9 December 2008 10:05 AM

Kids and Religion

by Dr. Rick

Here’s a question we get a lot: how important is religion to a child?  Parents frequently wonder whether they should be giving their children a religious background or whether they should rear the children “religiously neutral” and let them find their own way when they get older.


“I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious” is a phrase I hear often.  I think I understand the sentiment, but it seems lazy somehow, a cop-out, an avoidance.


How important is it for kids to have the experiences of church or temple or mosque attendance, for them to receive instruction in a faith, for them to have a working knowledge of the cultural references that we encounter daily?


The question is fraught with emotion and even some controversy.  It’s filled with our memories and experiences, for some fulfilling, warm, and sustaining; for others doubtful, difficult, and permanently painful.


For some parents, it’s a no-brainer.  Their children will be exposed to the family religion – the religion, perhaps, of their parents and grandparents.  They believe in the tenets and dogma of that religion, and they want their children to have the same spiritual benefits they have had. 


For other parents, because it’s so difficult, they simply ignore it.  It’s just easier that way, they figure.  “We can raise good and decent kids without religion,” they reason.


While I certainly understand and respect the latter, I honor and come down firmly in favor of the former. 


Here’s why.


  1. The power of belief.  I’m no theologian, but I can’t help but believe that we all yearn for something that’s greater than ourselves.  I understand the arguments for disbelief, the questions that inevitably arise when the world gives us yet another example of humankind’s propensity for evil and depravity, or another example of random, inexplicable disaster.  Still, if we allow ourselves to notice them, we can point to great and innumerable human and natural examples of transcendence, of timelessness, and of enduring hope that have given strength and dignity to people over the millennia.
  2. The power of civilizing effects.  Yes, of course, religion is more than making us behave.  But it certainly gives us a moral compass, a code by which to live, a set of standards, and a sense of right or wrong that lives with us all our lives.  These civilizing effects can come from other institutions and customs, it’s true.  But it’s increasingly obvious that – for any number of social and familial reasons too complex for my poor mind to grasp – they often don’t. 
  3. The power of rituals.   If you’ve read my blog with any regularity, you know I believe in the power that routines provide for children.  Homework, bedtime, mealtime, and playtime routines make kids feel secure and give them a structure in their lives.  Religious rituals can give kids the structure to develop their sense of spirituality, to evolve their nascent beliefs, and to indulge their natural curiosity.  It gives them a time and place to ask questions, to express themselves, to see their place in the world. And, let’s face it, there will come a time when they’ll have to attend a wedding, a funeral, or some other special occasion in a place of worship, and they’ll thank you for giving them the confidence that comes with knowing how to conduct themselves.
  4. The power of culture.  Cultural references to religions and the Bible, for instance, abound in our daily lives.  (Would your child know what you were talking about if you praise someone brave and forbearing by saying, “She has the patience of Job?”  Would he get a rainy-day reference to Noah?  An admonition to remember the Golden Rule?)  These references can occur in wide-ranging settings, from art to literature, to music, to holiday celebrations, to architecture and much more.  Without advocating any one religion, I’d argue that being a part of a society is to recognize its values and to get its references.  Teens understand this implicitly.  We want to belong.  Understanding and respecting other cultures’ religions is the next step, a step to growth, a step – it’s not too strong to say it – to peace.
  5. The power of expression.  Sometimes we want to express thoughts, emotions, ideas, or revelations that just seem inexpressible.  Sometimes we’re so overwhelmed with happiness (weddings) or pain (funerals) or gratitude (family, friends, health), for instance, that we simply don’t have the ability to make ourselves – let alone others – understand.  Grounding in a religion’s beliefs and rituals can give us the framework to cope, which may not be the same as understanding, but is often the best we can do.  Sometimes a prayer that comes unbidden, from repeated practice, is just the thing.
  6. The power of belonging.  Humans are social. We want and need the benefits that come from belonging to groups.  We can still be proud of our individualism, but connecting to others is necessary.  The nurturing, the mentoring, the corporal and spiritual care that come with belonging to a trusted group sustain us and make us strong.  Learning our values, living our faith, and worshiping with others from our earliest youth can give us the foundation to navigate our adulthood.

Stronger minds than mine have tackled this timeless question, and these humble ideas are my attempt to answer it.  No doubt you have your own.  I’d love to hear them.  Click on the comment button and share them with us, won’t you?




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