Raising Children Un-Fundamentalist – Part I

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You could interpret my NEW BLOG SERIES: “Raising Children Un-Fundamentalist” in two ways. It could be read as raising children as an un-fundamentalist parent, aka Christian blogger parent sorts out spiritual baggage online. Or, it could mean raising my children to NOT be fundamentalists, because that would be the best way for them to rebel against me.

I don’t run a mommy blog here. First, because no one has called me mommy for six years, and second because my general opinion of my own parenting skills is quite low. My kids are wonderful, but they are wonderful almost exclusively because of who they are and not because of anything I have done. I don’t feel remotely like an authoritative voice in the parenting arena. But you know what they say, write what you would like to read, and I am in desperate need of a robust discussion regarding how in the hell to talk to my kids about hell. In other, less eternally-damning words, how do those of us who have grown up evangelical and yet suffer some damaging effects of fundamentalist theology, do the delicate parenting dance of communicating the love of God to our children without transferring some of the harmful teachings we have internalized? 

Before we get into the what, the content of the faith that we transfer to our kids, I think it is necessary and rarely spoken of, to discuss the how. Specifically, I think we need to be thoughtful and aware of the significant power imbalance between adults and children, and how that should influence the way we speak to kids on matters of faith.

Many churches do this thing where they have their Sunday School kids sing and perform for the whole congregation periodically. I can’t ever sit through one of these children-led worship songs without crying. It is so adorable and heart-warming to watch little kids blast at the top of their lungs how much Jesus loves them, with their small hands held high, jumping with unreserved joy. Those godtube videos that come across my newsfeed? Can’t even handle the cuteness. Christian parents proudly display these moments as witness to the power of God to stir the sensitive spirits of children. They marvel at how soft children’s hearts are, and how receptive they are to the gospel. In other words, look how easily children are evangelized.

Here’s the thing: I live in a country that is predominantly Buddhist. Here, little kids are taught to hold incense and kneel and bow at ancestor tablets and a variety of gods. Do you know how cute it is to see a little kid praying with pure devotion to a Buddhist god? It is JUST AS CUTE as the blonde headed little girl singing Jesus Loves Me.

A child’s faith is not just a testimony of the power of God to evangelize them, it demonstrates how malleable and impressionable children are to the faith values exposed to them at a young age. Children must trust wholeheartedly in order to survive, their dependence on adults undergirds their entire worldview.

Like it or not, as parents we are entrusted with this enormous responsibility to build the structures of faith in which our children will inevitably live fully into, especially when they are little.

Because of this drastic inequality of power between adults and our dependent children, we must take tender care to wield our tremendous spiritual influence on them in a way that is respectful of their autonomy, that listens to their concerns, that empowers them to grow into wholeness, and to ultimately make their own faith choices. We must always be aware of the power differential even as we act as the portal through which they come to know God. In every step of their development, we are seeking to add more freedom to their expression of their own faith, giving away our power as parents and inviting them into equal partners as they grow into adulthood.

I realize the term fundamentalism is a little fuzzy, and Christian parents run a theological spectrum from left to right. For the purposes of this series, I am defining fundamentalists as those who control children under the guise of religion: through rigid discipline, uncompromising rules, and heavy gate-keeping so that participation in a certain community is conditional upon conduct.

Fundamentalists lord power over children, invoking spiritual terms like biblical authority, godly discipline, and instilling a fear of the Lord. When in reality, they are instilling fear, period. Whether you use the fear of hell or demons or the “righteous” anger of God, these tactics unjustly take advantage of the vulnerability of highly imaginative children, and is an abuse of power against them.

Dear Karla,Thank you so much for your eloquent
With every fiber of my being I don’t want to do this to my kids. But how, when the insidiousness of fundamentalism is infused into my own spiritual upbringing, and when parenting is so largely instinctual and reflective of the ways we were brought up?

I don’t know how to raise my kids the way I wasn’t raised.

This is a task for all of us, a new generation of Christian parents, to create new ways and forge new paths. I have more questions than answers, and I am casting a call to those of you out there thinking through the same issues. Reach out to me through comment sections or the many ways available on my blog (FB, twitter, email). I may respond to questions in subsequent posts in this series, or feature you as a guest post.

The best way I know to do this is together with you. For the sake of the kids.

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Raising Children Un-Fundamentalist Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, & interview w/ Peter Enns.

  • ERSchindler

    Great post Cindy! Looking forward to the forthcoming series.

    • Thank you, it’s daunting to wade through these issues!

  • I want the answer!

    • so demanding. 🙂

  • My husband and I have this discussion regularly. Both raised quite fundy. Then went evangelical. For the first 8.5 years of our eldest child’s life at a conservative evangelical church (SBC).

    Now as my husband and I are deconstructing, we are already seeing with our 9 and 7 year old very traditional, fundamental beliefs from what they learned from us in the early years, but especially at church and all the children’s services, Sunday school, and programs they have attended.

    The performancism stresses my oldest two out at times. Memorize this many verses to be a good Christian, etc.

    I’m looking forward to this series and I’ll definitely ping you with questions and thoughts. It is on my mind regularly.

    • Yeah, different children respond differently to the same set to teachings too. If you have more anxious kids, they may really struggle with rules and trying to keep them. Definitely let me know your thoughts as you think of them.

  • Suzanna Turner

    As my son was growing up, I was struggling in my own faith going from one Christian Church to another. I have grown and healed a lot from my fundamentalist upbringing. His father is a fundamentalist as well as my parents and shoved Christianity down his throat. Today my son has no interest in spiritual things so I tread lightly when discussing my faith but he does open up to me. It can be difficult at times dealing with my family who wonder why he has rejected the faith and doesn’t go to church. This will be a interesting subject to read and discuss although my son is grown now.

    • I had another friend reach out to me with adult children who don’t identify as Christians. Like I said to her, the spiritual climate for this generation is this pattern of exodus from the church. There are of course, lots of theories as to why that is. Thanks for following along with my thoughts even though I’m at a different life stage!

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Yeah this is a really super important discussion. My parents were loving, but the churches we were a part of (for many years) lacked any sort of grace. Which means I had to discover grace all on my own as an adult. So how does one teach grace to children?? Well, we are doing the best we can, but we never know if what we are saying is being interpreted as grace or rules, because we are not inside our kids’ heads. So I think a lot of this is just a bunch of trust in God to show Himself to our kids in spite of (and in addition to) our parenting. Which doesn’t mean we don’t seek out good practices, it just means accepting we don’t control everything in life. . .

    • I think letting go of control is very un-fundamnetalist. 🙂

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        Haha, very true! Never thought of it like that.

  • Oh man, Cindy, yes and thank you for this. I’ve been thinking along similar lines lately? Will my faith, which feels much looser and holds doubts even on my best days, provide a foundation for my children when my parents seemed to never question a thing? I worry that I’m so afraid of fundamentalism that I’ll miss giving them the fundamentals. I was fed a steady diet of Christian products (kids book series, videos, tapes) and as an adult, my instinct is to mock that stuff, to worry about inventing a Christian genre of everything and yet are these tools I need to parent effectively? Looking forward to following along here.

    • I know, right?! I worry about transferring my own baggage to them unnecessarily, but also about leaving them in a spiritual vacuum. Happy to have you join me in stressing out. 🙂

  • Tracey

    This is exactly why I’ve never been a good kids’ Sunday School teacher. . . . and as a parent I struggle with this, too. I really desire my kids to love Jesus, follow Jesus, obey Jesus. . . . authentically and b/c they want to!!! And It’s really tempting to ‘lay it on thick’ with the Bible thumping when my kids disobey, etc. and I know that’s not exactly loving or Jesus-like. Funny thing is, my parents were always very loving, though strict about some things. (And is ‘strict’ bad? I don’t think so.. . ? I had a Mormon family tell me once that they used ‘OT discipline for the first 5 years of their children’s lives and NT after that’????) Anyway, my parents also made room for our questions and doubts (though they always tried to bring us back to the ‘right’ answers, haha.) So, yeah, if any of you all have some good answers to this. . .. my ears are open!!

    • Next time my kids disobey, I’m gonna give them a choice: “OT discipline or NT?” 🙂

  • You know what the flip side of the fuzzy-cute images of children worshipping Jesus is? When your daughter tells you she doesn’t believe in God, and doesn’t want to go to church, and growls at people who try to bless her during the children’s benediction on Sunday.
    GROWLS.
    Not that I speak from personal experience.
    I SO want to give my children the freedom to not like church, but I will be honest, it is PAINFUL when they take me up on it.
    I keep trying to breathe, pray that they will have an amazing, transformative encounter with Christ, and keep dialoguing about _respectful_ disagreement. I am surprised at the grief it creates in my heart when my children are not as excited about Christ as I am. It makes me WANT to be a fundamentalist.
    Kinda.

    • Heather, I so hear your pain in this perspective. But please don’t become a fundamentalist. 🙂

      • Oh, don’t worry 🙂 No plans to start Bible thumping. But I definitely see the attraction in having my mind at ease, no matter what the cost. I just think it’s a false peace.
        What I see is that God is trying to tell me that it’s up to HIM to draw my kids to him. Period. I am not their savior, and telling them more info about God is not going to be magical. It’s only Jesus that can create an encounter. I just hope, very much, that I am not somehow standing in the way of that.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Love, love this comment. This is me. It is painful when they take you up on it. And I just have to remind myself – the story isn’t finished yet. Thanks Heather – and Cindy for the great conversation.

    • copyrightman

      Wow, as a parent of teenaged and 20-something kids, this resonates with me deeply. It feels like it’s impossible to pass on faith in Jesus without fear-driven fundamentalism. I don’t have the answer either, and feel like a failure because of that.

      • Oof. I hear you. I feel safer at this point b/c my kids are still young, and I still think, “But when they do x, y, or z, it will happen!” But I don’t know. There are no guarantees. What comforts me is that there are no guarantees even if you pressure them. I HAVE to believe that they are in God’s hands.

        • copyrightman

          What I’m learning, which is incredibly hard, is that if you don’t manipulate and scare and pressure your kids, as you may have been manipulated and scared and pressured yourself, they may respond well, or they may take you up on the implicit offer to test the boundaries and find out for themselves whether this is all real or not. And particularly when they are in those boundary zones, the same long, slow, patient, trusting faithfulness is your calling, in the hope of a payoff you can’t really see. It’s another test, a big test, that will force you to grow beyond the paradigm you inherited, if you can — and I’m not alway sure I can!

          • Dear Lord, the more I get into this whole “Christian walk” thing, the more “long, slow, patient, trusting faithfulness” I find I’m called to. Gar.

          • That is to say: thank you for affirming this, because when it feels like a lot of patient waiting, I wonder if my itchy desire to DO SOMETHING is a good idea, or just my desire to control outcomes 🙂

  • This is so timely. I wonder if the terminology has shifted over time, because my parents used to refer to coming out of fundamentalism and how oppressive it was, but much of the restrictive, conservative belief system I’m familiar with would call itself (proudly) evangelical. My husband and I’ve been at evangelical churches throughout our marriage and because so many of our friends and relationships are there, it would be super hard to leave. In my mind I constantly feel like a squeaky, contrary wheel. I try to keep a running list of the things I want to make sure my kids hear an alternative view on, so they know that other people who love God and study the Bible have come to totally different conclusions than the seemingly cut-and-dried version they are presented at church (or by many of our family members).
    I’ll start stopping by here regularly, because I also really want to figure out how to navigate this. Thanks for writing today!!

    • Squeaky contrary wheel!! Me too!! Best way to follow is to subscribe to the blog, you can always unsubscribe after the series is over. I really want to hear more of what you have to say.

  • Amy Whipple Derrick

    My husband and I have struggled with this for years. Our kids are now 14 and 11. We have tried very hard to avoid any fear based kind of spirituality with the. No following Jesus to avoid hell, no fear of God’s wrath, no lakes of fire, etc. We really want our children to follow Christ because they want to – are compelled by his message – by wanting to be a part of the ‘kingdom of God” here on earth rather than fear of being banished to eternal torment. They have both chosen baptism – but continue to learn what it means to follow Christ. And we sometimes wonder just how much they “get it”. But really – how much does any child “get it” at that age. At least they are not tortured by fear of having prayed the wrong words and God sending them to hell. This is a continuous conversation at our house so I am thrilled to see you bringing it out into the open for all of us to participate. We are all learning as we go, I guess. I just want to avoid the fear and guilt that I was plagued with as a kid. But still want to instill good decision making, Christlike attitude and actions, loving God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself… I lean into grace and trust it wholeheartedly because I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time!

    • exactly! I’m glad we are getting to talk about it openly too – we need all the help we can get!

  • jodi_3

    Thank you so much for this! My husband and I left organized religion a couple years ago. Our children are now 12 and 9. We have many discussions about faith, spirituality, etc. I don’t want them to have the same fear and performance baggage that I have had to overcome. We live in the bible belt and so many people do not understand our concerns.

    • My kids are 12 and 9 too! This is the way I put it: I don’t want to teach them things they have to unlearn. I know we can’t be perfect, but certainly we can do better.

  • Well, I wish I had something amazing to say (I do write about the mommy thing, sometimes) but all I can say for now is how much I’m looking forward to this conversation!

    • I don’t need amazing here on this blog. It’s written in my tagline: I see miracles in the ordinary. So please, you are welcome to speak here.

  • Daniel Whalen

    I look forward to this discussion. I was raised in the church, and I’ve seen how faith has helped and comforted my mother all her life. But it never really took for me.
    Now I have a young son (almost four) and I strive to teach him not just right from wrong, but also how to determine that for himself. I want to foster compassion in his heart, along with a sense of wonder, and an understanding that he is part of a larger reality.
    I think a basic knowledge of Christianity and Jesus is important to function socially. I also think a basic knowledge of football is important for the same reason, but I don’t want him to play tackle football. Similarly, I don’t want to raise him in a church.

    • That’s interesting you think of passing Christianity and Jesus is important socially, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone frame it that way before, but it makes sense in a Christian nation/culture. I deal with this too, raising my kids overseas but wanting them to have a working knowledge of American culture should they decide to function there as adults. Would love to keep hearing your thoughts!

  • Kirsten Echegoyen

    Really great questions, and with kids aged 8 and 5, I’m far from feeling confident that I have all the answers. From a lot of reading I’ve done, though – and from knowing my kids – I’d say one of the best things we can do is to allow our kids to ask questions…and not condemn them when they have doubts. Many people leave the faith in their late teens/early twenties because they don’t feel Christianity can satisfactorily answer their questions, or stand up to intellectual testing. “Fundies” respond to their doubts with “just believe,” or “without faith it is impossible to please God”…as if His grace isn’t big enough for our doubts, or His truth isn’t solid enough to withstand questioning. I hope my kids will always feel comfortable asking me questions…and that I’ll have the honesty (also important!) to acknowledge when I don’t know the answers. Presenting a false front to our children – and to the world – can be very damaging, and I want, too, to always be real with my kids. (Something else lacking in fundy circles).

  • I’m new to your blog and I’m looking forward to reading more of this series.

    After going through a fairly lengthy faith deconstruction, this is a big question of mine as I parent our youngins (7, 6, 4 and 2 year olds). We mostly try to tell them what we think, but also sometimes offer them a developmentally-appropriate alternative to what we think. So, when they asked me what happens to people who have never heard about Jesus (after they die), welp, I have no good for-sure answer :). I offer them a couple different possible options and why people think those (admittedly, all of which i’m comfortable). They talk about those options and then ask me what I think. I tell them, but then also offer that I’m not totally sure, and my mind has changed over the years. At this point they seem comfortable with the uncertainty in some questions about faith. I try to emphasize the things that I know (the love of God, Jesus death and resurrection, etc.)

    I’m not sure how this is going to work out in the end (gotta love experimenting with your kids), but I guess none of us really do, huh? 🙂 Thanks for this series. I”m looking forward to hearing more!

    • Hi Tiffany, welcome to the blog. In general, I think it’s a good thing to let children known uncertainty is okay, especially since it is probably our most honest response. But, I do think they crave some certainty when they are young. Developmentally, they think in black/white categories. We could take advantage of this “window” to solidify their identity in faith, OR, we could provide a security and safety for them to help them thrive into the next developmental stage when it’s appropriate to wrestle with grey areas. What do you think?

      • I agree that they do need the solids and I’m sure to emphasize those (God loves us, Jesus is God’s son, Jesus’ death and resurrection, basically the Nicene creed, kingdom of God, heaven :)). There’s so much that we do know from the Scriptures that we really do spend most of our time on those things! After that, I struggle with telling them something is black/white when there is no real black and white. If they ask me a question that doesn’t have a right/wrong answer and I tell them there is, It almost feels like I’m lying to them. I emphasize that some things God just doesn’t tell us for sure in the Scriptures and we’re all making our best guesses based on what we have. For this reason, I on principle do not volunteer in the children’s ministry ;).

        My 6 and 7 year old do well with basic grey areas– they discuss the options, ask good questions, and tell me what they think based on the Scripture evidence I give for each side. Granted, this is very much bare bones discussion (I don’t think them huge explanations of each) and they give a 6 and 7 year old response of what they thing is right, but they feel no stress about it. I’m sure all kids are different though and I’d have to rethink our method if one of our younger kids doesn’t deal as well.

  • Johnny Cabrera

    I could not pretend that I have devised the perfect plan for how to address the topic of hell and judgment with my kids, but I sure have thought about it a lot. Imagining my kids at their current ages, I have walked myself through scenarios where I explain the concept of hell and eternal damnation, and I always have the same reaction: I shake myself out of it like a horrible daydream, like when you imagine your kids falling off a cliff or something. Interestingly, it’s the same reaction I have when I imagine myself trying to explain sex to my kids, at their current ages. It just doesn’t feel right. It feels very wrong. There seems to be no good reason for why I would do it or have to do it. It’s not because it’s not important, and of course I will have to talk to them about it eventually, though I’m still not sure how. Right now, though?

    One time I was talking with my then 3-year old daughter, about her thinking about doing something she knew she should not do. Then, without me even prompting her, she said, “But then Jesus would be mad to me and he would meh-meh [spank] me.” Of course, I did my best to explain to her God’s love and grace and forgiveness, but it hit me in that moment. Her concept of judgment and sin and what makes higher authorities “mad to her” is almost (if not completely) dependent on my wife and me, and the way we discipline her.

    This is what scares and sobers me the most. It may not matter what I teach her about heaven or hell or salvation or damnation. I may not have to say a thing about it. She is already forming of understanding of love and hate, right and wrong, forgiveness and punishment now. And she’s getting it from me. What am I showing her? That will likely speak more loudly than my words.

    • Thank you for your thoughts. I agree, as authority figures in their lives, much of what they believe in a Higher Being is reflected through the ways we parent. No pressure! Yikes…

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  • mikesensei

    Perhaps what we should be striving for is to raise our children “biblically.” There is not necessarily a new way we need to be searching for, but our problem is that we have piled on so much additional baggage from our Greco-Roman-Enlightenment-Modern-Individualist-Christian culture that we’ve lost sight of what the Bible actually says about many things. We mistake our culturally-conditioned interpretations of Scripture for Scripture itself, and so distort what the Bible actually wants to say to ourselves and to our children. Biblical parenting begins when we honestly seek what Scripture is actually saying to us and try our best to live out the Gospel authentically in front of and with our kids.

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