Sunday, February 24, 2008

The "Labeling" Question

Via J.J. Ross at "Cocking a Snook", I read a very interesting post by Dale over at the "Parenting Beyond Belief" blog about his 6 year old daughter Laney's calling herself "humanist" when asked her religion. Dale and several of the commenters on the thread expressed a discomfort with parents raising their kids within a religious tradition because they feel it's "imposing" a "label" on them. Writes Dale:

"I am adamantly opposed to labeling children, or even allowing them to label themselves, with words that imply the informed selection of a complex worldview....Once a label is attached, thinking is necessarily colored and shaped by that label. I don’t want my kids to have to think their way out from under a presumptive claim placed on them by one worldview or another."

This attitude is one that I've run across before. The playwright Julie Pascal wrote an article for The Jewish Chronicle last spring where she called religion a form of child abuse:

"Perhaps organised religion should carry a health warning and only be made available at 18 with the right to vote. Isn’t it child abuse to imprint religion and identity on an infant? In our Western democracies, we say we believe in the freedom of the individual to make their own life choices but we allow parents to enforce their own dogma on their offspring. Why not teach children about all religions, as well as secularism and humanism, and let them decide how they wish to identify when they become adults? The 1989 UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child expressed the importance of 'respect for the views of the child', but which son or daughter is ever consulted about which religion they wish to follow? You get what your parents give you."

The question I have for Dale, Ms. Pascal, et. al. is whether they feel the same way about parents who are vegans for ethical reasons raising their children as vegans. Isn't that "enforcing their own dogma on their offspring" too? Would they truly advocate forcing vegans to feed their children animal products against the parents' deeply held ethical beliefs? Or would they be okay with the argument that the children will be perfectly free to eat animal products once they grow up should they choose to but until such time the parents have the right to raise their offspring in accordance with their values?

I suspect that the same atheists/agnostics who are so vehemently against religious believers "imposing" their family's faith on their offspring would be perfectly fine with vegans raising their kids as vegans. Which just goes to show that their criticism isn't really about "respecting the views of the child" but really about hostility to organized religion.


Dale McGowan said...

Hi Crimson!

The analogy to vegan/vegetarianism is perfect -- so perfect, in fact, that I used the same one in the preface to Parenting Beyond Belief. Here's a short snip, recounting a college friend who was a vegetarian:

We lost touch after college, but if Kari has kids, I’ll bet she has raised them according to those values, since she would want the best for them. But knowing her, I’m also sure she’d want them to come to vegetarianism as their own life stance only if they reasoned it out and adopted it as their own value – not because she forced it on them. They would know their mother’s strong feelings and the reasons behind them, then decide for themselves once they were old enough if it was right for them. I have a lot of respect for that kind of parenting.

So to the question "Would they truly advocate forcing vegans to feed their children animal products against the parents' deeply held ethical beliefs?," I have already answered no. There is nothing wrong with a parent raising a child according to the values and perspectives of a parent's religious, political, or dietary POV. But there is something quite wrong with calling the child a Democrat, an atheist, a Marxist, or a vegan. Better and more accurate to say "a child of Democrat parents" or "a child of Methodist parents."

Most interesting of all is that you assumed "hostility toward religion" when my post was built primarily around my attempt to keep my kids from calling themselves atheists.

Kind regards,
Dale McGowan
Editor/co-author, Parenting Beyond Belief

Christina said...

There is a difference between raising a young child in the *practice* of certain values or beliefs, and them actually internalizing those beliefs. Religion is a very different thing in the child's mind compared to the adult's. Although most kids transition into considered adult belief without leaving the space their parents raised them in, it isn't uncommon for them to leave that belief for something else.

As Dale discovered with his daughter, to the child the label doesn't imply a complex worldview. What is complex about "I don't eat animals"? The child isn't involved in some elaborate spiritual or ecological analysis, they just don't want to chew on The Little Red Hen, or Wilbur, or Ferdinand. I think a child's comprehension of spiritual worldviews is just as basic to them. Being Catholic doesn't mean a considered, internalized belief in all parts of the Nicene Creed or other Vatican teachings; it means attending church every Sunday, giving up something for Lent, and so forth.

The tragedy is that there really is a difference between raising a child under the tenets of the parents' beliefs, and "imposing" those beliefs (which implies force and coercion). Worldviews can actually impair the development of the child, and cause lasting psychoemotional damage. If the parent is unwilling to accept the child practicing an alternate worldview - if the child who wants to eat meat, go to services, read Harry Potter, or bare their arms is denied the right to do so by their vegan/atheist/fund.Christian/fund.Muslim parents, perhaps even punished for wanting or trying to do so - that is where the UN declaration stands for the child, who does deserve respect and should be protected from coercion.

Crimson Wife said...

Hi Dale,
While I'm not familiar with the details of all the variety of faiths out there, the ones which I am most familiar with (Catholicism, Episcopalianism, and Judaism) all do not consider someone to be a full member until he/she is a teenager and goes through a specific ceremony (Confirmation or Bar/Bat Mitvah). That is when the young adult makes the choice for himself/herself to commit to the religion.

I knew several people who were not ready to make that decision as a teen and all of their parents respected their wishes. Some ended up deciding to go through with it later on, some converted to a different faith, and some are nonreligious as adults.

I would personally say that my children are being raised as Catholics until such time as they receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.

I'm sorry if I read more into your post than was actually intended. It just got me thinking of that one by Julie Pascal, which definitely *is* hostile to religion...