.

2. Your passion could backfire. Children who feel unconnected from their parents (and that's many of them during the teen years) may use religion (or anything else that seems important to their parents) as a point of rebellion during adolescence —  a way to assert their authority and establish independence. If religion is a sore point for you, that's all the more reason not to indoctrinate.

3. Your kid might have a natural affinity for some type of spirituality. Or he may come to need it at some point in his life. One respondent to my 2012  survey told me he has a friend who "traded in his alcoholism for God." Despite the respondent's non-belief, he commented: "It was a good trade." Religion might someday have the power to make your kids feel good or even safe. To take that away could be detrimental — not to the child's eternal soul, of course — but to his happiness. And there aren't a lot of things more important than that.

4. Indoctrination breeds intolerance. The natural byproduct of religious freedom is a good, healthy dose of religious tolerance. It's extremely difficult to teach compassion and tolerance to others when you're sending a message that your way is the only right way. True tolerance starts at home. If you're going to tell your child it's okay for others to believe differently than she does; then be okay with your child believing differently than you do. Otherwise, you're kind of a hypocrite. And by "kind of," I mean totally.

And now, on a lighter note, here are some more Toothpaste for Dinner comics:

 

Raising Critical Thinkers Means Letting Our Kids Criticize Us

Supernanny

We’ve all heard the cliche about letting kids rule the roost. Countless books, TV shows, teachers (neighbors, in-laws, airplane passengers...) repeatedly instruct us to set strict rules, limitations and boundaries for our kids. They tell us this is the key to good parenting. They insist we demand courtesy and respect, and not allow them to display anger, disappointment or frustration "inappropriately.” Largely because of these influencers, we start putting our kids in time-outs for talking back, or being unkind. We become infuriated when they speak to us in voices dripping with sarcasm and defiance. We remind ourselves that if our kids don’t respect us now, then they won’t respect us ever. And if we fail at asserting our authority, even for a moment, we are screwed.

Yet, amidst all this traditional authoritarianism, we have the gall to tell our kids it's important to think for themselves, to question what they hear, to value their own opinions, to assert their independence. What's more, as nonreligious parents, we rely on their critical thinking skills to spare them from brainwashing, propaganda and indoctrination.

Our real message becomes: “Question authority... Just not mine.”

Linda Hatfield, parenting coach and founder of Parenting from the Heart, says the the only way to truly empower children is to let them challenge our decisions and opinions — and win. When we use punishment, shame, guilt, bribery and rewards, she says, not only do children lose valuable self-esteem and miss out on excellent opportunities to think things through — but the parent-child relationship is damaged (which breeds a whole manner of other problems, she says.)

In her Los Angeles-area parenting courses, Hatfield insists that kids be able to challenge their parents without being punished for it. “Even if you don’t agree” with them, she says, "give them credit when they do their own thinking.”

In this way, she says, children will learn that it's not only okay, but good, to question what others tell them. And they’ll respect our decisions and advice far more for the rest of their lives because we have respected them first.

 “What I think is most important,” Hatfield says, “is what we model.”

Now, I’m the first to admit, this is easier said than done. Kids are just so immature sometimes. They never just say: “Gee, Mommy, I strongly disagree with you. Please reconsider your decision and let me have that ice cream now, rather than making me wait until later.” Instead, they scream and cry and spit and embarrass us in public places. It’s tough. Even when we do think they have the right to challenge us, we often don't feel we can, in good conscience, give in to their demands because they've been such shits about it.

But Hatfield, who runs her parenting courses and workshops alongside her husband, Ty, asks parents to understand that most of what they consider “misbehavior” is actually age-appropriate; kids, she says, are behaving not to be bad (a word she loathes) but because they’re going through normal developmental stages. So instead of blasting them for doing what you want them to do — challenge what they hear! — Hatfield asks parents to focus on the message, not the method — and to stop taking things so damn personally.

By all means, tell them that spitting is not okay, and that there’s no need to yell.* But then allow yourself to reconsider your own conduct and decisions, Hatfield says. Does it really matter whether the kid has ice cream now or later? Maybe it's a good time to say "Yes." If nothing else, take the opportunity to teach them to value their own opinions and feelings, and encourage them to help find compromises and solutions that work for both of you.

Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, says he talks about this in his workshops. In an e-mail, he told me:

“My kids heard from a very early age that they always have the right to know the reason for a decision AND to question it if they feel it's wrong or unfair. I told them I couldn't just say ‘Because I said so’ and the few times I've said that, they've gleefully called me on it. I've made a point of changing my mind, out loud, when they have a good point. That does more for their growing autonomy than almost anything else I can do. I can attest that the result of all this is not chaos but a pretty smoothly functioning home with scads of mutual respect.”

Here's a cool video of McGowan speaking at a freethought festival in April:

*If you’re yelling this bit yourself, it’s probably not going to work. Just FYI.

Letting Kids Choose Their Clothes (And Their Faith)

When my daughter was still an infant, my husband and I took her to a local coffee shop for breakfast. At the booth over was an early-30s couple, each with multiple tattoos and piercings and jet-black hair to match their clothes. I wouldn't have paid much attention to the couple except for the company they kept. Sitting across from them sat a little girl dressed head-to-toe in pink. She was their daughter. In addition to a pretty pink dress and shoes to match, the 6-year-old wore a shimmering headband, which held back a long mane of perfectly combed, blond hair. As the family stood up to leave, it was impossible not to notice:  These two Morrissey types had given birth to a Barbie doll. The mother caught me mid-smile, and smiled back. "All she wears is pink" she told me. "I buy her all these black T-shirts, but she won't touch any of them."

After they left, I thought: I love that little family. And now, all these years later, I still do.

There is something I viscerally respond to when parents don't expect their children to be Mini-Mes, when they let their children's individuality outweigh our own personal preferences, or even embarrassment. My reaction was the same one I experienced many years later when I read an incredibly sweet and supportive wedding speech written by the father of a lesbian bride.

Embracing every part of our children that makes them different from us is the true test of our unconditional love. We are showing them, in no uncertain terms, that we want to support them on their life journeys — not just drag them behind us on ours.

After my daughter told me, at 5 years old, that “God made us,” I nearly panicked. After pacing the kitchen and explaining the contents of the ill-fated (or so I thought) conversation, my husband uttered 14 words that changed everything for me.

“To me,” he said, “it’s what she does in life that matters — not what she believes.”

It was my “Aha” moment. And in everything I’ve done or said to Maxine since then, this mantra — it’s what you do in life that matters, not what you believe — has propelled me forward in my work, and in my life.

Now that my daughter is almost 7, I understand all too well the plight of the hipsters in the coffee shop. Sometimes I feel the tug of opposition when we're out shopping and Maxine gravitates toward the bright, almost florescent, prom-style dresses that look like they've been bedazzled by Cher.

But I do try very hard to support her choices. Because letting our kid dress like "an Australian's nightmare," as Spinal Tap's long-suffering manager Ian Faith so eloquently put it, is  the right thing to do. By allowing our children to choose what they like, we are affirming that their opinions are valid, that their taste is respected. We are telling them it's better than okay to be who they are; it's wonderful.

This doesn't mean, of course, that we need to allow or support every choice they want to make. But let's do keep our eyes on the goal here: to allow our kids to explore the world and make reasonable choices.