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Childhood spirituality and parental responsibility

BaptismI want to address a phrase that I hear on a fairly frequent basis. It is quite the popular phrase, spoken when a conversation moves to the spirituality of children. Baptism, Sunday school, or some other church event usually provides the instigation. In these occurrences, parents will sometimes say:

“I’m not bringing my child to church (or Sunday school or baptism) because I want my child to choose their own Spiritual path.”

Sigh.

Now, Parent, I understand what you might be trying to say. You are trying to say that you have withheld your own judgement regarding spirituality in order to honour the full autonomy of your child. You are attempting to suggest that you are foregoing your own desire to choose your child’s spirituality for the sake of honouring your child’s personal freedom. I agree: this phrase sounds nice. Too bad it’s untrue. Here’s the thing, the decision to not take your child to church is as much of a choice as the decision to take your church. You have not abdicated responsibility, nor have you sidestepped the issue. You simply cannot get away from the fact that you have made a spiritual decision on behalf of your child, and if your plan was to refrain from any influence on your child’s spiritual development, then I hate to inform you, but you have already failed.

Frankly this notion that making a parental decision regarding your child’s spirituality somehow limits your child’s freedom is ridiculous. It is so ridiculous in fact, that it is never implemented in any other important area of your child’s life. Here are three examples.

Firstly, you make nutritional choices for your child. Despite how much they may plead and beg, and attempt to exert their own will, I imagine that your child’s diet contains more than Macaroni and Hot Dogs. Meal after meal you place vegetables on their plate. If your child is a newborn, you are the one that chooses the baby food and then spoons it into their mouth; if your child is older, you have probably made them remain at the dinner table until they have finished eating what you have placed in front of them. Day after day, you exert your own will upon your child. Why? Because you rightly believe that your child’s nutrition is important. I am willing to bet that if you did not do this, you would not be seen as one who courageously champions for your child’s personal autonomy.

Secondly, you make educational choices for your child. You decide which school they will attend and how they should get there. You do not wait to enrol your child into school (even if it is home-schooling) until your child is capable to ‘choose’ what they want to learn. Despite any and all whining, despite your child wishing to spend their entire day at play, you force them to go to school. Technically, it is only when your child graduates high school that any educational choice is up to them. Until then, it’s in your hands.

Lastly, you make choices pertaining your child’s physical health. When it’s cold outside, you tell them to bundle up, wear a hat, or carry an umbrella. You put on their snow-pants and mittens. I doubt that you let them play in the snow in shorts and T-shirts. What is more, if your child gets sick you take them to a doctor. You make them take their medicine, despite how horrible it may taste, because you know it is to their good. Think about it; Dentists, Physicians, Health Nurses, Surgeons, all are people that your child could realistically choose not to associate with, if the choice was up to them. But it is not. Their physical health is too important, so you choose for them.

So when it comes to your child’s spirituality, whether it be a discussion of Sunday school, church attendance, baptism, or any other religious rites that sometimes get talked about when we have young children, it is simply not the case that you are honouring your child’s freedom when you say you want them to choose. What you are really saying is that you do not believe that your child’s spirituality is important enough to warrant your attention or involvement. And if that’s what you believe, so be it. You are the parent, and you have the right to make that decision. But please be honest about it, and do not pretend as if the negation of any active spiritual exposure somehow instils a unique spiritual perspective in your child.

But let me ask you a question; what will you do when your child comes home one day after school and asks to go to church? Will you be happy and encouraging? Or will you try to think of all sorts of reasons why going to church would not be a good idea – which, let’s be honest, will be based primarily on the reasons for why you do not want to go to church.

But what if you do say yes, and agree to take your child to church? Where will you go? Will you go to the neighbourhood church down the block, or to the big box church that everyone raves about? Which denomination will you choose? Is Anglican the same as Catholic, and are they the same as Jehovah Witness? Does your child want to go a smaller church, one with a tight-knit community, or one with loud drums, dancers, and hundreds or even thousands of people? Do you want your child to sit with you during the service, or spend the entire morning at the children’s program? Not every church is the same. Each have unique things to offer, and there are positive and negatives to any church community. It should also be recognized that not every building that sticks the word ‘Church’ on its front door is a healthy and uplifting community. Some communities have a lot of infighting; some believe that church-goers should shun non-church-goers; some demand the refusal to celebrate birthdays and holidays; some won’t allow women in leadership.

Now, don’t get me wrong; there are a lot, and I mean A LOT, of beautiful, supportive, friendly, and uplifting communities out there. I have no doubt that you can find one near you. It just takes a little bit of time and effort. The point is, the decision of which church to go to, in order to fulfil your child’s spiritual needs and questions, is way too important to leave up to the last minute.

Your child’s spiritual upbringing is important. There is no way around it. What is more, there will be a day when your child comes to you with spiritual questions. They will ask about what happens when people die, if angels exist, if God has a belly-button, or if God is crying when it rains outside. Believe me, not as a priest but as a father who has seen this many times, it will happen. Now I am not suggesting that you are the one that needs to have all the answers – after all, you are not your child’s dentist, or nurse, or surgeon, nor are you the one who must have a degree in theology. Still, wouldn’t it be good for you to know where to go when those questions come up?

You child’s spiritual development is as important as their physical, their nutritional, and their educational development. It is as important, not because it is spiritual, but because it is part of what it means for them to develop as a whole person. This means it is too important for you to withhold your guidance, your care, and your involvement.

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
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22 Responses to Childhood spirituality and parental responsibility

  1. Very well said. I like the comparisons to the health of the child in terms of education, nutrition and physical health.

  2. Personally, I would much rather have seen an article that used positive experiences, and question raising, as opposed to labelling the practices and thoughts of others as ridiculous.

    There’s a great conversation to be had here, and speaking in ways that judge others thoughts and actions as lesser than our own might not be the best way to do it.

    Part of why we nees to have the conversation is that there was a time we were judgy and condescending towards others who were different than us. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

    • Kyle Norman

      Jon I completely agree – however I do think there are times where we need to speak a challenging word. I have heard the phrase ‘letting my child choose’ – or ‘ waiting until my child can make the choice’ is something that needs to be challenged. I do think this thought is ridiculous because we would never do something like that in other disciplines.

      There are places where we should use a more positive – story rich approach, however I felt that what sometimes is lacking is a challenge to the contemporary thought and an urge to think differently about the matter of the spiritual development of our children. I guess I was trying to strike the fine balance between challenging but not condemning.

      Personally, I thought I hit that balance – but that could be up to interpretation.

      Thanks for your comments – Many blessings to you!

      • As Jon knows, I happily and helpfully label all others’ practices as ridiculous.

        I think about this topic a lot, especially as someone who is raising a child within the Anglican Christian tradition, and as one who knows plenty of people who talk about “letting their child choose their own path…”

        Which I find a challenging proposition. Because IMHO it actually underplays the pernicious effect of spiritual and religious consumerism under the guise of freedom and choice. I actually believe (and that bordering-on-fundamentalist theologian Douglas John Hall has my back) that developing a robust faith actually prepares a person to be spiritually and theologically discerning. Or at least, it should.

        The church has definitely doled out its own share of oppressive stuff. And I can see how a parent who has experienced (or heard rumours of such) oppression at the hands of the church would be reticent. And so I wouldn’t shame them for their choice – even if I think it misguided. I would, however, invite the deeper conversation and find out the questions behind their questions. The assumptions behind their statements.

        Because as much as I react against my assumed interpretation of why people say these things, I need to hear what they’re actually saying when they say it.

  3. Yikes. There’s no A in responsibility

  4. Thankyou for the insight. It was never a question with my children (21 and 19) and I am so glad we did.

  5. it’s hard to know a spiritual path is an option, if you’ve never been introduced to one.

  6. Another problem I have seen over the last 50 years is ,that a lot of people who bring their children to be baptized have little interest in the church or in Jesus but just want to “buy” ,as it were , a little fire insurance. There should be that those wishing to baptize their children should have to have been part of that church for at least 3 months or so.

  7. I have two sisters, we were raised in church. I have six boys, they were also raised in church. Looking back, enjoying a living faith, and having a wonderful church family gave us all an advantage. I’m very grateful.

  8. Being childless, I really shouldn’t have an opinion, but I’ll state one anyway: BRING YOUR CHILD TO CHURCH. Let them run around, no matter how many sour looks you get from traditionalists. When they’re adults, they can choose their own spiritual path at that time.

    • Kyle Norman

      Thanks for your comment Heather. I think it is very appropriate that you have an opinion on this matter. Sometimes comments like ‘let the run around, no matter how many sour looks you get . . ‘ are more meaningful when they come from people without children. Clearly you have a heart to see churches filled with children. I think that is very pertinent to this discussion. Blessings.

  9. I think it’s so important to acknowledge that you cannot raise your children to make a “neutral choice” about religion. If you choose to not take them to church, know that that action is teaching them a certain perspective about faith which will colour their future choice; just as taking them to church will.

    I want to note, however, that while church attendance is obviously important, and as somebody who didn’t always have a steady church home growing up, I know that keenly – it IS possible to raise children in the faith without necessarily taking them to church regularly. There are many ways to connect with Christian community (or the community of whatever faith you are sharing with your children)

  10. I know young adults who did not grow up in a church and they are doing just fine in their spiritual lives. There is so much more exposure to different faiths than at one time that it is totally reasonable to expect that one will choose a faith later in life when the deeper questions start to crop up. They may even choose Christianity.

    I have to raise a hand to Jon’s comment. I agree. We must maintain the integrity of baptismal preparation, but not by disrespecting parents making a legitimate choice for their children.

    • Yes there is a smörgåsbord of faiths out there but there is only one that leads to life, the others, they lead away from God to a counterfeit. Barna Group did a study and found that 23% of people who call themselves born again Christians came to faith after the age of 21. Our focus should be on the youth and kids and challenging the adults who are raising these kids that if they are Christians they will be held accountable for the example and teaching they give their kids about Christ and being Christian.

  11. as a parent of three boys i have spent some considerable time fighting the 5am Sunday morning hockey practice to know that parents who wouldn’t impose christian formation on their kids have NO problem with forcing, cajoling, yelling and bullying their kids to stick with the hockey program–the reason? Because it will give them a sport for life. Or in some cases, because they need their kids to fulfill their own unfulfilled desire to play in the NHL. The point is, if the parents value the results enough they will ensure the kids go where they will be given the tools and will do all in their power to make it happen. Parents who want their kids to choose from something they don’t even know about (church, faith, etc) may be overwhelmed by choice, indifferent to the value of faith, or just plain tired. but either way it is a choice of that which they believe will provide the kids with the most good. Not sure how to address this, but until the benefits of community, faith, salvation, and companionship with God are valued over hockey practice, piano practice, swimming practice, nintendo etc, and parental fatigue (which can be fixed by those in church providing a welcome respite to young moms instead of tut tutting or smiling but not helping or saying “i looked after my kids, let her look after hers….) then parents will choose to seek out other “goods” in which to invest their children’s time and energy. That is a choice being made on their behalf. So no, i do not accept the response that parents are giving their kids the choice by keeping them from church. I do accept the fact that parents have chosen what they perceive will bring the greater returns on their time/money/energy investment–and right now, spiritual returns are falling low on the list in this regard. Food for thought for all of us.

  12. Kyle Norman

    I guess that’s the point of the article – or at least what instilled in me to write it. I have no problem with parents saying ‘I’m not religious so I’m raising my child to be non-religious’. The issue really isn’t about the choice that is made, but about the faulty premise that a parent can withhold their choice. It is this idea that irks me.

    I have heard some say (sometimes quite smugly – in my own experience) “Well I don’t want to force spirituality on my child, so I will give them the freedom to choose when they decide to do so.” The unstated assumption – all who bring children to church coercively rob their children of their spiritual freedom and autonomy.

    This post isn’t directed to parents who choose to have their children baptised, or parents who choose to stay away from spirituality. This post, hopefully, is a challenging word to those who believe they can opt out of an opinion on the matter – and hopefully a call to think about things differently.

  13. I agree with the author almost 100%. When folks come to me for Baptism and tell me they are not going to bring the child to church I often use an analogy that most of them can understand.
    Which activities are you hoping they will do? Hockey? Dance? etc. They will usually indicate at least one with great enthusiasm and I say “Well good but I hope you take them to the practices and the games after you sign them up because they’ll never be a good hockey player or dancer or whathaveyou if you just sing them up. Baptism is signing them up….to learn how to be a christian they have to show up for the practice.”

  14. Thanks, Kyle….a very well written argument. Wish I had thought of those answers years ago, but will be quoting you in any future conversations. My stock reply was that if you give your child music lessons, or sport (ie baseball, soccer, etc.) lessons, or even dance lessons, you are helping them to prepare to a well rounded education and they can make choices to pursue further when they are adults. But if you never give them spiritual education they have no knowledge to make the decision to not attend. It is our responsibility as parents, aunts, uncles, and family friends to offer the groundwork to a life in the community of Christ.

  15. Kyle, Glad you got good discussion going on this, …it is important because I think it reveals significant aspects of popular theological anthropology, (who do we think we are spiritually in relation to God). Ridiculous is not too strong a word to make your point as your illustrations show. Your point could be reinforced by many additional examples. But I think several issues in the background of our culture contribute to a near idolatry of the “freedom of personal choice” and the popular “hands off policy” regarding the “danger” of informing or, God forbid, “influencing” the “spiritual path” of another. It occurs to me that nearly opposite yet apparently logical ideas about spirituality could motivate the comment you get from parents.
    Inspired by your post to reflect on why parents would think this way, I have written a reflection but perhaps it is too long for this “comments” section. Maybe I will ask Jesse if it could go in the “Common Area” or somewhere if there is a better place for it ?

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