What Do We Teach the Children?

Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life is probably the gold standard when it comes to survey research, and I watch my inbox for their periodic in-depth research updates as well as their daily email list of news from the intersection of religion and society. Yesterday, they released findings on a recent survey of child-rearing practices and attitudes, broken down by religious affiliation.

This particular finding struck an uncomfortable chord:

Those with religious affiliations — and particularly white evangelical Protestants — are more likely than the religiously unaffiliated to prioritize obedience and being well-mannered, and somewhat less likely to say creativity, curiosity or tolerance is important.

The reason this brought me up short was that it reminded me of a study I read several years ago by a couple of psychologists who compared the Germans who hid Jews and otherwise resisted the Nazi regime with those who were swept up in the mythology of   Ayran superiority and either assisted or stood by as their Jewish neighbors were rounded up. The researchers attributed a substantial amount of the differences in behavior to the ways in which the children were raised.

According to the book (which I purchased at the Holocaust Museum and can no longer find in my messy library), children raised in the traditional German fashion, which emphasized the importance of obedience and respect for authority over most other traits and frequently employed corporal punishment, grew (not surprisingly) into adults who were willing to obey authority–and not very willing to question it.

Children whose parents explained their reasons for disapproving of the behavior in question–parents who rarely spanked and who engaged the children in conversation about the reasons for rules and why those rules were important–were far more likely to grow into adults who questioned authority and made their own moral judgments.

We have five children and four grandchildren, and I’d be the last person on earth to suggest that kids shouldn’t be taught to obey the rules. But–as with so many other aspects of life–the question isn’t whether–it’s how. It’s certainly easier to enforce obedience with a smack across the buttocks than to take the time to explain why nice people don’t act that way. It’s lots easier to say “because I say so” (and boy, I’ve done that!), than to explain why I say so.

The problem is, when we make reflexive obedience the measure of our parenting, when we prioritize respect for authority over compassion and critical thinking, we risk raising some pretty flawed people.

Unlike that football player who’s currently all over the news, I’m not a big fan of “spare the rod, spoil the child” theology.


  1. Interestingly, there is a correlation in education as well. I recently read a book which suggested that teachers who explain why it is importamt to learn a certain skill, concept, or whatever, have better outcomes than those who don’t. (This is a gross simplification of the text, and there are other factors involved, but still…)

  2. Interesting. I have always been interested in the Holocaust since I was in 5th grade after reading the book by Anne Frank. The topic was my first research assignment (in 6th grade) and I had the pleasure in going to Temple and interviewing Rabbi Klein. I have an interest in psychology and sociology and am always curious what drives human behavior and certainly in the incidence of the Holocaust. What drove people to do the things they did. Those fears keep me up at night.

    My mother’s background is German and her father was a strict German minister. She was physical with her discipline and had a cruel mouth. Obediance, good behavior, respect for authority were uppermost in our house and yet she raised 3 daughters two of us who take issues w/ authority. I am respectful but I question authority all the time. To this day my mother wishes I would just shut up and do as she told. 🙂

  3. Sheila, reading your blog today resonated for several reasons. First, my father was a minister in a fundamentalist Protestant sect, and you described the processes under which I grew and learned about society. Second, as you also point out, it becomes more difficult for individuals to think for themselves from this tradition. This is why GLBT persons coming from this religious/social environment often find it difficult to accept their sexual identity. Third, options for a person to develop within this religious/social tradition are limited, and the values enforcing the “herd” mentality are continually reinforced. Taking any steps to move outside of this “box” is an act of extreme courage, because of the fear of being ostracized. This fear is paramount because of the seclusionary behaviors of this environment. If other options to live life are known, they have been disparaged as highly questionable at best and often as untenable and heretical. This is especially true about any educational experiences not condoned within the environment. Many “secular” colleges and universities are presented as places where lies are taught, particularly where critical thinking is valued and promoted. Fortunately, there are individuals who come from this environment that learn to think for themselves, move out the this orbit of influence and begin to live life on their own terms. And, as with any orbit, it takes a great deal of energy to break away from it because of the gravitational pull, in this case the religious/social values of that environment.

  4. I am not sure the German Resistance Movement or lack thereof under the Nazis can be attributed to Socialization of the idea of obedience. Germans who resisted and were caught would likely face an end result of slave labor camps or death. I would expect the same type of fear exists when ISIS or Boko Harum controls the area you live in.

    That said the idea of obedience to the hierarchy is a critical pillar. It is far easier to say “It’s God’s Will” “God Moves in Mysterious Ways”, or “God will guide me.” Once you accept this line of thought and accept the Religious Hierarchy as the source of guidance obedience will follow. Here in America we have wrapped Religion and the American Flag until they are one in the same.

    Just yesterday – The US Air Force is changing the instructions for its reenlistment pledge after an atheist airman was initially denied the ability to re-enlist because he refused to use the word “God” in his oath of office. Earlier, the Air Force said the unnamed airman would not be allowed to re-enlist unless he recited the entire oath, including the disputed “God” section. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/09/17/the-irony-of-the-air-forces-anti-atheist-oath/

  5. When we lived in Germany a few years ago, we would wait to walk the crosswalk with the little green man signaling it’s okay (on the traffic light). But my American way was that if the way was clear, I would cross even though it was against the rules. This was a big deal in Germany. The Germans we knew would ask, “What are you teaching the children when you cross against the light? You are teaching them that it is okay to go against the rules and that’s not the way we raise our children. We are concerned about their safety.” Fair enough. I always smile when I walk across the street against the light now.

  6. Child abuse lasts for a lifetime. I have met countless people in recovery programs who were brutalized as children. It often was physical but I think the worst is the pain cause by crazy bible banging parents. Their holy books are more important than their children. So sad and so pointless. All the pain that goes on and on. Middle age men still break down when talking about the humiliation done to them in “Church”.

  7. ALG – I take my hat off to you – (as we English would say) a “Pukka Rebel” (With or Without a Cause)

  8. Somehow, although raised in a rather conservative religious tradition in the 40s and the 50s, the two things I hoped for from my children was intellectual curiosity and concern for others. It has worked and now it is being passed on to the grandchildren with two additional ingredients, namely, the expansion of the meaning of the words “we” and “us,” and a very early education in straightforward philanthropy. And all of us are still members of the Church, although hardly conservative evangelicals.

  9. It seems to me it’s important to distinguish between (self) discipline and duty. There are times when I wish I had more self discipline but being dutiful, not so much. I am all for rules that improve life for everyone but I often question is this “rule” is just to make someone else’s life easier or does it make sense for a greater good. I suppose among other things my attitude is a branch of intellectual curiosity. I want to figure out how everything works.

    I have no trouble breaking rules by and for others if there is some benefit. As an example, when we take our little dog on planes the rule is that she’s suppose to remain in her case under the seat in front of me. I often break that rule and my experience is that most everyone benefits. She sits on my lap, is more content there and she charms those around me. I don’t make an issue if asked to follow the rules but in most cases flight attendants prefer happy passengers over rules.

    Many rules issues are really lapses in self discipline due to anger. In fact many laws are to protect people from out of control others.

    Kids need be exposed to the benefits of self discipline. Blind allegiance to the authority of others or their rules to me is a failure of good parenting probably motivated by making life easier for the parent.

    Parenting is about the child not the parent.

  10. Wow, ALG, you have surprised and disapponted me greatly with your bragging about breaking a law – no matter how unimportant you believe it to be. Hmm; I wonder if Michael Brown observed adults in Ferguson, MO, when he was a child as they crossed against the light or walked in the middle of the street and was following suit when he was gunned down?

    I have spent a lot of time thinking about this particular blog today; having been an abused child during an age when this was considered “not my business” by other adults – including family members who witnessed the abuse. I remember my mother getting hit and my “spankings” when I was older but have been told often about the hard whippings I received at the hands of my father when I was only a toddler for reasons unknown to anyone but him. Not their business and they didn’t talk about it till after he died and claimed they were still shocked by it. I whipped my children and regret now that was my primary form of punishment; I did explain reasoning behind my rules and expectations repeatedly before punishing. Still no excuse.

    I was sent to the neighborhood Methodist church every Sunday with a nickel tied in the corner of my hanky; never accompanied by either parent who didn’t attend any church till I was in my teens. My mother then attended Sunday services at the church which was attended by the Republican party members in the neighborhood; this earned her the honor of being selected Republican vice precinct committeewoman. She then asked me to join her on Sunday mornings; when we arrived I learned she had volunteered my services to care for pre-school age children while parents attended services. Not exactly being taught religion in either situation by parental guidance. I did attend church with my chldren for years; they later rebeled but somehow learned through my outward active beliefs that bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, looking down on those physically or mentally challenged or living in poverty is wrong. They became caring adults who have strong spiritual and humanitarian beliefs but are not members of any organized religion. They, like myself, are not without their failings but we try to do our best in a city, state and country that becomes more and more divided by income level, bigotry and racist attitudes in the name of Christianity.

    Why should it take that horrible video in the elevator of a huge NFL player knocking his small wife out and dragging her unconscious body into the hall to bring about interest in domestic violence – or any form of violence by NFL players. Why does it take another NFL player using a switch on his four year old to suddenly make this country aware of child abuse and demand these football players be sanctioned by the NFL. The NFL and churches are both tax exempt; does this also mean they are exempt from obeying laws? Why do they qualify for special treatment by their organization and are not being arrested and jailed for committing crimes? What ARE we teaching our children?

  11. I only cross when it’s safe and I would advise youngsters to do the same. There is a running joke in Germany about crossing the street when the green man is not lit up. Why would anyone wait for the light to change when there isn’t a vehicle in sight? I guess if you didn’t live there, you might miss the joke so I’m sorry to disappoint you JoAnne.
    They have public transportation the envy of the world. Not only do they have numerous ways to get around, they have the most on-time public transportation in the world. If you are waiting for the train at the station and it’s going to be 3 minutes late, they will make an announcement about it. It was the cleanest country I’ve ever visited or lived in. By the way, non military too. I know there are bases there but most Americans hear you lived in Germany and assume you were military personnel. There are many multi-national companies there and that’s how my spouse and I started our marriage there.

  12. One of the most important things we can teach our children is to question. I think my wife and I did this by encouraging it and by example. I am pleased with our results. You have to allow children to express their individuality and value their own opinions.

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