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Church and Children: The Difference Between Sharing Your Beliefs and Telling Them What To Believe

Circa 2006 when I was all conflicted and dramatic about the religion of my birth and subsequent twenty years of life.

I’m noticing a lot of church talk on Babble lately and, as with most things these days, I blame Mitt Romney.

Seriously though, I’ve got to be honest here: church talk turns me off faster than David Hasselhoff gyrating on stage, in a music video or on the floor while snarfing a burger.

Don’t the words David Hasselhoff gyrating have the combined effect of sending a blood-curdling shiver xylophoning down your spine?

Because really, my feelings while watching The Hoff video are about the same as when anyone waxes poetic about why their religion is true, why their God is the best God or why there is no God or how all religions are bullshit. Everyone just shut up about all of it already and move on. The world would be more “God-like” if we did.

What you believe isn’t the important part anymore because, likely, you are who you are by now and what you believe is what you believe so quit trying to argue about it with those of us who are also old and have made up our minds. It’s pointless and just turns into one big episode of The View where everyone talks over everyone else, you can’t hear a word and nobody knows what anyone else is saying nor do they care.

What isn’t pointless is the beliefs you’re foisting onto your innocent children whose brains are like sponges. That’s what really matters now. Because, you know, as the late, great Whitney Houston famously opined: “the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way” and all that.

Nobody’s leading anybody anywhere if we all keep talking over each other about what’s true and what isn’t.

Your God is the best God. In fact, he’s the only God. All other Gods are ridiculous, made up rubbish. Not yours though. Yours is real. – Ricky Gervais

I was raised in the Mormon church. Mormon from the word go. Baptized at age 8, bonafide member of the Young Women, president of my high school seminary, the works. Church every Sunday where, on the first Sunday of each month, I’d listen to dozens of people, from the elderly on down to 2-years-old, repeat the same lines over and over again as they shared their testimonies.  “I believe our church is the true church, that Joseph Smith is a true prophet and that The Book of Mormon is true yada yada yada Amen.” I don’t say that to offend, only to impress upon you the very seriousness of my indoctrination into The Church Of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints, as they prefer to be called.

I stopped believing in the church in my early twenties and officially resigned when, in an effort to eliminate the rights of same-sex couples to marry, the church supported Proposition 8 in California. That certainly wasn’t my only problem with the church, far from it, but it was the motivation I needed to send in my resignation letter and officially put organized religion behind me.

Admittedly, for a long time I was very angry at the church (see epic rants here and here when I actually tangled with Mormon officials while working as a journalist in Salt Lake City) and angry about religion, about being raised in a church without being given an option, not given a say in such a very important matter. Because why? Because I was too young too understand? Bingo. Maybe wait until I’m old enough to understand before telling me what I’m going to believe.

Because choice is really what it’s all about – for me, anyway – and I think it should be for every individual on this planet. What religion you believe is not relevant to me. What is important is that there is a choice to believe, and yes, a choice not to believe anything at all.

From the moment of my birth I wasn’t given a choice. I was told what to believe, told what was “true”. Belief is intensely personal and telling someone, even a toddler, what they should believe is never the right path. Like Whitney sang, all you can do is “teach them well”. There’s a huge difference between teaching your child well and telling them what to believe.

You might argue that you take your kids to church and teach them to learn the “truth” for themselves and pray about it. That’s a lot of pressure to put on an 8-year-old, a 10-year-old, who has been attending church since birth which is, essentially, being told what to believe. Hell, that’s a lot of pressure for an adult. And, if they haven’t been exposed to other religions, other options, other ways of thinking, that isn’t choice. Not intellectual choice, anyway. Choice is based on information and knowledge. Having all the information and making an informed decision. And still, I don’t think anyone at that age is capable of making a definitive lifestyle choice like spiritual/religious belief.

That’s why I respectfully disagree with both “Mommyfriend” and “DadCamp” over on Babble Kids. Mommyfriend’s post, We Attended Church For The First Time Ever As A Family details her son asking to go to church and the family attending for the first time in 13 years of marriage. She goes on to say that “I know my family needs church. I’ve known it for a long time. We don’t need church because things are bad. We don’t even need church because we feel guilty. We need church because it makes our hearts feel full and connected.”

While I adore Mommyfriend and understand that church makes her heart feel “full and connected” the experiences of her children may be vastly different and it’s something she has said she’ll keep in mind while attending. She’s not just blindly attending church, she’s not telling her kids what to believe, she’s doing something that feels good for her family right now and yet plans to be vigilant about the effects it has on her children. I can dig that.

However, my experience at the age of her oldest (9) wasn’t good. It was an unsavory stew of not feeling good enough, guilt, confusion, feeling left out, isolation. Very rarely did I have those wonderful moments of inclusion or swelling of the heart allegedly induced by Jesus himself. And that’s just a commentary on the community surrounding the  teaching of doctrine. When it came to comprehending actual scripture, fuggeddaboutit.

The bible is filled with weird, confusing stories and parables that, as a child, can be difficult to understand: God told him to kill his kid? What? Why? A test? That seems mean. Is God a bully? She turned into salt? For real? Wait. You’re telling me he was dead then alive? Is that for real or some kind of parable? He actually parted the sea? Another parable? Why all the talk about slave girls? That doesn’t seem right. The Lord made the donkey talk? Seriously? A talking donkey? Like in Shrek? Well, that’s pretty cool, but still. There sure is a lot of dick talk in the bible. Men’s genitals and circumcision and whoring and what not. Is this appropriate for a 10-year-old?

My conclusion? Church is not for children. No, really! I’m not talking about the little Sunday School classes, the singing, and the fun activities – that’s all well and good although they can get that from any number of other environments -  I’m talking about the essence of church as seen through the eyes of a child. Confusing doctrine, guilt, fear, being told what to believe in, trying to fit in by matching your beliefs to what adults around you say is true. Too many parents force their children to attend church and that engenders resentment, anger and even atheism. I know you really believe your church is true/I know you really believe there is no God, but hey, why not give your kid all the pieces and let them put the puzzle together in their own, unique way?

And no, “all the pieces” doesn’t involve telling your kid over and over that your church is the only true church.

It’s certainly not something I want to subject my children to as it took me years to unscramble my poor brain after all the stuff that was put in there by fanatics and well-meaning individuals alike – stuff that didn’t jive with what I felt to be true in my heart of hearts. However, when push comes to shove (and this is going to shock anyone who has followed my personal blog and the religious tirades contained therein) I would come down on the side of a church-going Mommyfriend over the very militant My Kids Have Never Been To Church And I’m Not Going To Take Them stance DadCamp takes in response to her post. In his effort not to subject his boys to the forced church attendance he suffered in his youth, he’s treading dangerously close to perpetuating a similar mindset by shielding them from all religion.

Admittedly, DadCamp’s attitude mirrors mine just a few short years ago. Maybe I’m mellowing in my old age (35!) but, while I completely agree with his opinion about personal spirituality being what is most important, and I’ll bet Mommyfriend does too, what doesn’t gel is how angry DadCamp sounds about religion. As vocal and combative, I daresay, as all the religious folks he accuses of shoving religion down the throats of everyone else.

As a recovering Mormon I totally get it, I was there once too. I was angry, felt betrayed by all the adults who surrounded me as a child and perpetuated a belief I now consider to be categorically untrue and even harmful. But my very personal religious (or anti-religious) stance isn’t what’s important here, nor is DadCamp’s. What is important is that our children are informed. Educated. Not kept away from church or religion as DadCamp suggests and equally important is that our children are not indoctrinated into our religious beliefs from birth because, believe me, parents who are raising their kids within a very specific set of beliefs: it will backfire. You only have to look as far as me and DadCamp. People grow up and learn for themselves and the ones who had religion forced upon them tend to go in the opposite direction. Makes me wonder if DadCamp’s sons will be curious about religion as a result of his vigorous opposition.

This summer my neighbor, who attends the little church in our town, invited Violet, my 3-year-old, to attend church camp. They sing songs, make stuff and learn stories from the Bible, I guess. Three years ago I would’ve make a knee-jerk decision to not let Violet go. That decision, one made out of anger and frustration over the religion I was raised in would’ve been the wrong one. Even when I showed up and she was dancing and singing some Christian rock I felt confident I made the right decision. It was her first exposure to church and it was a good one. Next one might not go as well, but that’s okay too. That’s part of life and just another ingredient she can use while baking her own spiritual/religious philosophy.

I want my children to be very aware of all religions. As many as there are out there. Religion is as much a part of this world as school, baseball, The Kardashians, and keeping them from church isn’t the answer, even though I’ve been badly burned by it. Knowledge is never a bad thing. Exposure to different lifestyles, different ways of thinking, even when they conflict with my own ways is one of my ultimate parenting goals. I want to expose my children to Mormonism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Judaism, Scientology, Islam, whatever you got, we’ll check it out. Except maybe the snake-handlers. I think that’s where I’m gonna draw the line.

If, as a child, my daughter is impressed by something and wants to explore it that’s fine by me so long as I’m around to supervise the situation and translate if someone happens to pull her aside and explain that God hates gay marriage, as can happen in certain religious environments.

If, as an adult, she wants to join a particular religion then that’s her business. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job, it’s something that fulfills and uplifts her and all of humanity and not any kind of religion, like the one of my youth, that is in the business of hurting people in the name of God. Yes, religion helps people too, but millions of others shouldn’t have to suffer at the hands of a God they may or may not believe in.

Good is Good. With or without a God. Be good and you will find reward. Maybe not in Heaven, but you will find it all the same. – Ricky Gervais

And more importantly, DON’T HASSLE THE HOFF.

Read more from Monica on Toddler Times:

The Life And Times Of Our Heroine, Wylet

Who Said Kids and Alcohol Don’t Mix: 10 Ways To Make Bath Time For Toddler Easy and Fun

What Were They Thinking?! The Most Age-Inappropriate Toddler Gear

20 Everyday Items My Toddler Finds Fascinating

You can also find Monica on her personal blog, The Girl Who.

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