Raising Children Un-Fundamentalist | Sojourners

Raising Children Un-Fundamentalist

How do I raise my kids in a way I wasn't raised?
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You could interpret this statement — "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. 

The blog I run is not a mommy blog. 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 less often 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 periodically have their Sunday School kids sing and perform for the whole congregation. I can’t ever sit through one of these children-led worship songs without crying. It is so adorable and heartwarming 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 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 project, 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. 

I don’t know how to raise my kids in a way I wasn’t raised. Fundamentalists lord power over children, invoking spiritual terms like biblical authority, godly discipline, and instilling a fear of the Lord. 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 takes advantage of the vulnerability of highly imaginative children, and is an abuse of power against them. 

With every fiber of my being I don’t want to do this to my kids. But how do I avoid it, 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? 

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 the comment section below or over on my blog.  

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