I 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.”
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.