On freethinking, choice, religion and parenting

I mentioned yesterday in the comments of a blog I follow that I’d just found out I was pregnant.  Amidst all the congratulations was one half-teasing request that, when my grain of rice gets big enough to read, that I not subject hir to the joys of Elsie Dinsmore.

Not.  A.  Problem.  Partly because, according to the excerpts included in the above link, the series seems particularly insipid.  But mostly because it promotes an ideal of “Christian virtue” that I happen to think is downright unhealthy.

See, one of the main themes in the book is obedience.  Blind, unthinking obedience.  Little Elsie is a Good Girl when she does what others tell her, regardless of who that other may be (particularly egregious when it comes to her distant, neglectful, borderline abusive father) – and, of course, a Bad Girl (who punishes herself terribly for her transgressions, of course), when she does not – regardless of her reasons or the circumstances.

I can’t think of a worse lesson to teach a child.  (Ok, that’s not true, I’m pretty creative, I can think of some terrible lessons to teach a child.  But you know what I mean.)  Part of this comes from the fact that I am, in fact, a Dirty Pagan, and proud of it.  Insofar as my religion has rules (it really doesn’t), rule #1 is Think For Yourself.  Don’t accept dogma, and don’t let other people make your decisions for you.  The reason why paganism has so many variants, in fact, is because it’s so non-dogmatic – if something doesn’t ring true, doesn’t make sense to you, or doesn’t jive with your own experiences (even purely subjective experiences), it is TOTALLY ok to think about it for a while and come up with something else that works better.  You can respect other people’s knowledge and experience, but in the end, you make your own choices and you’re only accountable to yourself and whatever gods you worship.  (If any.  Like I said, a LOT of variants.)

And another part of it comes from good ol’-fashioned ego.  I am intelligent.  My husband is intelligent.  Statistically, any child of ours is likely to be intelligent.  Growing up, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to realize that simply having authority is not the same thing as being smarter than me – and that even the authority figures that I do respect, who are intelligent, are not necessarily going to be right all of the time.  Given that… why on earth would I teach a child to always listen to an authority figure?  I’d rather take that time teaching them to use their own minds to the best of their ability, because logic, compassion, and plain old common sense is going to be far more useful to them in the long run than obedience.

Thinking about it, though, I was amused to remember something.  This may not just be a pagan virtue after all.  In fact, depending on who you read… this so-called “Christian virtue” may not be so Christian after all.

Back in, oh, 2004 or 2005, during the last dying gasps of my own Christianity, I read an absolutely delightful book by a charming Anglican theologian named Francis Bridger.  The book was called “A Charmed Life: the Spirituality of Potterworld,” and it was exactly what it sounds like – an examination of the Harry Potter books from a (sane) Christian perspective.

The book had a lot of really good ideas and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, but one of the things that stood out to me dealt with the issue of obedience.  Many Christians, Bridger notes, have taken the books to task because the main characters break so many rules, thus teaching kids that this is ok.  He points out, though, that this isn’t the whole story.  In the early books especially, the kids rarely break rules, and when they do, often do so reluctantly – and only when not breaking the rules would be worse than the alternative.  The few times when rules are broken for selfish or shallow reasons, it goes badly and they are punished (either by teachers or by the universe.)  As the series continues, they do become more rebellious – but, Bridger says, this is entirely appropriate.

He draws a connection between the rule-breaking in Harry Potter to the Epistles of St. Paul (and that’s a sentence I’ll bet you never thought you’d read.)  Specifically, the bit about “When I was a child, I spoke as a child… but when I became a man I put aside childish things.”  One of these childish things, he argues, is blind obedience.

Obedience, he says, is entirely appropriate for children.  After all, children lack experience.  Almost all the knowledge they have of the world is dependent on what an authority figure tells them, and following the instructions of those authority figures can literally be of life-and-death importance.  But what’s appropriate for a small child is less appropriate for an older one, and not appropriate at all for an adult.  As children get older and gain more first-hand knowledge of the world, and more experience thinking and reflecting for themselves, they will inevitably find times when the rules set by an authority figure will just seem wrong – factually or morally.  Whether the authority figure actually is wrong is beside the point; what a thinking person decides to do when forced to choose between the rules and what they honestly believe to be right, however, can be significant.  For an adult – for anyone capable of thinking and making moral choices – to obey rules just because they are rules, is not only lazy thinking and potentially immoral, it is (if you’re religious) an insult to the Creator who gave you a brain to think with.  Part of growing up is learning when it’s time to “put aside childish things,” and think for yourself.

I don’t know if Mr. Bridger ever read the Elsie Dinsmore books, but so far, I’m not sure he’d approve.  Elsie is taught to think like a child and obey like a child, but there’s been no indication that any of the adults responsible for her expect her to ever become an adult, or are concerned with what will happen when she does.  Obedience – unthinking, unreasoning obedience – alone is prized, and any display of free thought or decision-making on Elsie’s part (other than, of course, the decision to blindly obey) is punished.  Not corrected, not reasoned with or argued against – just punished.  How would this child, or any child brought up with this model, ever learn to be a fully-functioning adult?  How on earth would they be prepared to deal with an authority figure who is clearly, demonstrably wrong?

This is not just an idle concern or a knee-jerk “fuck the Man!” on my part.  It may seem like an impossibly distant other world to us now, but even a cursory glance over the last, oh, hundred years or so – less than the blink of an eye, in terms of history – will show plenty of situations where the decision between obeying rules vs. following one’s conscience was not a bloodless academic question.  Lives – thousands of them – have been lost or saved based on how people chose to answer that question, even in so-called “civilized” countries.  If you think such choices could never come up again in our or our children’s lifetimes, read a book.

And disobedience takes practice.  Learning when to disobey, and when it’s the better part of valor to just bite your tongue and move on with your life, takes practice.  It takes being encouraged to think, and to make decisions.  It takes fucking up, and having people there to see you through your fuck-ups and help you understand them better, rather than just getting mad because you didn’t obey.

So no.  I do not intend to expose my child(ren) to Elsie Dinsmore, except as an exercise in picking out the flaws in the books.  I have too much respect for my intelligence, my potential child’s intelligence, the deities whom I believe have blessed us with that intelligence, and the many, many people in history who have disobediently taken a stand for what they believe is right, to teach any child of mine the lessons from those books.


2 thoughts on “On freethinking, choice, religion and parenting

  1. Wow… I’m glad I’ve never had to read Elsie Dinsmore! Francis Bridger sounds like my kind of Christian; like him, I think God gave us brains so we could use them, and I don’t think he’s going to be mad at us for asking questions, having doubts, or using our minds to sort through our own experiences and come to our own conclusions.

    I have one child who has always been fairly obedient, and the challenge with him is getting him to think for himself. His disobedience so far is the “I can’t be bothered to clean my room” variety rather than the “question authority” type- not quite what we’re looking for. Our younger son, on the other hand, pushes back against EVERYTHING we ask of him, from potty training and not running out in the street to wearing a coat in the winter. I know that this will serve him well in the future if he can learn to think about things instead of blindly challenging EVERYTHING, but right now I wish he “spoke as a child” more often. He’s not even 4 yet…

    And my kids will DEFINITELY be reading and listening to Harry Potter when they’re a little older.

    And congratulations!

  2. Hello there,
    congratulations 🙂
    I agree with you completely! My kids are 5 and 3 years old (you can go take a look at us on my blog if you want …) and although I try not to let them see this, I LOVE it when they talk back, argue or try bending the rules! I want them to become thinking humans NOW – their rulebreaking isn’t very dangerous when they are that small – it is mostly about getting the candy, staying up past their bedtime or – in the case of my five year old son – extending his time at the computer.
    Once they are older the things they do are so much more dangerous – and I want them to have lots of practise at thinking for themselves by that point.
    We have established very few unbreakable rules: shouting “Stop” means stop without discussion, for example, and we use it only when it is really important. (kids running towards the street without looking, climbing up a bookshelf that isn’t anchored to the wall…) I found that you don’t really need loads of rules if you teach everyone to respect other people…

    Love your blog – I’ll probably show up here once in a while…


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