I am a strong willed, first born, type A personality, but I am not known for being a perfectionist. I like to feel prepared though I am far from exacting in my preparations – with one notable exception: parenting. The stakes are so high, and the information seems infinite, I am continually devouring some sort of book / podcast / article / magazine related to parenting and sleep / discipline / emotional health / sexual education. I frequently have to force myself to back off and balance the head and the heart a little more.
The absence of religion
Maybe you didn’t catch it but the one item conspicuously missing from my list of parenting topics is religion. Believe me, this isn’t because I don’t think about how to provide a healthy spiritual education for my child. Far from it – I think about this probably more than all the others combined. And I have my list of trusted resources – like this Unfundamentalist Parenting blog and Facebook group – that I consult for advice and insight. But why have I not done a deep dive into how to “successfully” educate my child on religion, like I have on these other topics?
Part of it is that, looking back on my own childhood, I know how much learning happens by osmosis, and I know Junia will be getting plenty of religious osmosis. I am a religious educator – a professor, teacher, preacher, writer, and chaplain – and our family is steeped in spiritual culture, discussion, and education. I know that she will enter the conversation from an early age.
Another reason I’ve put off developing the religion tool in my parenting tool belt is because I don’t think there is such a thing. Sure, it’s helpful to have an overall strategy – which I do – but parenting religion is a different beast. I believe it can, and should, be informed by other aspects of parenting that are more concrete and research driven. But there’s often no clearly right way forward. In other words understanding the psychology behind the emotionality of a child’s mind can help us make better decisions about teaching religion to kids. But the practice of that teaching is more personal and even emotional.
I think the big reason I haven’t put as much effort into developing how to teach my child religion is because I don’t have religion figured out myself. I know. It’s an absurd statement and absurd that I could expect to ever come to that point. To be clear, I don’t think I ever will. But I’ve realized that at least part of me is waiting till I have a few more answers, till I have a handle on a few more topics so I can teach from a place of authority.
I don’t think this will ever happen, nor do I want it to happen. I was raised from a more fundamentalist parenting strategy, in a worldview where religion was something laid out in black and white. Where actions were accepted or condemned without much discussion. I see the benefit to this strategy now as a parent myself but this isn’t the strategy I want to parent from.
I’ve very determinedly left behind this black and white thinking in favor of a much more exploratory, dynamic type of faith. So the thing that makes me an unfundamentalist parent is the thing I’m getting hung up over, yet at the same time it is the thing I’m proud of.
After all that, perhaps my strategy for parenting religion is better than the one I’m implementing in areas like discipline, emotion, sexuality. Parenting, I think, requires a mix of the head and the heart. Because religion is my life’s work, I am passionate about it and emotionally attached to it. Yet I am also in constant academic pursuit of new ideas, better theological systems, and deeper understanding. Perhaps in joining these two together I am already on my way to finding the balance I’m searching for.
Alexis James Waggoner is a theologian and educator. She teaches at Belmont University and is the founder of The Acropolis Project (http://theacropolisproject.com), an organization dedicated to raising the bar of theological education in communities of faith. She also serves as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves and is passionate about ministering to women in places where they are often marginalized. She has an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York, a husband of 12 years, and a baby named Junia.