Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Raising the Kids Skeptish

This is a good time to step in something that I've been thinking about for awhile. Is it such a bad thing to raise your children to be believers in Judaism, without all the "Voodoo Judaism" as my father calls it. You know what I'm talking about...

You don't know what kind of mind your child is going to have until many years after the basic blocks of information have already been set in his/her mind. Are they going to be a critical thinker or not? Maybe you can guide them to be thinkers, but that's difficult if they're not so inclined and you have no guarantee no matter what the circumstances are.

Given that, if your child is not going to examine things meticulously as you do, maybe he just doesn't care about the details, does it matter what background story you paint for his life to ride in? Ok, so you tell him the idea of God is a crock and so on. He never examines that idea, he's an atheist just because you told him you were. Is that unexamined story any more valuable than the unexamined traditional Jewish story?

Skepticism is a _way_ of thinking, not a specific set of things that a person must think.

If you engender skeptical thought in your child, it won't matter what meta-story you tell them because they will examine it themselves on their own accord. If they're not going to be skeptical, I think I'd rather have a faithful Jew as a child than a faithful atheist.

So I propose that it is best to do both. Give your child the full Jewish education so they understand, or have the basic rudimentary knowledge to understand, their people's religious contribution to the world. But also encourage their mind to think about _why_ they believe what they believe and not so much the _what_ of their beliefs.

Offer the Jewish answers to the natural philosophical questions, but don't claim that they are the only answers.

Maybe they will accept Judaism as adults, maybe not, but at least you've given them a real self-determining choice.

And then there's always the possibility they'll be skeptics with a warm fondness for Judaism just like you.

9 comments:

Ben Avuyah said...

It's a tough question, Orthoprax, would that children could contemplate diverging opinions, but I think they need something concrete. I imagine I will eventually have to repeat the same mythos that I was taught, to my children (though I don't have any yet), and I will cringe doing it, feeling I am lying to my own flesh and blood, but I hope to encourage skeptical thoughts later on in their lives, a life unexamined is not worth living someone once said, and I agree with that sentiment.

Orthoprax said...

Ben,

"It's a tough question, Orthoprax, would that children could contemplate diverging opinions, but I think they need something concrete."

Concrete things are what we know and see everyday. You have a family that loves you, etc.

Children are often full of questions and they look to their parents as full repositories of all the information in the world. But as the questions get more advanced and complex and parents start answering with "Well, I'm not really sure, but.." or simply "I don't know," that omniscient conception of their parents fades. It's not a far step from there that if their parents don't know the answer, it's possible that _nobody_ knows the answer. What color were dinosaur skin?

I don't know if children need a false idea of certainty in all things to develop normally...but don't forget, there's always the answer of "I'll tell you when your older."

"I imagine I will eventually have to repeat the same mythos that I was taught, to my children (though I don't have any yet), and I will cringe doing it, feeling I am lying to my own flesh and blood..."

See, I'm not sure a "mythos" counts as lies per se. Is it true that Darth Vader is actually Luke Skywalker's father? Well sure. It's true internally. The traditional religious Jewish story is fiction, but the truisms that lace through the storyline are still of external value. A "myth" gets it's highest value by being taken seriously but not literally.

There's nothing wrong in speaking highly of the Jewish forefathers, even though their lives may be mostly or entirely fiction, any more than it's wrong for those in the medical profession to speak well of Hippocrates.

Vilda Chaya said...

My son is full of questions at 3.5 years old, BIG questions, like about our friend who lost her son when he was 2. He likes stories about gods and wants to know what the deal is -- are they real?

We give him as much information as we can, but we don't really have answers. We tell him our friend will always love and miss her son. We talk about what we do know. But is Quan-Yin the goddess of mercy and compassion real? Some people believe she is, some do not. I have never seen her. I ask him what he thinks. He says he thinks she is pretend. He also says she is nice and he wishes she was real. I can totally relate to that.

Is it a mistake not give him a sense of certainty about the world? I don't know. I think it would be a mistake to lie to him. I guess if I had faith, it wouldn't be a lie. But, he is being raised by agnostics. We look things up a lot, and sometimes the answer is just, "I don't know."

I think about Kurt Vonnegut who used to tell his kids when they were little, "I just got here myself."

Anonymous said...

i read you from time2time and enjoy what is written as it expands my mind. since I was a kid I always knew that religion was bull. this hurt my father very much but what was I supposed to do? He watched me closely and put pins in my tefillen to see if they would move and his suspicions were confirmed. his beliefs were devout and mine were of rock n roll and good times.

Orthoprax said...

Eemie,

Your household sounds peaceful and very knowledge friendly, but I agree that it must be very hard to decide what to do when they ask for absolutes and all you have are maybes.

"I think about Kurt Vonnegut who used to tell his kids when they were little, "I just got here myself.""

That's pretty good. I might use that myself. ;-)

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

I'm glad you can get something positive from my blog.

"his beliefs were devout and mine were of rock n roll and good times."

What do you think now? Have you settled from just "good times" and led to a more productive life?

I always disliked the popular perception of the faithful kid being the goody two shoes while the unbeliever is a troublemaker. Not that I'm saying that's you, but I hope you have more in life than just "good times."

elf said...

This is such an important issue. Thanks for raising it.

I know that when I was young I wanted certainty, desperately. My parents raised me to be a more-or-less-observant Jew and sent me to an Orthodox day school, but it was quite clear that they themselves were not sure what they believed.

From as early as I can remember, I tried to embrace Orthodoxy because it offered a consistent world-view. I resented the fact that my parents hadn't raised me with solid convictions, and I promised myself that I would raise my children with a firm belief in Orthodox doctrine.

I now know that I cannot keep that promise, and that the man I married can do no better than I. I sometimes wonder whether it would even be ethical to have children under the circumstances. I want children, though, very badly, and I know that I will ultimately succumb to that desire.

In all likelihood, our children will resent either our insistence on Jewish observance or our lack of a compelling rationale for such observance, if not both. What if they decide to be charedim, or completely secular? What if they decide to intermarry, or convert to another religion? Could I, in good conscience, stop them? I don't think that I could force my way of life on another human being, even my own child, without the conviction that that way of life was divinely ordained.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think that my husband and I will manage. We are well educated, and can give them the tools they need to make their own decisions. And we will make sure they know we love them, whatever choices they make.

elf said...

Btw, Eemie, your story brought tears to my eyes. You are obviously a wonderful parent.

lewyn said...

I would think a lot depends on age. 5 year olds don't need a lot of complexity; 15 year olds can handle more.