How do you address religion with your kids?
While researching my book, I discovered six “methods” most commonly employed by secular parents. I had many sources for this research, including my own survey, but the most helpful was the work of a researcher named Christel J. Manning, who launched the country’s first academic study into nonreligious parenting in 2005 and then wrote about her research in the Sociology of Religion in 2013.
Here are the six approaches, along with pros and cons:
1. Returning to religion for the ‘sake of the kids.’ Some parents, particularly those raised in religious environments, believe the benefits children can glean from religious participation outweigh their own personal misgivings. (Or at least that’s what they tell themselves to avoid showdowns with Grandma!) Although there is an undeniable degree of comfort in raising kids the same way you were raised, doing so is disingenuous. There’s simply no integrity in indoctrinating kids into that belief system that no doesn’t make sense to you personally. You are living a lie, and teaching your kids that assimilation is more important than truth.
2. Indoctrinating kids against religion. This is the flipside to No. 1 — and yet it’s no more advantageous. When religion is presented as something to be avoided at all costs, parents not only remove a child’s ability to decide for herself what belief system is right for her, but they fail to teach their kids that smart, reasonable people sometimes follow religious paths, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are an anti-religious atheist, employing this strategy may seem to be the most “honest” approach — and you may be right — but you run the risk of creating a bigoted and prejudiced child, rather than a tolerant and kind one.
3. Outsourcing religious instruction. These parents enroll their children in, say, Hebrew School or Catholic catechism classes — while remaining completely nonreligious at home — all in the hopes that the children will learn what they need to know from there. The advantage, of course, is that you can remain true to yourself while still allowing your kids access to religious information. Unfortunately, when you outsource, you have no control over (and limited knowledge of) what your kid is learning. And you guarantee that they receive instruction about only one religion. Plus, you risk confusing the kid, who will no doubt struggle to understand why school provides one set of facts while Mom and Dad provide another.
4. Joining alternative religious organizations. For nonreligious parents who had positive experiences with religion growing up, or who relish the “community” aspect of organized faith groups, joining a Unitarian Universalist Church offers a happy medium when it comes to child-rearing. It allows for “spiritual guidance” without the dogma of traditional belief systems. And, as long as the organization is helping you expose your child to more than one faith (no small feat, depending on the church), the only downside I can see is having to get up early on Sunday mornings.
5. Giving religion the silent treatment. By far, the road most traveled in the world of secular parenting is also the most quiet; many secular parents simply avoid the topic altogether, likening it to a subject of little interest or value. Certainly, silence is not the worst approach a parent could take. But it is far from ideal, for any number of reasons. First, religion’s role in American society is much too big to simply dismiss religion as “uninteresting” or “irrational.” Kids who lack basic religious literacy will only wind up feeling embarrassed or left out. Second, silence may send a message to your kids that there’s something inherently wrong or shameful about non-belief. (THAT’S the real shame!) But the third, and most distressing, reason is that leaving kids uneducated about religion may leave kids vulnerable to what Dale McGowan calls “religious hijacking” — which happens when kids are dissatisfied with the spiritual answers or guidance they’re receiving at home and look elsewhere — to churches or temples or mosques — for guidance.
6. Providing religious, spiritual and philosophical guidance at home. We have a winner! (Finally!) Some secular parents use books, movies, community events and casual conversation to expose their children to any number of religious ideas. They engage in open, honest discussions about human beings came to be, what happens after we die, and the “meaning of life.” And they make concerted efforts to instill a sense of compassion and respect for all people and encourage their kids to draw their own conclusions about faith. The cons? There are none. Not that can I see anyway. But then again, this approach is the basis for my entire book. What would you expect me to say?
So tell me. What approach did you take, or are you taking, with your kids? What worked and what didn’t?