Sunday, April 29, 2007

Christianity and parenting

Today I was in for a wonderful treat because my parents and little sister all came up to Madison to go to church with me. Their visit reminded me of how important faith is to our family. In the past few weeks, I've been thinking more about how the shared religion I have with my parents affects our relationship, and to what extent is sharing one's religion justifiable in the parent-child relationship. This is more than a flippant concern, esp for a Christian. As a Christian you accept and live by certain beliefs about the world and your role in it. To the extent that your beliefs affect your day to day life is a matter of individual choice, but on the whole many Christians believe a set of ideas that inevitably call for a certain type of behavior. And if you believe that faith in Jesus is crucial for eternal salvation, your belief will dictate how you raise your children. If it doesn't, one would question whether or not you really do believe. That being said, Christian parents will undoubtedly want to share their beliefs with their children. This is where things start getting sticky...

Some philosophers claim, correctly, that parents have certain duties when it comes to their kids. They are responsible for ensuring their emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being. This responsibility obviously entails limits as to how parents can treat their kids. Abuse and neglect are clearly ruled out... But apart from obvious harms, it is harder to determine where the threshold lies in this matter. One important question treated by philosophers is the extent to which parents can enroll children into a comprehensive doctrine of any kind. By comprehensive doctrine (CD), I mean the set of values and beliefs that affect the habits/choices/etc of the parent. Obviously, parents have a good deal of freedom to choose their own CD, but it is less certain how free they should be to enroll their children in one if those children are not old enough to choose it for themselves. For Christian parents, enrollment would include infant baptism, taking children to church, and even putting their children in private religious schools. Should parents, then, be prohibited from doing these things? Some philosophers might say yes, but I would disagree, to a point.

The argument centers around (imho, sometimes wrongly) the child's development of autonomy. The question at hand is whether the development of the child's autonomy should be an end goal (so as long as that goal is reached, many earlier breeches of the child's autonomy are allowed) or a constant limitation (no enrollment without consent). Both of these views assume that autonomy is not only valuable, but lexically trumps other competing values. I agree that autonomy is a desirable goal, but I don't think it should receive all of our attention. Our society focuses too much on individualistic and consumeristic values. We want to choose the course of our lives, but in the process we turn "living" into a trip to the CD store. We pick and choose our beliefs and values to suit our currant moods, and in return we loose touch of the importance of community, selflessness, and love. Producing a child who is capable of choosing her future CD is futile, in my opinion, if she isn't taught how to weigh considerations of other people with her own desires. It's like a person going into a grocery store filled with some food that's healthy and some food that isn't. Autonomy requires that the person can go into the store and pick out what she wants. In other words, she doesn't just go into the store a pick up what her parents used to make her pick up as a child. However, the autonomous person can still go into the store and pick out only junk food. She's making a decision based on her own interests, but she's not well equipped to effectively serve her overall interests. By overall interests I mean those interests that are not limited to her desires, but also include her overall capacity to live a flourishing life. I believe that autonomy is important as an instrumental value, but I have a hard time grasping it's intrinsic value. In my mind, autonomy is only important in so far as it contributes to flourishing. Because autonomy is often useful for flourishing, we mistakenly assume that it is a) necessary and b) sufficient for flourishing. Neither of which I agree with. Is it impossible to imagine an adult with injured autonomy who nevertheless flourishes? And it's not hard to imagine an autonomous person who doesn't flourish at all. The important goal should be the promotion of flourishing, both in childhood and as an adult. To the extent that autonomy is instrumental in achieving that goal, it should be protected. However, we should not pursue it with reckless abandon....

And that brings me back to the question of Christian parents. I believe that certain CDs (in which I include many forms of Christianity, but not all) more effectively prepare children to become adults who are capable of flourishing. If you'll recall the person in the store, these CDs would have taught that person how to choose the food that is more nutritious, while still allowing her to choose based on personal preferences (and occasionally indulge in less nutritious options). In other words, being raised in some CDs will prepare a child to make wise life decisions later, even if that leads her to reject the CD she was raised in. It's not about being able to choose, it's about being able to make good decisions, which includes the ability to make decisions that take others into consideration. Christian parents who take their kids to church (in most cases) are not hampering this goal. In fact, they are often doing a better job of it. Knowing God is the aim, and along the way children acquire many valuable bonuses (I say bonus because they are not the reason for believing but they are positive consequences of believing). For example, Jesus taught that love is the most important thing we can do, and he commanded us to love everyone. If that's the only thing a child took away from the Christian CD, then they are better off than they might have been without it.

Christian parents do need to be conscious of how they are sharing their beliefs with their children. If a parent scares/forces a child to believe, not only is the parent violating the child's prospects for flourishing, but the parent is not acting in line with the teachings of Christ. Jesus never brainwashed his disciples, and he certainly didn't make the decision for us. He taught, and let us decide. In the same way, Christian parents should introduce their kids to the scriptures, to Church, to praying, etc, but they must let the child reject these beliefs and practices if she wants to. We should seek to imitate God, which means we should seek to be fathers and mothers in the same way that He is our Father. Parents should openly teach children about their faith, but they must inevitably leave it up to the child. Also, they must let them have a good understanding of the world, including views that contradict Christianity. Faith that is unchallenged is not really faith. So Christian parents should feel obliged to make sure their children encounter these opposing viewpoints. Jesus didn’t live in seclusion, and neither should our children.

Last note... Part of flourishing for both the child and parent includes having a good relationship between them. Relationships are built on shared interests and activities. If Christian parents were to exclude their children from what is (or should be) the most important part of their life, then they are doing a disservice to both the child and themselves. As I realized very keenly today, there is something really special about sharing your faith with your family. I’ve experienced a similar feeling with my Christian friends, but it feels more special with my family. Our relationships are deeper, because we connect on a deeper level. We understand each other in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had they not introduced me to this part of their lives. I’ve seen this connection missing among my friends with non-believing parents (or vise versa), and while it’s not a deal breaker for a relationship to succeed, it can hurt when it’s not there.

Sorry for the long post, if you made it to the end, I thank you. If you agree/disagree, let me know! I realize some people may not agree with me because my view is perfectionist ...but sometimes that may be necessary... And lastly, these philosophers raise the questions I've (semi) addressed here: Clayton, Brighouse, and Swift. I realize that's not a great bibliography, and I know I don't show whose ideas are where, so my apologies.

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