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Child Friendly Faith

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Does religion help or harm children? Viewpoints range from those who believe that it is impossible to raise loving, moral children without faith to those who see religious immersion as child abuse. A new effort, Child-Friendly Faith, launched by author Janet Heimlich, "Breaking Their Will" and sociologist Christine Woodman, seeks to create productive dialog between those who value and those who criticize the role of religion in the lives of children.

What is the Child-Friendly Faith project?

JANET: Child-Friendly Faith is a movement that aims to get people talking about religion and kids with the ultimate goal being to ensure that a religious upbringing is a healthy experience for every child. While researching Breaking Their Will, it became clear that religious teachings can be both beneficial and harmful for children. My book exposed ways that some kinds of religious belief can lead adults to abuse and neglect, but where to go from there? What solutions are available to us as a society? CFF has begun as a Facebook group for information sharing, but we hope to grow it into something larger.

CHRISTINE: Readers responded to Janet's book with their own stories of abuse. They also responded with questions about how to make religious environments and upbringings healthy and positive for children. Child-friendly faith is our term for religious teachings and practices that create positive experiences for children and encourage healthy parenting.

Some freethinkers would argue that a religious upbringing is inherently harmful because religion teaches children to suppress critical thinking and creates boundaries around who deserves our compassion.

JANET: One of the most important messages I have tried to get across is that different kinds of religious and spiritual upbringings impact children in different ways. It's important not to lump all "religion" together but, rather, to differentiate between extremist cultures and more liberal, progressive ones. My research shows that cases of religious child maltreatment tend to occur in authoritarian cultures. That is, ultra-conservative, fundamentalist, orthodox and extremist faith settings. They are oppressive to kids, but, even more importantly, they are oppressive to parents, who follow dogma and dictums in deciding how to raise their kids rather than using their own instincts. Therefore, parents are robbed of their autonomy in making child-rearing decisions. What you then often get is religiously motivated abuse and neglect, such as "biblical chastisement" beatings, faith healing-related medical neglect and religious spurning and terrorizing.

On the other hand, parents who raise their kids in tolerant, compassionate places of worship are more invested in nurturing child development, meeting children's individual needs, and encouraging critical thinking. That includes allowing children to decide for themselves what spiritual path they will take, even if that means choosing atheism or agnosticism. Does this mean that parents in non-authoritarian cultures don't abuse their kids? Of course not, but those adults are much less likely to abuse in the name of faith.

What are the qualities that make a religious upbringing harmful for children?

JANET: I think it's important to first be clear as to what abuse and neglect is, and there are commonly accepted, clinical definitions. That said, religiously motivated maltreatment manifests itself in unique ways. For example, parents who administer excessive corporal punishment may not be simply acting out of anger but out of beliefs that the Bible requires them to spank harshly. We have seen case after case of child sexual abuse in which parents revere, even worship, religious authorities and allow a child to spend one-on-one time with a pastor, priest, rabbi, or imam who is pedophilic.

Give us a description of a child-friendly faith community.

CHRISTINE: Child-friendly faith communities are those that concentrate on supporting parents in material, practical, emotional and spiritual ways. They offer coping strategies and practical support, not an inflexible set of rules of what constitutes good parenting behavior. Child-friendly faith communities honor a child's human rights and do not require acts of devotion from children who are too young to give meaningful consent. Child-friendly faith meets children at their developmental level, even in those stages in which children question or rebel against religious authority.

JANET: I would add that child-friendly faith communities do not simply talk about how children are "precious" or "gifts from God." Rather, they show it. Child-friendly places of worship put child safety above public relations. For example, religious authoritarian organizations are often loath to report child maltreatment, because they fear it will hurt the culture's image. This form of neglect is a huge problem from unconventional cults to the Catholic Church. Child-friendly faith communities, on the other hand, learn about abuse laws and report suspected crimes, because they not only talk about protecting children, they take action.

What are the benefits of this kind of community for young children?

CHRISTINE: Sociological research suggests that the primary way that religion benefits children is by supporting their parents. Something wonderful happens when parents do not bear the burdens of parenting alone but can rely on a support network that includes more experienced parents. With this support, children flourish. When parents' basic emotional, social and material needs are met, it frees them to better attend to their children's needs. By contrast, while authoritarian religions may offer resources like food pantries and parenting support groups, they do so while insisting that parents raise their kids "God's way."

Why do parents stay in authoritarian communities? I believe they do so for the same reason that many women stay in abusive marriages. That is, they don't have another viable option for getting their needs met. Certainly that was the case with my mother. She was young and had no resources. The only place she believed that she could find support was in her church. People in desperate situations turn to churches, and authoritarian places of worship want congregants to maintain that sort of dependence.

What about parents who are not religious? Are they out of luck or are there other ways to get these benefits for their kids?

CHRISTINE: In our society, we see parents as solely responsible for meeting their children's needs. We have created few places to turn for the kind of support that is vital to good parenting. Parents who opt to give their children a non-religious upbringing have one less resource. Some are able to create the benefits of a spiritual community by surrounding themselves with supportive friends and family. But not everyone has a strong network. Parenting in isolation is simply too exhausting, financially draining and fraught with risk for both children and parents. We need to cultivate realistic options for support outside of religion.

JANET: Most parents naturally gravitate toward building a community, regardless of whether it is religious or secular. But as Christine points out, secular environments don't have the structure that religious ones offer, such as gathering places, meaningful rituals and family events. Still, there are resources out there. New social networking resources like meetup.com are helping to fill in some gaps.

How are you bringing up your own children?

CHRISTINE: I had an authoritarian religious upbringing in which I was physically abused, sporadically denied medical care, and emotionally terrorized. What I experienced personally, however, pales in comparison to the suffering I saw when a molester was allowed unfettered access to girls in my Christian high school or when my mother worked in a religious reform school.

Because of the oppressive way I was raised, I now believe that all children should be religiously literate. That is, they should have a basic knowledge of major world religions and an in-depth knowledge of the traditions and scripture of the dominant religion in their society. I gave my children the benefit of my education in world religion and Protestant doctrine, but I encouraged them to follow their own spiritual path. I would no more insist that they be Evangelical Christian than I would insist that they become sociologists. Of course, this does not mean that I haven't ruined a few Disney movies with my sociological "insights" or given advice based on my own spiritual beliefs. But my bottom line has been this: God doesn't have grandkids. By that I mean whatever relationship my children have or do not have with God is between them and the Great Whomever. I'm glad to say my children are well-adjusted, responsible young people whom I would want to be friends with, even if I weren't related to them.

JANET: I have an eight-year-old girl. To the best of my ability, I do not "mold" her to my way of thinking or believing about anything. I, myself, don't subscribe to any religion, but her father is an Evangelical Christian. I'm sure both of our very different beliefs rub off on our daughter, but both he and I do our best to allow her to develop her own ideas and ways of looking at the world. In my conversations with my daughter, I let her know my thoughts, feelings, and ideas, but she also knows that they are mine, and I will accept and love her whether or not she adopts a similar outlook.

What do you hope to attain with the Child Friendly Faith Project?

JANET: Simply put, our goal is to educate the public about religious influences on children with the goal being to ensure that a religious upbringing is a positive experience for all children. We want to help the public grapple with questions such as, "When is a religious upbringing healthy for kids, and when is it not?" "What can we do to make sure that a religious upbringing meets children's' needs and preserves their human rights?" and "When can a child give meaningful consent to take part in their parents' religion, choose a different religion, or opt out of faith altogether?" Already, a few weeks after the launch of the Facebook group, renowned experts in fields related to religion and children and survivors of religious child maltreatment have engaged in fascinating discussions. Ultimately, we hope to be more or less a think tank, to present the latest research and organize conferences on these topics.