Are you a religious-minded parent or are you secular-minded?  How do you know?

I just finished reading American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam and David Campbell.  The book compares religious and secular trends in American society by looking at results of a series of surveys done over the last few decades.  One key shift in generations is that younger generations are far more tolerant of anti-religious expression than are older generations.  One key finding relates to parenting values and being authority-minded:

Religious people, it is sometimes said, have a respect for authority that makes them readier to shun dissent–what Kenneth Wald, Stephen Mockabee, and others have called “‘authority-mindedness’–an ideological commitment that values authoritativeness and obedience.”  Mockabee observed, “child-rearing questions do a good job of identifying the extent to which individuals are authority-minded.  So we asked our respondents one simple question about child-rearing:  “Which is more important for a child to be taught:  obedience or self-reliance?” . . . .the striking results–religious people emphasize obedience, secular people emphasize self-reliance.”

This question was asked in relation to the claims by religious people that secular people (“the world”) are intolerant and selfish, and the equal claim by secular people that religious people are.  According to this study, “one reason that religious people are readier to suppress dissent seems to be that they are particularly concerned to safeguard authority.”  Again, the studies show this to be the case.  For people who came of age between 1900 and 1945, only between 30 and 40% of them would allow a library to have an anti-religious book or a school to hire an openly atheist teacher.  But for those who came of age between 1986 and 2010, at least 65% consistently report that they would allow the anti-religious library book or teacher, even if they objected to its content on a personal level.

Studies aside, the observation about parenting puts me firmly in the secular camp.  Perhaps that’s no surprise to folks here, but I also note that the majority of folks in the bloggernacle are probably more secular by this simple measure.  In fact, in some ways, so is the church, and yet the recent trend has been consistently toward obedience.  There are certainly biblical quotes to support the idea that children should obey first and foremost, and the Old Testament in particular states that we should obey or be punished in nasty ways.  But our post-restoration scriptures are a little more divided on this topic.  We’ve added to that knowledge with the observation that the glory of God is intelligence, and that as God is, man can become.  If godhood doesn’t require self-reliance, what does?  But doesn’t obedience lead to self-reliance?  No, it leads to reliance on the one making the rules, reliance on authority.  Obedience is similar to working out with a personal trainer.  We gain strength but not necessarily discipline.

 And yet, religious leaders, according to studies, consistently focus on obedience.  As a parent, the reasons I prefer my kids’ self-reliance over obedience are pretty simple:

  • If we dug a basement in Arizona for all my adult children to come home to, the scorpions would just take over.  It’s impractical.
  • Some battles aren’t worth a fight.  Generally speaking, what my kids choose to wear is a dumb argument to have.  It’s a simple way they can express themselves.  So many attempts to control our children are along these lines.
  • I am not living vicariously through my children.  I have my own separate identity from them, and while I care deeply about them, I don’t see them as an extension of myself.  They are partly my influence and partly their dad’s and partly their own creation.
  • I may be wrong if I’m the one setting the rules.  Believe it or not, sometimes my kids do know better.  I can learn from them as well as teach them.
  • Eventually, they have to live their own lives.  Ideally, I’m not going to choose their spouses, name their children, tell them what to do for a living, or co-sign on a house for them.  I already did all that crap for myself.  If I do it for them, they won’t feel responsible for their choices.  They will only be acting to appease me or win my approval.
  • Parental control is an illusion.  Sometimes children share that illusion, but they are simply abdicating their rights in doing so.
  • I see my role as parent to be raising adults, not raising children.

Much as we talk about obedience in the church, God seems to have given us a lot of latitude.  We can do pretty much whatever we like on earth short of defying the laws of physics.  We make our choices, for better or worse, and we live with and learn from the consequences.  If God’s a benign absentee parent, why should I hover?

How about you?  Should children be taught to obey or to rely on themselves?  As a parent, how do you move from obedience to self-reliance?  How would you answer that question and why?  How did your parents raise you:  to obey or to be self-reliant?  How do you gauge that?