One of the most universal bible quotes that likely appeals to parents of all religious backgrounds is, “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he gets older – he will not depart from it!” Today’s parents, like those before – work very hard to raise up and train their children in a way that matches closely with their own inner beliefs and thoughts about life and how people should behave and think. This is referred to as parental conditioning and is generally a pattern of thinking and beliefs that survives from one generation to the next.
If you read the history books of the world, you will see that most behavior, thought patterns and clouds of belief are taught by elders to the young and passed down this way. Some of the beliefs and thoughts make it through to the next generation, while others seem to die off over time or constitutional protest. And the truth is that nearly every judgment or prejudice is one that has been learned.
As a parent however, it is interesting to ask yourself if you have the right as a parent to instill your beliefs in your children? Most parents would readily answer that they ‘absolutely have that power!” And furthermore, parents WANT that power. They want the option of being able to teach their children the things in life that they feel are important and to pass down their own values to their own children, in the hopes that these values will make it through generational boundaries. Yet what happens when a parent’s beliefs, or thoughts or morals or feelings are abnormal, or are compromising. What if following a parental belief could end up hurting your child in the long run, or puts them in danger. For instance, what if you are a vegan… should you feed your children that was despite vast health information stating eating that it’s NOT healthy for children? If you are a Jehovah Witness, is it your right to lead them in that faith… despite knowing that if they need a blood transfusion… they cannot have one and will die? If you have joined deeply religious sect, or engage in polygamy despite it being illegal, is it fair to lead your children down the same path?
The question posed is reminiscent of one of the most famous poems written about parenthood, coming from the insight of history in the translations of Kahlil Gibran.
He says in his poem –
Your children are not your children.
They are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
Throughout the years, the poem has taken on different meanings. However, the insight remains the same. While it is not formidable or likely acceptable for parents to allow their child to grow up without guidance and information that will help them in their future, it is important to allow children wings to fly. Certainly, living your life as you design is important, and you, as a parent, would like to hope that your children will follow in your footsteps. However if they don’t, it should also be accepted and even more important, allowed.
If you are a Christian and your child becomes interested in another form of religion, or seeks out information about God differently than you, the parental guidance should allow it. After all, not allowing it is only a reaction out of fear that perhaps they will disagree. This is more about your questioning your beliefs or methods of raising children than it is your child doing so. The human spirit is naturally curious from a young age, and is designed to seek out knowledge. First with the help of parents. But if parents stymie a child’s ability to seek knowledge, above beyond and further from the parental arms – then is the child truly able to grow?
Legally speaking, parents are allowed to pass down their beliefs to their children. In the United States and Canada, the constitutions allow for all people to have certain freedoms which ensure that parents can pass down their beliefs to their children without consequence. However, to date there have been hundreds of court cases where medical treatment for children in need was being denied based on religious beliefs. One Supreme Court Justice ruled that, “The free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects religious belief, but not necessarily conduct.” This has equated to many parents being criminally punished for allowing certain beliefs they have to interfere with their children’s welfare.
Obviously, the issue takes on more meaning and is easier to answer in other instances. For example, if a parent smokes, should they be allowed to teach their children to do the same? What about parents who do drugs, or what about parents who pursue a homeless lifestyle? For the rest of us trying to raise our children in the best way we know how, we would obviously be quick to judge these decisions. Yet, because we are vegetarians, or because we are 7th day Adventists or because we believe in home schooling, we make certain decisions for our children.
Essentially, it boils down to what Kahlil Gibran says. There are times in a child’s life when parents have not just the right, but also the responsibility to ‘train up,’ their child. Yet, there is also a time for letting go and for allowing children the opportunity to figure things out on their own. For better or for worse. If the values that we instilled are worth sticking to, there is a good chance they will return. Yet never given the opportunity to test the waters, makes them nothing more than prisoners.