Parenting and Passing on Beliefs

I have had a few conversations lately about parenting. When people my age get together, the topic often comes up with the statement: “I wish I’d known then what I know now.” This is often said in jest, but when we reflect in seriousness, we have to admit that we may have hurt others along the way of our learning. We may have taught truths that we later found to be untrue. In the case of our children, they believed us, their primary teachers and, as adults, they may continue to believe what we taught them – even when our beliefs have changed. Looking down upon the generations coming up behind us, it can be pretty painful to see the outcome of these mistaken beliefs and worse, to see the beliefs being handed on to our grandchildren.  It is no wonder that older people pray a lot. My prayer is often: “Please, God, don’t make their learning new truths be painful.” But, it seems that the way of pain is the only way to move from one belief to a new one.

When my children were young, I was immersed in a belief system that one would call evangelical or fundamentalist. It isn’t so much the theology that concerns me here, but rather, the way that theology translated into my parenting. I say, “my parenting” because the spiritual journey is one I took on my own. My husband was on a different path. It took years for our paths to converge. When the kids were young, I was the one who took them to vacation bible school and read them bible stories. Bernie sometimes tagged along but mostly let me do my own thing. He was closer to the truth than I was, I see that now.

I want to address two particular aspects of the theology I held during those years: original sin and salvation through the cross. We (myself and others under this particular umbrella) believed that we are all born with a seriously sinful nature and destined for hell. This is the reason, by the way, that Catholics moved baptism into infancy to the point that they couldn’t wait to get their child baptized. The Church later came up with a doctrine to pacify parents – limbo, not heaven, not quite hell, a fairly happy place, we hoped.

When one believes children are burdened with a condition that God cannot stand to even look upon, a parent’s main objective is to see to it that their children hear the “good” news of salvation, confess their “sins” and accepts Jesus into their lives. Of course, accepting salvation has a prerequisite. Namely, one must admit that they are full of sin. So one of a parent’s duties is to help a child see their sinfulness. Thus we told our children in innumerable ways how bad they were, that they fell short of our (God’s) expectations.

I remember being involved in a program called “Child Evangelism Fellowship” during those years. We gathered children wherever we were invited to tell bible stories to children using flannel figures that we placed on a board. We taught them catchy little songs to help them remember the stories and the message of the Savior. I remember one song that makes me cringe today:  “My heart was black as sin, until the savior came in. His precious blood, I know, has washed me white as snow.” We were making sure these children felt plenty sinful so that we could then offer them the invitation to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.

People can carry this sense of being bad and falling short throughout their whole lives. We know that even those who seem confident and are achieving great things in the eyes of the world often are compensating for this sense of inadequacy. What looks like an adult with a good self esteem may be a cover-up for a wounded child.

As I studied child development in preparation for being a parent educator, I came to understand how children learn and the gradual development of conscience. I saw that inappropriate behaviors in small children were normal for their age and they had to be taught appropriate behaviors without damaging their little egos. During my studies and later as I taught parenting, the feeling of wishing I’d known then what I know now was deeply painful.

I was able to forgive myself when I realized that I, too, was a wounded child raised by my parents who were wounded. Both of my parents had spiritual awakenings later in life. My mother had her awakening when she finally surrendered after years of struggling with alcohol and became a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.  My father followed as he experienced the 12 step program of Alanon. They changed dramatically after that, but by then my brothers and I were off into our own lives starting to have families. I cannot speak for my brothers, but for me, it was the beliefs my parents passed on to me that I carried into my own parenting. The church which my parents and Bernie’s parents faithfully attended reinforced these beliefs. Changing those beliefs happened when we could see the harmful effects of those beliefs on us, on our children and the world. It has been a long grueling process to find freedom, let me tell you.

I have tried to share in my blogs a new way of experiencing God as a loving Father, which is the way Jesus experienced God. When I write, I often hope that my children read my blogs. I rarely call their attention to these blogs. I have this weird belief that the people who read my blog on any given day are the ones who are supposed to hear the message. I don’t feel I should be tampering with God’s plan which keeps me from promoting myself as a blog writer. Not everyone would agree that this is a good idea – I am not so sure myself.

But even if my children did read the blogs I have written with them in mind one cannot escape the process of changing one’s beliefs. It is hard work. It can get ugly. Words of explanation can help, but these are mostly understood only after some life experience ha s slapped one upside the head.

One thought on “Parenting and Passing on Beliefs”

  1. My dad used to take all of us to mass every Sunday. We took up the whole pew. Mom and dad never got involved with us in any religious learning. I believe that they thought that it was the duty of the priests and nuns to teach us. Mom and dad just made sure we showed up and participated in the religious classes. A lot of families back then believed the same way; that the religious leaders were the only ones with the knowledge to teach us about God.
    The only thing I remember from my youth was, thankfully, to have the discipline and initiative to continue learning about God in my own way. I still wonder about how my dad and your dad were raised and what were they taught from their parents about having faith; and knowing that God is our rock and our salvation. I wish I could have had some conversations with my mom and dad about that like you did.

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