My husband and I are agnostics, or at least we're non-practising. Recently our 10-year-old daughter has become a devout Christian. She reads the Bible and prays, and now she's been agitating for us to take her to church on Sundays. And the other day she calmly informed us that we were probably going to hell.
I got really upset at that and gave her a timeout, which I now regret. I mean, I shouldn't be punishing her for what she believes or telling her how to think. But I'm worried she's going to become intolerant of others' views. It just feels weird to have someone with such a different belief system in the midst of our family - one who also believes we're going to hell. And, to be honest, going to church is about the last thing I feel like doing on Sunday mornings. Any advice?
You're at the nexus of two ticklish topics - religion and parenting - so I'll try to tread carefully.
First let me say you've come to the right advice columnist. I too have a highly religious child in the midst of our mostly secular family.
To clarify: I believe in God, but don't go to church. My wife is an agnostic and believes it's "lights out" when we die. (And I've noticed, over the years, a curious phenomenon: She almost always turns out to be right about everything. I just pray she's wrong on this one.)
Last year, my 11-year-old son Nick went with his best friend, who's part of a devout Christian family, to Bible camp and came back indoctrinated to the eye teeth. Now he wears a cross, reads the Bible and prays every night. (I suppose he thinks his mother and I are both going to hell, but I've never asked him.)
Personally, I'm glad he's a spiritual kid and that he's found something to believe in. But I agree with you that intolerance and extremism are the things to be worried about and should be dealt with early.
This past summer we went to Prince Edward Island, and Nick, who loves animals, was horrified by all the lobster oils and clambakes. (Hey, I love animals too, especially seafood. I am, along with barbecue guru Ted Reader, a member of PETA: People for the Eating of Tasty Animals.) One morning he was glaring at me, so I asked him if there was a problem.
"I prayed to the Lord last night that something bad would happen to you and Uncle John because of the way you torture lobsters and clams," he said - then burst into tears.
"Hey, hey, hey, kid!" I said. "That's not Christianity! That's not the Christian spirit!"
So we had a serious chat about respecting other people's beliefs, not judging people, not wishing ill on family members, especially in the name of religion, and so on. I'm happy to say that that's all it took, for now: a serious chat. Because when all is said and done he's a reasonable kid.
And that's job one, isn't it - the raising of reasonable children? Children are naturally extremists: You have to teach them to be reasonable.
Internationally renowned parenting expert Barbara Coloroso agrees. She believes nipping things like intolerance and extremism in the bud can have huge consequences. In her book Extraordinary Evil, she basically blames the various holocausts of the 20th century on bad parenting.
I told her about your case and she said you should sit your child down and ask her to ask herself if she is using religion as a "vessel or a weapon. ...
"Ask her if she's using religion to honour the intrinsic spirituality of human beings," she said, "or to create intolerance towards differences."
Ms. Coloroso says children are highly susceptible to indoctrination, to "swallowing whole" what somebody tells them. Obviously there's not much you can do about who gets to them first (and it's often occurred to me that if Nick went to Jewish camp he'd be walking around with a tallis and a yarmulke now). But you can help them to become "religious literates," i.e. teach them about other religions and belief systems, so at least they can make an informed choice.
Now, Ms. Coloroso is opposed to punishment of all kinds and believes everything can be talked out. But I would say if you give timeouts in other areas, you shouldn't feel guilty giving timeouts in this area, too. After all, you're not punishing your daughter for what she believes, but rather how she expresses that belief.
As for going to church, well, I hear you. I want to like church. I wish I liked church. But on the blue-moon occasions I go, I always emerge blinking in the sunshine and thinking "Damn, that was just as deadly dull as I remember it."
Still, why not go to church with your daughter? What do you have to lose, except a little time? (And if she's right about there being a God and a heaven, then you stand to gain it all back, and then some, on the back end.) There are such things as fun churches. When I lived in New York I used to go to services at a Baptist church in Harlem: people sang, swayed, clapped their hands. The sermons were funny, and the congregation would heckle the priest. My kind of church - the opposite of the dour, funereal Lutheran tradition I was brought up in. Maybe there's something a little more lively like that in your neighbourhood.
Even the worst service leaves you with something to think about, a chance to step back and reflect on your pursuits and the passage of time. Maybe go for some eggs bennie after, to reward yourself. It'll be nice daughter-mom time, and you'll come to understand her beliefs better.
And you want to show her agnostics can be flexible too, right?
I'll make you a deal: If you do go, write me, and perhaps, inspired by you, I'll start going to church with my son.
Then he and I can pray together that I will be cured of my sins and shellfish ways.
David Eddie is a screenwriter and the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad.
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