Most major religions have some sort of a spring rebirth-themed high holiday this time of year. I thought this was an ideal time to share a few thoughts and pointers about children and religion.
My training, and everything posted on my site, is grounded in the work of philosopher/psychiatrist Alfred Adler. Adler was born into a non-practicing Jewish family. Adler’s own philosophies of social interest and of cooperation without domination were shaped and influenced by the historical events taking place around him: the rise of the Third Reich and massive extermination of a population of people based on their religious ethnicity.
Like so many, Adler fled to the U.S., where religious freedom was hailed as a proud ideal. Just as we must learn to live with religious difference in our world, and not FORCE our beliefs on others, so too we must be thoughtful in the transmission of our beliefs and values to our children. We must inspire and lead through example to ensure we don’t stir up our own inter-generational “holy wars” at home. After all, the reality is, our children may NOT decide to follow our faith as they grow into their own. Can you handle that?
In practical terms, how does this impact our parenting? Adler and his protege student, Dr. Deikurs, both caution parents to “use religion wisely” and here is some of what they meant:
1. Sinning or Misbehaving?
Punishment in any form hurts at best, injures at worse and often invites rebellion. So, just as with any form of punishment, threatening eternal damnation is not recommended as a way of improving a child’s behavior. Misbehavior should be seen as a mistaken approach for reaching a goal rather than the presence of evil. Please read my book “Honey, I Wrecked The Kids” for a full discussion on misbehavior. Until you read it, just trust me as a parenting expert and psychotherapist that saying, “Don’t do that – God is watching” is NOT the best way for dealing with stealing, hitting or other common misbehaviors. I also extend this advice to not threatening your misbehaving child’s name be added to Santa Claus’ naughty list at Christmas time. Same fear tactic – both inadvisable.
2. Rejecting Strong Values
Adler also noticed that whenever we have a strong family value (which religion can be, but so can sports, music or education) children can’t be ambivalent around this family value. Children must put a stake in the ground about their own feelings on this value. Because we know that children need to find their own niche in the family, and if one value is key, then the result is often to see families where the children are polarized around that value. In the over-emphasized athletic family, you might raise the jock, which pleases you, but you risk also inviting a sibling to reject that value they can’t live up to–so they instead become your couch potato child. In religious families, siblings tend to be “saints” and “sinners.” In academic families, we have the Ph.D. scholar and the drop-out or LD child.
Given the two points above, Adler advises us to trust the power of influence that comes from leading a life of example. Model a good relationship with your faith and how you live in your faith community (be that your church or your co-op food depot), and trust that children will be influenced by your good example – even if that means they don’t want to come to church or synagogue, mosque or temple for a few years. Many children in the process of discovering who they are for themselves move away from their religious homes only to return again.
Patience is a virtue. Live a respectable life. Respect your children. Have “faith” in them!