I am Brainwashing My Kids

Recently we marked the anniversary of my daughters’ baptism into the Christian Church. I thought of the commitments my wife and I made as parents to nurture and raise the girls in the Christian faith as best as we can, with the help of our congregation. As I shared before, the faith of my kids at times consumes my thoughts.

Living in the Bay Area of California, I regularly hear adults (parents and otherwise) say they don’t want to force religious beliefs on children and instead want their kids to choose their own faith, or non-faith. Some take this line of thinking further and claim a parent raising their child in a specific faith is akin to brainwashing or, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, “child abuse.” Similarly, I have heard it argued children only believe in God because they are taught to do so. While this point is debatable, I will entertain it for purposes of my argument.

We chose to have our children baptized well before they could ever have made that decision for themselves. According to the perspectives I detailed above, my wife and I are brainwashing our children. I am comfortable with that.

Let us set aside the idea that a child would not believe in God unless she was taught about God somehow diminishes theism’s validity. There are a lot of things children (and adults) believe that they would not had no one taken the time to teach them: washing hands prevents disease, carrots are healthier than cookies, humans are more closely related to humpback whales than they are to ravens. That assent to these facts may not come naturally to young children does not make the truths any less true.

I brainwash my children on a host of matters. I put carrots on my son’s plate far more often than cookies, despite his protests that cookies are actually nutritious and will make him just as healthy as any vegetable. I don’t present my children with a series of options concerning safety around water or cliffs. My children will not draft their own moral codes. We teach them stealing is wrong. Punching other kids is unkind and hurts community. It goes against our nature and self-interest to tell the truth when doing so will get us in trouble. All the same, we implore our children to tell the truth even when it hurts. I hope one day they will internalize these ethical values as their own. Until then, we will remind them several times a day to be kind and think about how someone else is feeling.

As a parent it is my responsibility to choose things for my children they might not think of for themselves, or even want. My wife and I will decide whether they go to school. (They do.) We will ensure they have vaccinations so they won’t die from a rusty nail scratching them. And we will tell them over and over again those inoculations, however painful in the moment, will keep them and their communities healthy for a long time.

So we read the Bible with our children. We recount the stories of the Abraham and Sarah, the Exodus, Jesus and Zacchaeus, and the Apostle Paul, as our family’s stories. We tell them God made them and had a great time doing so. I want my children to know Jesus loves them more than my wife and I ever could. We tell them Jesus died because he loves everyone, even the Roman soldiers who killed him. We have to take God’s example, respecting and loving people even if they disagree with our faith or want to harm us. My wife and I practice forgiveness and invite our kids to participate. We join in the life of our church community to show faith in God is not individualistic. We want our kids around other folks who also show God’s love to them. We bake cookies and buy beanies and socks to hand out to our homeless neighbors, in part to foster generosity and compassion in our children. We take our kids to the local Women’s March even if they won’t remember it because we want them to care for the well-being of everyone in our society. We pray with them every day and tell them the Holy Spirit loves to hear their thoughts and questions. My wife and I pray regularly for wisdom in parenting our kids. We know we need help.

The day will come when my children will need to make up their own minds about the Christian faith. I pray they will continue to believe and explore the riches of God’s grace. But I know they may reject what we tell them about God just as they might reject what we say about vaccinations or the ethical boundaries we placed around them regarding stealing. For now we will make choices on their behalf, teaching them the specifics of the Christian faith, praying that these children will be people who “do justice…love kindness, and…walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6.8)

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The Damn Shoes

A prose poem about parenting.

Nothing has humbled me as much as becoming a father. Not my deficiencies as a husband when I see my selfishness firsthand. Not my inability (unwillingness?) to be a good long-distance friend. Not my failures as a pastor when the congregational leaders said they wouldn’t talk with me—and what else did I have to use as a pastor, but words? No, being a dad has revealed just how short my fuse is. How sensitive I can be—a three year-old’s smile fuels me for days, but his rejection is like having someone cut the power to our home. All my skills I pride myself in—responsibility, analysis, reason—mean nothing. I cannot convince him to put on his damn shoes. He screams and writhes about having to put on his damn shoes. And I’m about to throw my own tantrum about the damn shoes. As I go to bed, I pray the examen, and shudder with embarrassment that my desolation for that day is the argument over the damn shoes. And how I stewed throughout the drive to the park, the spins on the tire swing, the tumbles through slides, the return home, about the fight over the damn shoes. I could not calm down. I began to harbor a festering grudge against my son and his damn shoes. When two days later I ask him to put on his damn shoes (minus the profanity) and he does so gladly. And I rejoice, nearly in tears, as if I were watching Neil Armstrong step on the Moon. I pick him up, smother him in hugs, and say a prayer of thanks for those damn shoes.

Imparting Faith: Forgiving My Father and Being a Father

In the Bible, God gives parents a vocation to pass their faith on to their children. This central aspect of my vocation as a father consumes my thoughts more than remembering Elijah’s vaccination schedule, cooking him healthy meals, or offering him adequate educational stimulation. I see too often the gloomy statistics of children walking away from the faith once they leave the home. These statistics concern me because I want my son to experience the love and joy from Jesus I have known. I want him to “take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Tim. 6.19)

Gary Walter, president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, recently published, “Teach and Love Your Children Well,” in which he encourages parents to consider how to raise children in the faith. He points to University of Southern California sociologist Vern Bengtson’s research that shows faith is best passed on in families in which parents prioritize and talk about faith and model faithful practices. Another factor, creating an environment of familial warmth, is actually the greatest indicator of faith being passed between generations. Bengston’s research shows a close bond with one’s father matters more than with the bond with one’s mother, though that bond is still important. As Walter summarizes, “Dads, when you combine a sincere faith with a quality relationship with your children, you enhance the likelihood of your children owning their own faith.”

Walter’s article made me reflect on my father as well as my role now as a dad. What did I receive from my father and how can I pass the faith on to my son?

My parents created an environment of familial warmth, but for the majority of my childhood, my father was not a model of the Christian faith. He did not tell my brother and I the stories of the Bible. He seldom attended church services—usually Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day—and chose instead to work on the Christian Sabbath. He bowed his head at prayers for meals but rarely, if ever, led them. I only remember him reading the Bible when asked to during Advent candle services in the home that my mother initiated. My mom was the spiritual leader of our house, communicating the truths of the faith and modeling the practices for us. She taught us to pray. She showed us the Christian basis for generosity and compassion. The faith I have today is more a product of my mother’s faithfulness than my father’s example.

Near the end of my adolescence I grew jealous of my friends whose dads were spiritual leaders. I longed for a father who could impart to me the wisdom and truths of the Christian faith. I resented my dad for not being a spiritual father figure to me.

In college I read Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a powerful reflection on Jesus’ famous parable and Rembrandt’s painting of it. Nouwen explores the characters of the younger son, the older son, and the father. The sons must each, in his own way, return home and accept the father’s unconditional love and their identity as their father’s beloved child. Nouwen tells the personal story of coming to the realization that in order to truly find his place as God’s beloved son, he must forgive his own human father for his shortcomings. Nouwen describes this forgiveness, this release as a “return from a false dependence on a human father who cannot give me all I need to a true dependence on the divine Father.” The return to the divine Father “allows me to let my dad be no less than the good, loving, but limited human being he is and to let my heavenly Father be the God whose unlimited, unconditional love melts away all resentments and anger and makes me free to love beyond the need to please or find approval.” (83)

These words helped me to forgive my human father for not being the spiritual father figure I desired. In doing so, I learned to allow my dad to be “the good, loving, but limited human being” he was. My eyes opened to the many ways he did embody the Christian faith in his quiet and radical generosity, his refusal to speak ill of people publicly, the hospitality he and my mom extended to people who needed a meal or a place to stay.

Walter’s article and Nouwen’s book remind me that though God tasks me with passing on the faith to my son, I will not be, indeed cannot be the perfect Heavenly Father Elijah needs. I pray fervently that Elijah will know, love, and follow Jesus. I work hard at telling him the Christian story and modeling faithful practices to him, even at this young age. My wife and I seek to create warm familial bonds with him. All the same, I must remind myself that I will fall short, and one day Elijah will have to forgive me for not being the heavenly Father he needs. This fact is humbling and at times humiliating, but I cannot let it shame me. I have to let my shortcomings draw me even deeper into prayer.