Embracing Religion 'For the Sake of the Kids'

Christian childrenI was at a birthday party last weekend when a fellow mom, who knows about my work, pulled me aside and told me her daughters will soon be starting CCD — AKA Catechism. Her husband was raised Catholic, she explained, but neither of them are religious now at all. She said she'd let me know it goes. This business of giving children a religious education — or a religious "base," as many people call it — is so fascinating to me. And, whenever it comes up, it reminds me of what a powerful structure religion can be.

In so many families, religion is presented as intrinsic to all things. It's what allows humans to think and love and breath. It offers a clear perspective on the world and the world’s creation. It acts as a conduit for doing good. It clarifies the line between right and wrong. It provides the social outlet so many desire and the hope so many crave.

It's no wonder that sometimes, long after people have left their parents' religions behind, they find that their faith is still there, deep inside them, clinging to their subconscious like a tenacious child. And that’s a fitting metaphor, given that it’s the arrival of their own children that causes some parents to revisit their own childhood beliefs — and debate the merits of embracing religion for, as they say, "the sake of the kids.”

I wonder, if you're reading this, whether you've ever had to address this issue, or you know anyone who has. If so, what was the upshot? Were the children grateful or confused by the sudden religious infusion into their everyday lives? Were the parents glad to have done it — or did they regret the decision?

And do kids from secular homes ever come out of catechism/Hebrew Academy/Islamic madrasa/etc. as staunch believers?

Addressing 'God' in Secular Families: When is the Right Time?

When my daughter was 2, and barely out of diapers, she had her first Potty Emergency. We'd been having lunch when suddenly she rose and sprinted to the bathroom with the speed and determination of a hunted deer. I'd been hopeful she made it in time, but when I arrived several seconds later, she was standing in front of the toilet, fully clothed, staring down at a puddle on the floor. Her little shoulders had fallen. Without looking up at me, she shook her little head and said exactly what I would have said in the same situation:

"Jesus Christ."

I'm sure my Presbyterian ancestors would have been charmed to know the only thing my daughter knew about the Christian Messiah was that he made for an effective expletive.

In many nonreligious families, there aren't a lot of opportunities for religious references to arise outside of idioms, proverbs and occasional profanity. Few of us visit churches or attend mosque or synagogue or temple. We don't pray before meals. We don't emphasize the religious aspects of national holidays. We don't have Bibles or Qur'ans lying around. God just doesn't come up.

As a result, sometimes we don't know how to start the conversations. How do we kick things off? And when, exactly, are our kids ready to have these talks?

GodTalks

"I don't want to make a big deal of telling her I don't believe in God," one atheist mom told me, "but there never seems to be a right time to say it."

There is no magic age for God talk, and it depends a lot on the personality of the child, but kids are generally ready to start exploring ideas of spirituality around ages 4 or 5. This is when blossoming imaginations welcome supernatural ideas, and when concepts like good and evil come into focus. It's about this time, too, when inquisition replaces demand as the rhetorical tool of choice:  Why did this happen?" "What happens if someone does that?" And it's during these years they are first exposed to the reality that mom and dad don't have exclusive control of the thought process: kids at preschool and daycare also have ideas to share.

Watch carefully, and you'll see the signs of mental development, and a readiness for thoughts unrelated to immediate needs and wants. You may notice a new interest in how plants and insects die, curiosity about the sunshine, and a knack for picking up on anything "out of the ordinary." They'll pretty soon notice that people have different answers, different explanations, and that some of them will undoubtedly involve faith.

Even when you know the timing is right, the thought of broaching the subject of religion can be intimidating — even paralyzing. Many parents fret that they waited too long. Their children begin to "act" on what they hear without the benefit of context. They may assume that the religious ideas voiced by relatives or peers are absolute truth. They may learn to phrase things in ways that make their parents uncomfortable, which causes the parents to try to "undo" the children's learning.

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"My son overheard a discussion that I was having with another adult," one mother told me. "When he heard me mention 'God' he asked: 'Do you mean the ‘One True God?' Apparently, his public school kindergarten teachers were praying with the kids in class."

This is not to say it's imperative that we parents are the ones to bring up religion. More than 50 percent of parents surveyed said their kids had brought up the subject themselves. Don't be surprised when the moment arrives. Accept the opportunity, and dive right in: "I'm glad your Uncle Joe brought it up!" you might say. "This is interesting stuff."

The trick, if there is a trick to this, is to let children's curiosity be your guide. Try not to tell them more than they want to know, or answer questions they're not asking. There's no need for a boring dissertation or a nervous oratory. Nothing needs to be forced or coerced.

Seriously, if talking about religion is anything other than natural and interesting, you're probably trying too hard.

3 Must-Reads for Secular Parents

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The last month has produced an incredible little selection of articles relating to secular parenting, and I wanted to make sure you didn't miss them. The pieces are, in turn, educational, insightful, funny and heartwarming. And all of them are written by women — which seems significant because the secular community is, we are told, still dominated by menfolk. [To read the articles, just click on the titles below.]

1. Why My 7-Year-old is an Atheist (And Why I'm Okay With That) by Carolyn Castiglia

Castiglia, a comedian, writes about her daughter's "conversion" to atheism, despite her own rather open-minded approach to religion. The piece is very funny but also has some nice advice to impart.  A friend found this on Jezebel but it was originally posted to Babble. Here's a particularly good bit:

The way I imagine God has changed over the years – He's gone from being a person, a man, to being more of a Thing, a notion. Goodness. The Oneness of the Universe. With something female in there. The energy that keeps the whole thing afloat. God as I know it now when I know it is kind of a cocktail made from a shot of Buddhism, a shot of feminist activism and a splash of ginger ale (because that, my friends, is something you can always count on). My daughter, on the other hand, at the ripe old age of 7, is convinced that there is no God. Not even a god. Yup, my kid's an atheist. And she pretty much has been since she was 5. It's not for lack of exposure to God or god or even gods and spirituality, because she has attended Church and church and a UU "church" and it has made no impact. We've prayed together. I talk about God sometimes, in a good way. When I asked her recently why she doesn't believe in God she told me, succinctly, "Because I know too much about science!"

2. Losing Our Religion by Katherine Ozment.

Ozment is a writer who turned her attention to nonreligious parenting in this fun and honest Boston Magazine piece. Many parents are sure to find her situation all too familiar. Here's the nut-graph:

Like most upper-middle-class parents, my husband and I have worked out a strategy for every aspect of our children’s lives, from cord-blood banking and on-demand breastfeeding to extracurricular math classes and strict limits on screen time. Religion is the big exception. It’s something he (raised Jewish) and I (raised Protestant) keep meaning to address, yet year after year we manage to avoid it. Most days I can shrug this off. Who has the time? I think. And does it even matter? But as ambivalent as I am about organized religion, I recognize there is something to it. Participation in a religious community has been correlated with everything from self-esteem and overall hopefulness to the avoidance of substance abuse and teen pregnancy. So I worry: Am I depriving my children of an experience that will help shape their identities in a positive way and anchor them throughout their lives?

3. The Curse of the Herd by Gwen DeWar

This is not a story about religion, per se, but it may as well be. DeWar is a writer and anthropologist fascinated by the strong pull humans feel toward conformity. The focus of this piece, published by Psychology Today, is how this sort of conformity can and does affect our child-rearing — and not in a good way. She writes:

It’s disturbing, and it should concern everyone. Yes, social conformity serves some helpful functions, and many people believe in the rights of various groups to enforce their own cultural norms. If a community wants to reject science in favor of folk remedies, or to punish people for teaching evolution, isn’t that their prerogative? But unless this group is composed solely of adult volunteers, there is a problem. Children don’t volunteer. They don’t choose their birthplace. They don’t choose their parents or the cultural setting in which they grow up....Is freedom of thought a human right? Do kids have a right to learn about the tools of critical thinking? Our need to question and tinker may be as primitive as our need for food and love.

And while I'm on it, two other worthy reads are:

• Molly Worthen's One Nation Under God, an opinion published by the New York Times, in which which she argues that "the temple of 'my personal opinion' may be the real 'established church' in modern America." (So true!)

•  Picture Books for Strong Girls, a list of book recommendations published by No Time for Flash Cards. The list has some great suggestions, to which I would add Big Momma Makes the World, a book that tells the Biblical creation story, more or less — only "God" is a Southern Momma with loads of laundry to do and a baby to take care of. (Don't worry. She can handle it.)\

Big Momma Makes the World