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.