Religion = good behavior?
(Notes on this post: I was gone all afternoon on Thursday, so this is my Secular Thursday post for this week, even though today is Saturday; and this post comes about in contemplation of this article, Study: Religion is Good for Kids.)
I consider myself a spiritual person in that I have a strong moral code and set of beliefs about deity that I adhere to in order to explain the unexplainable, and my beliefs may or may not agree with yours. I’m really fine with that. I even enjoy discussing religion as a topic, and as long as your plan is to merely share your beliefs and not to attempt to bash me over the head with your Jesus stick or shove your bible down my throat in a misguided attempt at ‘saving’ me, then even if we fundamentally disagree on every point, in my opinion, we can still be friends.
Now, before we go much further I will admit that, living in the Bible Belt, when I hear reference to ‘religion’ I automatically assume that you’re talking about Christianity. I realize that I may be showing my small town southern roots here, but since most of my comments about the theory of “religion=good kids” are in relation to how some Christian authors tell you how to raise kids and my own experiences with Christianity, and since the resulting clashes in child rearing philosophy between what they advocate and what I think is good and right have left a somewhat negative impression on me, that’s my bias.
If you’ve read here before, then you may have seen commentary about certain so-called ‘Christian’ authors who advocate practices that can only be described as child abuse. I have been fairly vocal about my opinions of such authors, but have not really delved into the ‘why’. Aside from the obvious, my personal child-rearing philosophy is quite different from theirs. Even if you take away the abusive aspects, I would still not recommend these authors’ ideas because of the way they perceive the nature of a child to be (i.e.: sinful and selfish, out to manipulate, etc.)
To be clear, I am in no way saying that all Christian parents are abusive, nor am I equating a religious upbringing (regardless of sect) with abusive households in every case. What I am exploring here is my own experience with a Christian upbringing and the tendency among Christian parents to use corporal punishment as a first line of defense for all transgressions, both small and great, to control and coerce children into what is viewed as acceptable (and therefore ‘godly’) behavior.
I really have a problem with them using religion as an indicator of behavior in small children. It sends the message that the end result justifies whatever means you use to achieve that. For lots of Christian families, the tools they use can border on abuse, both physical and emotional. I am not outright opposed to spanking as many are, but I do think that we parents are surely intelligent enough to reach our children without resorting to physical punishment from the get-go. From my own experience, we were spanked without consideration of the external factors that contributed to the situation and were usually expected to accept punishment with a minimum of fuss or else face additional punishment if we failed to get our emotions under control within the alloted time frame. We were expected to ‘straighten up and fly right with only a word, because we knew that the consequence for failing to mind was severe and painful.
In such an environment, of course the children will ‘behave’ – they’re terrified of getting into trouble! I was always looking for a way, any way, to avoid getting in trouble. Telling the truth netted a spanking most of the time, as would lying, but a lie would delay the spanking for however long. When you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, what would you do to save your butt? It’s hardly fair to compare the behavior of children from a home where the parents, because of their religious beliefs, require strict obedience and/or a joyful attitude even in the face of painful punishment to those who come from homes where the children are treated as whole human beings with the same rights owed to them as any adult. You wouldn’t punish your friend who was grouchy because she was hungry or tired, you’d make excuses for them, or offer them food or facilitate a nap if possible. Why are children, who are less capable of attributing grouchiness to another need than adults are, not worthy of being treated similarly?
If you take out the word “religion” and substitute “strong moral code”, then I pretty much agree with much of what the article says. I don’t think that any of the results that the researcher found would not be able to be duplicated in an environment where the parents had a strong network of support from similarly minded peers (for example, regular attendance at a playgroup, parenting support group or homeschooling group meeting). Frequency may play a role, and as few of those other type groups are so rigid or structured as religious services the results may not be exactly comparable, but I don’t think that the characteristics that they polled (behavior, self-control, social skills and approaches to learning) are limited to ‘religious’ families – I think it has more to do with support in general.
One of the primary ‘lessons’ I came away with as an adult is to hide emotions. Even now, I am not all that great at reflecting how I am feeling and it took me a long time to stop ‘acting’ happy when I darn well wasn’t. That’s not what I want for my kids, and even though it is more challenging to watch them act how they feel, it is comforting to me to know that my children are in touch with their feelings, and we’re all learning to communicate and address needs better because of it.
The last paragraph of the article reads,
“There are certain expectations about children’s behavior within a religious context, particularly within religious worship services,” he said. These expectations might frustrate parents, he said, and make congregational worship “a less viable option if they feel their kids are really poorly behaved.”
I assert that ‘poorly behaved’ is a misleading phrase. If ‘poorly behaved’ means that my kids are more impulsive (because they didn’t get their hands slapped every time they reached for something) or less apt to sit still for long periods of time (because they weren’t threatened with a wooden spoon if they wiggled during church) or be quiet when they feel they’ve been wronged (because they weren’t conditioned to accept punishment because they’ve probably done something to be punished for that wasn’t witnessed), but you know what? I’m okay with that. In fact, I prefer it.
I saw a tee-shirt the other say that said, “Know Religion, No Peace. No Religion, Know Peace”. While I don’t think that’s necessarily true in all cases, I find it to be a provocative statement that might be worth your consideration.