My work as a teacher, my imminent role as a caregiver, and this article have me thinking about the nuances of teaching religion and morality to children. Where does an adult’s right to freedom of speech and freedom of belief meet a child’s right to make up their own minds about the world? Should wacko fundamentalist cultists be able to raise children on compounds, isolated from the rest of the world? Should neo-Nazis be able to foster or adopt children? Should atheist or Muslim teachers be able to express their beliefs in the classroom without fear of losing their jobs?
The legal implications of nearly any position on this subject frankly have my head spinning. I am not close to having an opinion about how much the government should intervene to protect children from indoctrination. But I do have a pretty settled opinion about how adults should behave toward children in their care, so I’m going to start with that.
I think adults have a strong responsibility to make it clear, when talking to children about moral or religious beliefs, that they are talking about their beliefs, and that other decent, intelligent people have different views. This is essential because children take their understanding of “how the world is” from adults close to them. They have a certain amount of implicit trust — highest for their parents, but also quite high for other adults close to them or in authority over them. When I say to an adult, “God is a myth,” they are able to understand that as my belief, not necessarily true, but a child might not have that same ability. So we need to be very clear, when talking to children, about whether we’re saying something we know or something we believe.
But, one might ask, how then do you teach a child right from wrong? In my work as a teacher, I basically use two principles behind all the “shoulds” and “nos” I direct at the children: “don’t hurt people” and “don’t hurt yourself.” When I’m scolding a child or forbidding an action, it’s because what they’re doing is not safe, or because it hurt somebody else.
Children have a certain native degree of empathy — babies will often cry if another baby nearby starts crying — and I think it’s good to encourage that. So if Adam hits Alex, I take Adam by the arm and say, “Look at her face! Do you see how she’s crying? That really hurt her! How do you think you would feel if someone did that to you?” (Well, I try to do that.) The goal is not to teach them some moral absolute, but to train them to recognize how their actions affect others, and to care about each others’ pain.
Similarly, children have a native degree of self-preservation. If a child is doing something that might get them hurt, I try to remind them of another time when they or someone else did the same thing, and got hurt. “Do you remember when Abby pinched her finger in the door? It really hurt, didn’t it? Do you think that might happen to you if you play with the door?” Children are very responsive to this kind of talk, and it’s much more effective than “Don’t do that!” (NB: I work with four-year-olds. Obviously the exact tone and style of the questioning should be adapted for age.)
I really think these are the only behavioral principles a child needs to be taught, and neither of them rely on authority or a set of moral absolutes derived from a belief about the world. For everything else, we should be encouraging children’s natural curiosity and developing critical thought. Expressing our own beliefs is not excluded from this, but transmitting them as if they are fact is.