J. Budziszewski had a great post on Friday:
A surprising number of parents tell me that they are afraid to “force” their children to worship with them, because then the kids might come to resent religion.
By this reasoning, children should not be “forced” to take baths for fear that they will come to despise cleanliness, “forced” to be gentle with smaller children for fear that they will come to hate kindness, “forced” to do their homework for fear that they will come to love stupidity, or “forced” to share family meals for fear that they will come to loathe the taste of food.
Now that parenting is something I’m personally involved in, I’m becoming increasingly aware of just how scared parents are of actually teaching, training, and disciplining their kids in two important areas: faith and morality. I’m not talking about radical leftists or anything like that—just normal everyday parents in contemporary America, myself included.
After all, we all want our kids to be able to think for themselves. We don’t want drones whose entire mental world amounts to rote compliance. Likewise, those of us who are Christians don’t want our offspring’s spiritual lives to be empty religion—going through the customs and ceremonies merely because they’ve always done it that way. We want them to choose to be good, to be virtuous, and to truly believe in Christ. We don’t want them to just follow a list of rules that approximates these things.
It’s a fine goal, but very often the way people try to carry it out amounts to a kind of naivete that puts the developmental cart before the horse. We all remember stupid rules we had to follow when our parents didn’t really understand our situation—when we were held back from one good thing or another. We remember times when rules made us act in ways that looked good but didn’t reflect any real goodness on our part—like when we were forced to say “thank you” to Great Aunt Mabel for that pair of socks at Christmas even though we couldn’t care less about them. We remember having to get up and go to church on Sunday morning and just mindlessly zoning out until it was over. Then we remember when we began to come of age, rub up against these things, shake off some of them, and ultimately learn to think and act for ourselves despite the rules rather than because of them.
We remember these things, and our own experiences and concerns are amplified by a flood of pop-culture that hits nothing but these notes whenever youth is involved. And it scares us. So we think we can make it easier on our own kids by clearing the road a little bit. Following the rules isn’t the end goal, and at a certain point, they got in the way, so why not dispense with them? In the end, we become genuinely afraid of giving our children rules or requirements—even expectations—lest we accidentally hold them back or foster rebellion.
To a certain extent, parental experience somewhat mitigates this fear as we realize that leaving our children completely to their own devices is going to get them hurt or killed. So we force them to look both ways before crossing the street, not to play on the stairs, and so forth. The guidelines of doctors give us some measure of courage when it comes to issues of health, and so we make them take their medicine, their naps, and eat as reasonably as we can manage. When it comes to the formation of faith and virtues, however… we don’t get the same kind of immediate support. Being spoiled or snotty doesn’t put them in some kind of imminent danger. Every kid spends a lot of time doing things they shouldn’t no matter what you do—even the strictest of parents have to put up with some of it. Lots of people are successful by American standards without darkening the door of a church.
At the same time, our culture has little of the kind of expectation of faithful religion that we do for health or education, nor do we have much in the way of institutions that guide parents on matters of virtue the way doctors do on matters of health. We can find some if we search, but when we do search, we find literally every possible answer—most of which are mutually exclusive. Morally speaking, we don’t have any kind of entrenched “right” way to parent—making a cultural fixture of such a “way” has drawbacks, to be sure, but it also provides a starting point that works fine in most-but-not-all cases. Neither do we really have the know-how to help discern good ways of parenting from bad ways. My generation’s upbringing focused on how to become educated and successful in the workplace—children of our own were always a matter of “maybe you’ll have them someday.” And so, in the absence of such things, we usually go with our guts, which are very much rule-averse.
This is truly unfortunate, because rules are a necessary part of teaching children to think for themselves—or at least of doing so well rather than poorly. As Budziszewski goes on to point out, “Faith is not the same thing as compliance, but compliance and imitation are how children learn everything.” When we think of rules, we tend to think back to adolescence, but there many years of a child’s life that happen first. Ultimately our children will be able to grasp the abstract principles that enable them to think for themselves, but there are quite a few years before all of this comes about.
Those early years are best spent immersed in concrete expressions of the abstract principles that we want them to learn. For example, if they are ever to be generous or know what generosity is, they need to see generosity in action and be trained on ways of carrying it out. So we tell them to share their toys and let them watch us help our neighbors. If they are ever to understand gratitude, we need to tell them to say thank you and to do the same ourselves–even when their feelings don’t yet match up. If they are ever to understand faithfulness, we must bring them with us to Church, catechize them at home, and let them see our own faith in action.
But what about when we screw up as parents and lay an unnecessary rule on them? Well, whether we lay all the rules we can imagine or as few as we can get away with, we’re going to screw up in one direction or another. We are going to let them do something they shouldn’t and stop them from doing something they should. We therefore cannot allow an irrational fear of rules stop us from making the best judgments we can in any given case. What about when they reach their teenage years and start to fight us? Well, all children grow up, and they all need to learn to make decisions for themselves apart from their parents. If its inevitable that this growth lead to familial conflict, then the least we can do is show them what good decisions look like and give them the tools to make decisions well before we start losing our ability to do so.
No parent will come through the experience without making mistakes, but God’s grace is still sufficient—both to wash away our own sins and to sustain our children through those times when we do fail them. In that, it was no different for our own parents—nor for theirs.