Does religion help children or harm them? 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. Author Janet Heimlich (Breaking their Will) believes this isn’t an either or question, but rather a set of when, where and how questions. Heimlich is launching an initiative, Child-Friendly Faith, that 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?
Heimlich: The Child-Friendly Faith Project aims to get people talking about the impact that religious, spiritual, and cultural influences have on children. Adults have the right to practice the faith of their choice, and many find their lives deeply enriched by some form of spiritual practice. Usually they assume that what enriches their own lives must also be good for their kids, but that is not always the case. So, it’s important that parents and other people responsible for children give serious thought about when and how to involve children in faith practices.
The CFFP opposes all ideologically “inspired” child maltreatment, for example, physically abusive corporal punishment due to beliefs about “biblical chastisement,” a failure to report sexual abuse due to a perceived need to protect the image of a cultural group, or religious indoctrination and isolating that leaves children withdrawn or disturbed. We encourage practices that help children find ways to discover and celebrate life and love and to understand the moral fabric of their community.
What lead you to start the project?
Heimlich: While researching Breaking Their Will, it became clear that ideological teachings and rituals can be both beneficial and harmful for children. In my book, I examined the conditions that put children at risk for religious child abuse and neglect. The book gets the conversation going, and the question was where to go from there. First I started a closed Facebook group in which members can talk about these concerns in safety. But I still felt we needed something more solutions-oriented. The Child-Friendly Faith Project takes on that challenge.
Just how do you plan to go about doing that?
Heimlich: There are three main tracks. First, we raise awareness through our website, conferences, and media outreach. Second, we train professionals through workshops given to clergy, teachers, law enforcement personnel, social workers, and anyone else who works with children. And third, we plan to work directly with problematic faith groups to show them healthy childrearing alternatives.
Will an isolated or patriarchal group listen to outsiders trying to change the way they raise their children?
Heimlich: That’s going to be the most challenging task, but I believe it can be done. The key is to establish a dialog initiated by someone the group trusts. I’ve seen this happen when attorneys general have reached out to certain communities, and I’ve seen law enforcement personnel have success, too. In my perception, those of us on the outside have not done enough to connect with these groups in an effective way. For example, too often, law enforcement or child protective services have raided a group, after which the members become even more secretive with their practices.
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.
Heimlich: The problem is not religion per se but the authoritarian nature of many religious communities. Religious child maltreatment often occurs when a child’s chief caretakers – usually their parents – are under pressure to conform to controlling or punitive in-group childrearing norms. When that happens parents mistrust their own instincts and often fail to attend to their children’s emotional and physical needs. Religious teachings are not always harmful – studies show this to be true. But what we can’t accept is indoctrination, which is a form of emotional exploiting, pure and simple. People of faith can raise their children to take part in rituals and teach them about doctrines without forcing on a child a narrow worldview.
So what does a child-friendly religous community look like?
Heimlich: What I found in my research is that children are less at risk for religious child maltreatment in more open, tolerant, less authoritarian cultures. That’s not to say they are immune from all abuse, but if there is abuse, it’s unlikely to be triggered or enabled by religious or cultural beliefs. Child-friendly households and communities are invested in raising kids in a way that complies with healthy child development practices. This includes meeting children’s need to explore different ideas and express who they are. So, for example, children are encouraged to ask questions and express religious doubt, rather than be made to feel guilty. Children are given limits, of course, but adults respect their needs for intellectual and emotional growth. The same goes for a child’s physical needs. Parents think carefully before they involve a child in a fast, for example. They provide sick children with medical care instead of just praying over them. And when they suspect that a child has been sexually abused, they report it.
What do you hope to attain with the Child-Friendly Faith Project?
Heimlich: Simply put, we want people to give more thought to how their beliefs and practices affect children. We want clergy, parents, teachers, and others who are important figures in children’s lives to ask such questions as, “When is a spiritual practice healthy for kids, and when is it not? Is my place of worship authoritarian?” We’d like parents to ask, “Do community leaders support me or are they more interested in telling me how to raise my child?”
The conversation is moving forward. Our Facebook group has hundreds of members who come from various fields related to faith and children’s rights, and we get into fascinating discussions. Also, we’re very excited about our first Child-Friendly Faith Conference 2013 which is scheduled for November 8th in Austin, Texas. The conference will be the first of its kind, where people of all faiths and backgrounds will speak about how to make faith child-friendly.
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Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.