Losing My Religion: Should Children Have A Say In Their Faith?

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Children usually don’t have a choice in the decisions that affect their lives in the first few years they are on this earth.  They don’t have a say about where they want to live, their daily routine or what school they go to.  That’s what parents are for.  But is it fair to choose their religion which is something that defines the very purpose of their lives and the basis of their moral conscience before they’re old enough to say the word “Bible”?

I think all children should have a sense of culture and tradition whether you’re gathered every Christmas around a Noble singing “Silent Night” or you are picking out a gown fit for a princess for your daughter’s quinceañera. Religion can be a strong way to emphasize the purpose of life, the fundamental differences between right and wrong, and a belief in a life beyond the here and now which can help talks about life and death a little easier.  But it is not the only way and I can’t help but wonder about how heavily influential our parents are in how we look at life and the role religion plays in it. As an adult, are your core beliefs and values based on what your parents instilled in you or what you’ve come to believe in life based on your own experiences?

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My sister and I both went to Catholic school from pre-K to eighth grade. My parents weren’t Catholic, and although they had parents who attended Southern Baptist churches from time to time throughout their childhood, religion wasn’t a significant part of their adult lives. Education was, however, and they both felt we’d receive a better quality education if we were taught by nuns and priests as opposed to the Philadelphia public school system.  If a little Holy Communion and ruler lashings came with the deal, so be it. I must say until this day my handwriting is impeccable and I can diagram a sentence with the best of them. In addition, I also have vague memories of the seventh grade religion class that Father McGowan led on Thursday afternoons. Until this day I have unnerving images of hell and purgatory, how masturbation is sinful since pleasure isn’t a part of procreation and how pornography scars your brain with images that will appear when you least expect them to. It was sex-ed, St. Peter’s style.

As I grew older, more and more, certain elements of Catholicism frightened me and didn’t make sense. My older sister on the other hand seemed to really get into the whole process.  We both weren’t baptized and it was awkward to sit in the pew and watch as our classmates go into the confessional or walk to the altar to get a flaky wafer placed on their tongues. For a second and seventh grader, Holy Communion was more about being left out than receiving the body and blood of Christ.  In the end, my sister ended up being baptized Catholic, and I until this day have been intimidated by religion just because I have always felt like it’s left me with so many unanswered questions. It’s only now that my sister is in her late thirties that she realizes she doesn’t agree with core things in the religion like confession and heaven vs. hell.

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Is faith a family affair or should children be allowed to choose their own religion after they’re able to explore the place that spirituality has in their lives?  Speaking from personal experience, I have witnessed many friends cave in to the pressures of choosing a faith and abiding by it only to grow up and realize they don’t agree with everything the religion teaches.  They married young not because they were in love but because of the guilty conscience they’ve carried from being told to avoid premarital sex. My parents never pressured my sister or me to commit to any religion at a young age. Children who are just learning about the colors in a rainbow can’t be expected to seriously consider the meaning of life or the part that a higher power plays in it.

More and more parents are realizing this.  In the New York Times article Children, Choosing Their Religion, author KJ Dell’Antonia pointed out that the fastest growing religious affiliation in the U.S. is no religion. Religion is complicated and besides, there are those who choose to use it to manipulate and suit their own selfish purposes.  I can appreciate that my parents taught me to question everything, think critically, and not just follow anyone’s lead because they say so. I think it’s important for children to grow to choose spirituality in a way that suits their personality and satisfies their own beliefs about the way the world (and their role in it) works.

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Still, whether you’re in the synagogue, Bible study or Sunday night football I think it is essential that all children have something to believe in.  A big part of having a childhood is the idea there is a bigger force at work and that with enough faith in the powers that be (whether you call him God, Buddha or just plain life) things will work out for the best.  If you’re a parent who chooses to leave religion as a decision your child makes for they grow older, it’s important that you work hard to maintain some type of tradition and culture. We may not have gone to church every Sunday, but we celebrated birthdays, attended family reunions and had Sunday dinner. For most kids that routine and structure mixed with a little fantasy in the form of the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy is enough to raise a happy, healthy child who can grow up to make well-informed decisions about how spirituality and faith plays a part in their lives.

The world is a crazy place and providing some faith in the possibility of a better day is the best gift any parent can give to their children. What most parents want is to raise a child who makes a sincere effort to be a good, honest person. Most religions are based around the concepts of faith, love, hope and peace, all things that can be taught without forcing a child to choose what and who they believe in before they can recite their ABC’s. Children need a sense of belonging; no kid wants to be left behind in the pew while their classmates join together for Holy Communion. But I always knew that home is somewhere I belonged and where I first learned how to love, how to show compassion and how to be a good person.  Those are lessons that should be a part of a child’s life not just on Sunday mornings but every day of the week.

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E. Africa

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