Why I Stopped Teaching My Kids to Believe in God

This article first appeared in The Good Men Project.

Children&GodRather than tell my kids what or how to believe, I’d rather they do their own research and come to their own conclusions.

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My kids attended a private, conservative Christian school for nine and seven years, respectively. It was a commitment their mother and I made early on. Our oldest daughter was barely two months old when the Columbine massacre occurred on April 20, 1999. We wanted to make sure she was protected from such horrors. Though we couldn’t guarantee anything, we felt our kids were better off in a protected environment.

I grew up in a conservative Christian home on conservative Christian politics. As soon as I could vote, I voted for Ronald Reagan; the second time, right after I turned 18. I voted as a conservative until 2000, when I finally left the Republican Party because it became too liberal for me. So putting our kids in a conservative Christian school wasn’t a big leap for us.

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I worked with them to memorize their Scripture verses each week and always prayed for and with them before bed. I believed I was doing what was best for them, while reaffirming my own faith.

I proudly attended every school open house. I followed my daughters as they showed off pictures of Bible stories they created with colored construction paper, crayons and cotton. I worked with them to memorize their Scripture verses each week and always prayed for and with them before bed. I believed I was doing what was best for them, while reaffirming my own faith.

But as my kids grew older, I began to have serious doubts about what they were learning. My doubts had nothing to do with the school administrators’ indiscretions, or parental hypocrisy. People have free will. I get it. Quite frankly, I’d had mostly great experiences in church. I was actually getting less comfortable with the uniforms, the uniformity, and lack of allowable personal expression. The list of “do not’s” was getting longer as they got older than the list of “do’s”. Is that what I believed? Did I want them growing up being told what they couldn’t do?

One of the last straws came from an open house I attended. As we weaved through the desks I looked up to see Scripture verses dangling from the ceiling. John 15:10. “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” I couldn’t shake the word “if.” I wondered how they were processing all of this information or if it registered. Did they believe they had to do something to be loved? Were they getting the message that love was conditional?

As I walked out of the classroom that night, I grabbed my daughters by the shoulders. “I want you to know that God loves you no matter what,” I said.

As I walked out of the classroom that night, I grabbed my daughters by the shoulders. “I want you to know that God loves you no matter what,” I said. They looked a little confused. They didn’t know what prompted my statement and were too preoccupied by the crowd and excitement of the attention to ask.

We ended the year with a run in with the new dean. The parking lot was busy at the end of each school day with cars lined up around the school premises. Parents waited patiently for their kids to be released, driving by the designated curb and stopping so their children could get in. I thought of a clever bypass to the chaos. I parked at the end of the lot and had my children walk to me. It worked all year until the dean decided, unilaterally, that it was much too dangerous for a 13-year-old and her 11-year-old sister to walk through a string of parked cars.

When I confronted him, he told me this policy was in the school handbook. It was not. It never had been. That’s when I told him that if 13-year-olds are incapable of walking through a line of parked cars without getting hit, he and the school had much bigger problems than they could solve. With that, we exited the school for the last time.

With eighth grade over, my 13-year-old was ready to spread her wings and made it known she wanted to change schools. Her sister, a free spirit by nature, felt the same. I cried filling out the paperwork for public school. I was frightened by the “what if’s.” At the same time, I was excited by the possibilities and the plethora of new opportunities and programs our private school couldn’t afford. We were all growing up.

I was coming to the realization that I had spent most of my life in fear and that the unconditional love I believed in was actually very conditional.

I was coming to the realization that I had spent most of my life in fear and that the unconditional love I believed in was actually very conditional. I believed what I believed because I’d been taught it. I wasn’t given the option of figuring out whether or not it was true; I was only given the option of studying to confirm it was true. I began to see it very differently, particularly looking at it through my children’s eyes.

I came to realize that part of loving my children didn’t mean teaching them “the way of the Lord” carte blanche. It meant teaching them how to think, make rational decisions and search for truth on their own. I’d been feeding them information, just as their school had. I was producing uniformed Christian clones. That wasn’t working for me, and I was sure it wouldn’t work for them.

Truth, I’ve learned, is not elusive or exclusive when we sincerely search for it. Truth is much too large to be contained between the pages of a single book and, if God does exist, He, or She, or It does not tremble in fear, or go manically ballistic because humans act like humans. I certainly don’t see God needing to be involved in politics so He can take a better swipe at controlling behaviors.

I am done living in fear and I don’t want my children to live that way either. I want them to be everything they are supposed to be, whatever that is, even if it falls outside of “normal.” Perhaps especially if it falls outside of normal. Those people seem to be the ones who make the biggest differences in the world.

I want my children to be passionately in love with life and see all people as valuable, unconditionally lovable, equal, worthy, whole, complete, unique and deserving. I don’t want them to be bigoted, prejudice, hateful, exclusive, or fearful, which is what I see much of the evangelical world, of which I was a part, has become.

Rather than tell my kids what or how to believe, I’d rather they do their own research and come to their own conclusions. I’m not afraid of their questions; I’m not afraid of the answers they find. In fact, as I tell them, they can believe anything they want to believe as long as they can tell me how they came to their conclusions. And quite frankly, in my finite state of humanness, I’m not qualified to grasp the magnitude or explain the universe beyond my own experience with it. I bring a very small perspective. God, on the other hand, is big enough to take care of Himself.

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I love the deep conversations I have with my kids. I love watching them explore and question the world around them. I love the array of friends they have acquired; friends of different ethnicities, sexual orientations and religious beliefs. I love the open conversations we have about politics, sexuality and what they want out of life. I love that no topic is off limits and there is no shame in being human. I trust that their search for truth is with unfettered sincerity, respect for life and a belief that everyone, no matter what, deserves to be loved. I can think of no better explanation of God than that.

Photo – Flickr/Rob Ellis

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