How *Some* Progressive Parenting Might Push Kids Toward Fundamentalism (Or Even Worse)

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(Addendum: a point several have missed in this article is that it is not a critique of how all anti-fundamentalist type parents raise their kids. I am an unfundamentalist parent, and proudly so. This is a self-critique of my own parenting that I came to see through honest conversations with other parents like myself– other parents who admit this same blind spot– and an attempt to point out that some times we can push back so hard against the rigidness of our fundamentalist experience, that we accidentally go too far in the other direction. Our particular mistakes in parenting are obviously not indicative of all progressive or unfundamentalist type parents.)

I make my living as a progressive who writes about life after leaving fundamentalism, and I have an observation: We as progressives often raise our kids in such a way that they will gravitate towards, and even crave fundamentalism.

If you hang out with a group of fundamentalist for very long, you’ll notice an interesting thing– a large portion of them were not raised in it. I was actually one of them.

While I am a “formerly fundie,” the vast majority of my childhood was not spent in Christian fundamentalism. My early years were spent attending a small community church in rural Maine, and while they were certainly conservative, they were not fundamentalists. My parents were Christians, but only nominally. After they divorced, when I was seven, church attendance wasn’t a regular event for any of us.

The rest of my childhood? Well, I’ve often described my childhood after seven as “unparented.” I was allowed to choose which parent I lived with whenever I wanted to, and I did exactly that– changing my mind constantly and bouncing back and forth between cities and schools, from parents to even grandparents at a whim. The adults in my life gave me room and board, but I don’t really have many memories of actually being parented– certainly not in the way I needed to be.

It wasn’t until I was 14 or 15 that I stumbled upon Christian Fundamentalism all on my own– and I was soon hooked on it.

Yet, the fact that I was a child who, all on his own, became a fundamentalist Christian had almost nothing to do with what fundamentalists believed. Part of me knew from day one that some of it was obnoxious bullshit. But I now know in hindsight, that fundamentalism filled a much deeper, much more primitive need: it gave me the structure, boundaries, and consequences that I needed to feel safe in the world.

Fundamentalism was the first time that anyone said, “You can go all the way to here, but you’re not allowed to go beyond here.”

No one had ever told me that. The closest I can remember is one time when my grandmother told me, “If you were my son, you wouldn’t be going out this weekend.” I said, “Thankfully, I’m not” and walked out the door.

But other than that? I pretty much got away with whatever I wanted to do– until fundamentalism. Fundamentalism finally gave me boundaries.

And you know what? It felt freakin’ safe. So good. Like being wrapped in a warm blanket, and having a solid shelter put over your head. It felt like the best thing to ever happen to me.

Unfortunately, because I did not get that from my caregivers growing up, I sought it out in less-than-great ways, thus fundamentalism.

(Oh, and then there’s the whole decade spent in the military, which I joined for the same exact reasons.)

When you grow up with limited structure, fluid boundaries, and without consistent and predicable consequences, it can become a need that we seek out subconsciously in whatever ways we can. Sometimes we do it in healthy ways, but often we don’t.

And this is where I fear that we as progressives are often raising kids who will not just gravitate towards things like fundamentalism, but raising kids who might actually need it, thrive in it, and pass it along to their kids: We’re afraid to give our kids structure, boundaries, and to see through consistent and predicable consequences when those boundaries are crossed. And this is either setting them up for life-failure, or to fill that need in unhealthy ways, like fundamentalism.

A case in point: A friend of mine recently keyed me in to an episode of the Simpsons where the background of Ned Flanders, the structure and boundary loving Christian on the show, is explained. While viewers may have assumed he was raised in conservative religion, it was the opposite that turned out to be true: He grew up with progressive parents who didn’t give him any boundaries or consequences, and this led him to seek it out in high-structure, conservative religion.

One would think that after growing up unparented and realizing that having structure and enforced boundaries in life make kids feel safe, that I would have my shit together as a parent– but I don’t.

I was confronted with this fact by my then 14-year-old daughter several months ago, and it was a hard moment for me. She had been refusing her scheduled time to be with me on the weekends, and while I knew there were a variety of reasons, she repeatedly said she wasn’t ready to express it to me yet– more than once saying she was afraid that after she told me, that I wouldn’t do anything about it. It was a hard season for me, but she eventually opened up and talked to me about it. However, what she said made my heart sink, and wasn’t even close to what I thought she was going to say.

When the moment came she pushed through tears of frustration and noticeable fear that I wouldn’t hear what she was saying: “I don’t feel safe at your house, Dad.”

I wanted to die inside when I heard those words. My number one job as a parent is to keep my kids safe, so unsafe is the last thing I wanted her to feel. In fact, on the day I met her at a Peruvian orphanage, the first thing she did was jump into my arms, grabbed my biceps, and asked me if I was strong. Feeling safe, right from our first moment as father and daughter, was critical for her– so the idea that I now felt unsafe, was gut-wrenching.

“Why don’t you feel safe with me?” I asked her hesitantly.

“Do you really want to know why?? It’s because you’re not strict enough with me and I can do whatever I want. I never get consequences and that doesn’t feel safe to me!” She responded with frustration and tears.

“Oh, shit… I know exactly what that feels like.” I thought to myself.

In that moment I realized I was becoming the very thing I hated, the very thing that was so detrimental to my own childhood: A parent who was afraid to give my kid structure, stability, and boundaries she was not allowed to cross.

And you know what? I don’t think I’m alone. I think a lot of us as progressive, unfundamentalists parents, unintentionally do the same thing. Sadly, our kids are actually paying the price for it, and they’ll continue to pay the price for it into adulthood.

I mean, the entire effing world functions this way, so why would we not help our kids to learn and navigate that, right now? Society has structure and boundaries, and there are authorities who will administer consequences when those are violated. Nearly every job they’ll ever have will be one where there are clear boundaries. And what do you know? Yup, there are consequences when you stick even one toe beyond the boundary.

Like it or not, when we launch our kids into adulthood, we’re sending them into a world of structure, boundaries, and consequences– consequences that can be permanently life-altering, such as losing a job or getting in trouble with the law. They are not briefly unpleasant or temporarily painful consequences that are over and done with in two minutes or two days, but are consequences for poor or impulsive choices that can follow them around for a lifetime.

We are faced with the decision as to whether or not we’re going to help our kids get used to that system now, or if we’re going to wait and just let it smack them in the face as a brutal welcome to adulthood– but those are the only two options we have.

For far too many of us progressives– myself damningly included– we are more concerned with our kids approving of us, being happy with us, not getting upset or temporarily withdrawing from us, more concerned with their temporary happiness and comfort, than we are committed to the thing that not only makes them feel safe, but that also trains and prepares them for how the world functions. And if I get really honest with myself, the reality is that I deprived my daughter with a core need, not so much because I am unwilling for her to experience the temporary discomfort of enforcing boundaries and consequences, but because I was trying to avoid my own discomfort from having to give them.

For those of us who identify as progressive, unfundamentalist type parents, but who also– like me– have gone too far in the other direction, we have to contend with this. If we do not squarely face and self-correct our unintentional failure in this area, our kids will pay for our mistake– with a lack of safety and security now, and with horrible outcomes later. Some of them will launch into adulthood with a fizzle. Some will flounder. Some will fail spectacularly. Some will find themselves in a world of destruction for not staying within the boundaries that are all around us. And sadly, some will not complete a natural life span, since some consequences cannot be undone.

And those who don’t? Well– they might be like me or Ned Flanders, and will find themselves gravitating towards and needing high-structure, toxically conservative religion, because it will give them the safety and boundaries they didn’t have growing up, and who need that in adulthood to navigate the world well.

The difficult truth is, those who end up in fundamentalism may be the lucky ones.

I don’t know about you, but while I remain one of the most liberal, anti-fundamentalist people you’ll ever know, I’m going to dry my daughter’s tears and tell her she’s safe now, because her world with me moving forward is going to have appropriate structure, boundaries, and consequences.

Just like the real world.

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