(This article is part of our series on self awareness)
Do you believe in God?
Do you rigorously practise your religion, or is it just a compass in times of need?
Are you vehemently against organized religion?
There are no right or wrong answers to the above questions.
Not knowing the answers, however is a cardinal sin.
Today, I want to touch up on a touchy subject – the role of religious beliefs in parenting. I am going to put my best effort to tread with care. I know I will probably still end up hurting some of your faith and beliefs. Please pardon me for that and take this post in the spirit it was written – to instigate some thought into what is it that you really believe in and how it shapes your kids.
A Journey In Search of Faith
I’ll come right out and say it – I am agnostic. I don’t believe in any established form of religion, but I do believe there is something out there that is bigger than me. I have no idea how to define this something but I accept its presence. I understand that some people call it God, others call it the spirit or paramathman, or even destiny.
I am a Hindu by birth, studied in a Christian convent and have had Muslims as close friends.
I was born and raised in India — a country which is secular, but religious beliefs permeate every aspect of everyday life. I grew up seeing religion being used in many different ways – from the common everyday folks who use it as a guiding star in their lives and to do good in the world, to the so-called religious gurus who use it as a business enterprise and the political leaders who use it to divide and rule. In the end, the rational part of my brain just cannot pledge faith to any of these established forms of religion.
And to complicate things, I have a hard-core atheist for a dad and another one for a husband.
But I am neither cynical nor strong enough to accept my father’s and husband’s view that religion/faith is a crutch for the weak, a business instrument for the conmen and a weapon for the corrupt. I need something to fall back on when life gets too hard.
So, in the end, I went with my mother’s choice in this matter. I chose to be an agnostic.
Through the most formative years of my youth, I defined and redefined my faith. I’ve gone to Hindu temples and Christian churches. I discussed religion with my Muslim friends and atheist friends. Finally, I filtered down a few of the beliefs that resonated with me and made them my own.
Having made a decision, to not quite be a believer, but still believe in something, has helped me tremendously in dealing with what life had in store for me.
Why is this important?
Because life has a way of throwing curve balls at you when you least expect it. And we need to know what our faith/beliefs are so we can deal with these situations that are beyond our control. And we need to pass it on to our children so they have a way to deal with situations in their life that are beyond their control when you are not around to help.
It is extremely important that you know what it is that you believe in. And to commit to raising your children with your belief system. And to prepare them with a strong foundation of your faith, standing on which they can choose for themselves what they want to believe in.
If you have pledged allegiance with a particular religion, go all in. Learn as much as possible so you can raise your children in a faith-based environment. As your children grow up and develop their rational thought, be prepared to answer their questions and doubts in a clear manner that makes them choose faith — don’t just resort to “that’s just the way it is” kind of answers and expect them to fall in line. If you don’t know the answers, be prepared to find them.
Surround yourself with people who have similar faith as you. Find opportunities to talk to your kids about your religion, and for the love of God, make sure it is not a boring lecture. Every established religion has a set of stories or a mythological background – find interesting ways to read and talk about these stories. Practice, don’t just preach! Discuss the reasons of why you do what you do, so deep down they are inclined to follow in your path. Make sure the aim of sharing your beliefs and faith is a means to bring solace instead of becoming a source of tension.
Now, on the other hand, if you choose to be an atheist, more power to you. Sit back and think of what is it that you resort to when life gets hard? How will you prepare your children to deal with the hard things in their life? Is it something that is within their grasp? How will you answer their questions about handling things out of their control without having an omniscient, omnipotent “unknown” force to fall back on?
While I was growing up, my dad’s atheistic philosophy made a lot of sense to me. Except, it was no help at all when I found myself grappling with certain issues. For my kind of personality, atheism was not a feasible option. My husband on the other hand was raised by religious parents but developed his own philosophy of atheism. He is a very strong person down to his core, and atheism suited him just fine. If you choose to raise your kids with atheist belief system, be prepared to address the questions down at the level that they can comprehend. And do ensure that it suits their personality. If they need something to fall back on, instead of insisting that they need to get tougher, help them find a way to get there in small little steps and provide the necessary scaffolding to make it less scary.
Now, if you are neither here, nor there, that’s fine too. Just be aware of it, and be intentional and spend some time to think it through. You may not believe in God in the conventional sense, but you still believe in something. What is it? How will you pass on that belief in something to your children? Will you have some prayers? Will you visit religious institutions like a temple, church or mosque? How will you answer your children’s questions about God?
Even though I am agnostic, I still take my daughter to a Hindu temple every now and then — it is more of an effort to expose her to her cultural roots than for religious reasons.
And, I try to keep my answers about God simple –
“Mama, what’s ‘God’?”
“God is someone who watches over us and protects us when we really need some help”
“You mean like Cinderella’s godmother?”
“Yes, kind of.”
I know this will probably incense people of faith, but to me “God” is someone who helps me when I need help, and this is what I want to convey to my daughter in a way that she can comprehend. Is this accurate? I’m pretty sure it’s not 🙂 But I am yet to meet someone who can give me a convincing idea of what God is, so as far as I am concerned, for a 5-year old, this will suffice.
And we have got into a habit of saying a prayer in the night before we go to sleep — it focuses on being grateful rather than on faith. To me, it’s the ritual that matters. And the spirit that goes with it.
If you have made up your mind, and fall in any of these categories, you are good. You just need to be clear about your choice and how you plan to pass it on to your kids.
On the other hand, if you are on the fence, you better make up your mind soon. Choose one way or the other — children need something to fall back on when things get tough to deal with. If you don’t provide them with something to believe in, they may choose something on their own. And their choice, based mostly on peer and media influence, may not be a choice you like.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take the next 2-minutes to answer these questions. Answer quickly and immediately. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers. The aim is to become aware of where you are at and what you need to do next.
- Are you a believer, an atheist, an agnostic or undecided?
- Do you want to raise your child with your belief system?
- If yes, what helps you stay faithful to your belief system (books, blogs, a place of worship, people in your life, communities that you are part of…)?
- If no, what other belief system do you want to raise your children with?
I personally believe that writing things down helps formulate your thoughts. For instance, writing this article really helped me be clear about what my belief system is. And when I am in doubt I can always come back and refer to it. So, my personal recommendation is to try and jot your thoughts down. If you have a blog, put it on your blog (and send me a link, I will include it below for our other readers to look at). If you keep a diary or journal, write it in there. Write it on a post-it note, on your facebook wall or in the comments below. But write it down, so you can see who you are.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Christmas is right around the corner as I write this. We have a tree in our house that is all decked out, under which Santa will leave some presents. We’ve read “It Was the Night Before Christmas” several times over. There is almost palpable joy and anticipation in the air.
Beyond these, Christmas has been an opportunity to talk to my daughter about all kinds of complex topics like giving, sharing and choosing to be merry. About the haves and the have-nots. About relishing the joys of big beautiful presents, and little silly things just the same.
I plan to use this coming week to keep observing my interaction with my daughter in the frame of my belief system. Am I giving her a consistent message? Am I answering her questions to be in line with my values? Am I leaving enough room for questions? Is my behavior in line with my words?
Go ahead and try it out in your own families. Observe what you say, and what you model in the context of what you believe in. Identify the weak spots, and read up a little to fill the gaps. Do family projects to explore your faith further. Get in touch with your elders to discover the roots of your faith. Solidify the foundation on which your kids can build a secure idea of who they are so they don’t have to rely on unknown, untested beliefs from their peers, or worse, the media.