Years ago, when I was a youth pastor, I read an article in a youth ministry magazine that claimed 85% of all Christians accepted Christ before the age of eighteen. Based on these statistics, it encouraged youth workers to redouble their efforts to save youth and children. Once they went off to college or began exploring the world, the odds of young adults becoming religious were greatly diminished. Back then, I thought that outcome a tragedy.
When I was teaching religious doctrine to children, I never thought of it as indoctrination. As a religious person, I had the responsibility of raising them in the faith. While orthodox theology allowed for an age of accountability before which children weren’t morally responsible, every Christian parent was overjoyed when their son or daughter accepted Christ. The pressure was off. Their eternal destiny was assured.
Back then, if someone had suggested children weren’t developmentally capable of making an informed decision about religious belief, I would have missed the point. You indoctrinated children when they were most malleable, assuring their adherence to your religion’s beliefs and practices, because you loved them. This indoctrination, though inappropriate from a non-religious perspective, was the religious equivalent of a vaccination. You were protecting your children from ideas and experiences that might destroy them, from choices and actions that might damn them to hell. To do otherwise was irresponsible.
Now that I’m non-religious, I try to remember the religious motive. I remember the mother, who when I publicly abandoned a belief in hell, chastised me for threatening one of her tools for raising her children. She said, Without the threat of hell, how do you expect me to raise a moral child? This woman was not a negligent, abusive parent. Indeed, within her religious framework, she was an exemplary mother. Though she worried about hell, her primary concern was raising a moral child.
This is the concern when people question my decision to leave religion by asking, But what about your daughter, Ella? For some, my decision to remove my six year old daughter from religion is deeply troubling, akin to walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls with my daughter sitting on my shoulders. I risk far more than my own damnation. When I suggest religious belief is something Ella can choose if she so wills once she is an adult, they worry about how she’ll develop as a moral person.
Again, I try to remember my indoctrination. I was taught that without religious training moral development was problematic, if not impossible. This prejudice was difficult for me to abandon. Since my moral training happened within a religious context, it was hard to imagine raising children without that undergirding. What could possibly replace the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule and the parables of Jesus? This anxiety may explain why many parents, though they no longer have much interest in religion, often return to their childhood religious communities when they become parents. They don’t know where else to go.
My anxieties as a parent ended once I realized religion had no monopoly on morality. Indeed, there is growing evidence that external coercion inhibits, rather than encourages, the creation of morally reflective and responsible adults. Morality develops as children learn to understand choices and consequences, as they find goodness to be its own reward. This morality is taught best, not by institutions, but by the people children respect the most their parents. Our task as parents is not insuring their indoctrination, but helping them to reflect on the choices and decisions we face every day. If we do this well, they will learn how to make good decisions.
This shift in approach can be so freeing for a parent. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to protect our children from alternate ideas. Allowing them to explore, create, reflect, make mistakes and ultimately determine their own path isn’t irresponsible. It is an act of love and respect. When they ask tough questions, telling them we don’t know and asking their opinion allows them to embrace a world where certainty is no longer the highest value. It also creates space for them to form their own opinion.
That doesn’t mean we never give our own. If my daughter Ella, asks my opinion of her, I won’t tell her she was born in sin, incapable of choosing the good and doomed to destruction without divine intervention. I won’t hand her a map, with every twist and turn from cradle to grave drawn in indelible ink. I won’t rob her of the opportunity to discover sometimes through painful detours her path.
Instead, I’ll tell Ella we’re all born with a moral compass, or at least with that capacity. I’ll teach the moral maxims that cross cultural and religious boundaries. I’ll read her the works of Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein and Mo Willems. They are wise and unlike most religious writings age appropriate. I’ll have her read Kathryn Otoshi’s book, One, whenever she struggles to stand up for herself or treat others with compassion.
I will tell Ella of people like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. I’ll play her the music of Rodriguez and Tracy Chapman. I’ll treasure those moments when she makes difficult decisions well and hold her hand when she chooses poorly. I’ll celebrate her freedom to become an autonomous person, influenced and not indoctrinated by her mother and me. And, if some day, Ella finds religion to meet her needs and answer her questions, I will know this too is her choice.
I am not anxious about her moral development. I am excited to see what Ella becomes, freed of my encumbrances. The goal of good parenting is not to make our children into imitations of ourselves. It is to create the space for them to exceed us in knowledge, in graciousness and in authenticity. That is my hope for Ella.