How shall we rear our children?

I have been a bit hesitant to share this openly on the blog since it transparently comes from current circumstances in my own life, however a recent discussion with some close friends and being shown a blog post directly on this topic at the Christian Monist has me wanting to share some thoughts with you.

In the post Kids – Between Jacob and the Jelly Bean the Christian Monist questions the path on which most Evangelical parents would want their children to follow as they grow.

I think if you polled most Evangelical parents and asked them to choose one of two paths for their kids, I know the one they would choose . . . path one.

Path one, the Jelly Bean path, is where they go to church faithfully, support the pastor and elders in everything they do, they dress well, never get tattoos, never use a long list of words esteemed by Evangelicals as being bad. They never drink alcohol in case they might offend some “weaker brother” somewhere. They are very, very nice. On this path they substitute dogma for thinking. They believe what they are told to believe and never doubt it. They suppress their raw human frailties deep out of sight and never, ever mention them outside their silent thoughts, alone in their beds in the middle of the dark night of winter.

Now, as it happens, we have been having some of these discussions within our family. To preserve some sense of privacy for those involved, I will simply say that one of our children is at one of the innumerable junctions that we all face at various times in our lives with regards to the company we will keep, the culture we will adopt, and what we will believe. So CM’s comments are very relevant, particularly since I have been engaged in this very conversation with said child this week. My problem with the approach outlined by CM is that there is a false dichotomy. After presenting path one he offers path two.

The second path is messy. On this path, they think and think and think. They don’t grasp the 1,2,3 answers to every problem but feel confused, lonely, angry, horny, frustrated . . . and in distress. They encounter God and a deep visceral, almost animal-istic place. They wrestle with God . . . not disrespectful, but in the honestly of emotions. They are known to cry out, “Oh, God where the hell are you! I’m hurting down here!” Yes, sometimes they use unapproved words.

But in the end of this earthly life, those on path two do come to peace with God, having borne the scars of their struggle.

I do think there is a via media, and not just because I’m an Episcopalian. We help our children down the first path when they are young, in the sense of going to church regularly, teaching them the basics, including morals. As they get older and begin to have questions  I believe we should not shut them down but allow them to think, question, and wrestle. The real problem is assuming there is only one path.

This was brought home to me this past spring when the parents of one of our students were sharing with me their child’s high school activities within the youth group of their Unitarian Universalist Church. The mother commented that, “As an adult I firmly believe in the very open view of UU, but in raising children they frankly need more direction and focus.” I am not going to make any judgments about UU, I do agree, however, that a six-year-old for example is not yet at the stage where they are going to mull any deep intellectual way about the moral ramifications of God’s declaring that Israel should destroy all the Canaanites. Some structure, some direction is needed. And if we as parents believe the Bible in some fundamental way and believe the essence of our faith in a similar manner then it is our obligation to share that faith and knowledge with our children in an age-appropriate manner.

As our children grow and develop in it is similarly incumbent upon us to grow and develop our sharing of our faith with them. When my child tells me that “I don’t want Jesus to take control of my life, I think that is wrong, I want to make my own decisions and choices have my own life” the worst thing that I could do would be to shut down the conversation and say, “No! You must accept Jesus as your Savior!”  Instead I believe we need to have a discussion and be honest about our own doubts and struggles (and to admit that “letting Jesus take control of my life” doesn’t mean we won’t make our own stupid decisions!”).

My thinking on this has been informed by the words of my mentor who was counseling me through a tough time in my first year in college. The time when I had my own doubts and wrestled with God and my parents. (It just so happens is also a psychiatrist, so he has a bit of a leg up on these sorts of issues.) He said in general terms there are two kinds of parents. Those who are excellent at raising young children, and hold them close, they nurture, and they’re always there for their children. Then there are those who are good at letting their children go on their own, they give their children’s space and room to experiment and find the boundaries and even cross over them from time to time. At their best, they are also their children’s closest friends. But you can see this latter sort of parent would not be a blessing for young child at all, rather young children need structure support and nurturing. The former sort of parent, however, have difficulty letting go as their children grow and mature and need to make their own mistakes. Of course, he said, what we should strive for is to be the first sort of parent as her children are young and then make the transition with them into the latter sort. As you can see, I feel the same holds true to our spiritual rearing as well. [mfn]For those who might wonder at my word choice, I will never forget my mother saying that we “raise cattle, but rear children.”[/mfn]

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