Be Careful Little Ears?

The title of this post comes from a child’s song sometimes sung in at least some churches. I can’t actually remember when or where I heard the song. I probably heard it at some point over the last eighteen years as we raised children in a local SBC church. But I have this almost-memory of my mother singing it when I was little. It’s strange, sometimes, the things that pop into your head and the memories that surface when you’re searching for a title.

There is a certain truth in the song. The things we hear and see and experience, especially when young, do tend to form and shape us — often in non-linear and unexpected ways. I don’t believe we can truly be shielded from those experiences, no matter how “careful” we are, but we are shaped by them. I do believe the forces to which we expose our children are important. We cannot always, or even often, control them all. But where we can, I believe our choices do matter.

I’m not sure I’ve done my kids any favors in and through the church in which we raised them.

That was a hard sentence to write, but I believe it’s true. Of course, there are many things in our little corner of Christianity that have often seemed odd to me as an adult. Some things I would try on for size for a while and other things I rejected outright. I’ve been learning and struggling to understand which of the countless Christian stories best describes this faith for years, but I’ve been doing it as an adult.

Young earth creationism? Pshaw! That’s such a ludicrous idea it never had the slightest chance with me. I quickly figured out that I completely rejected what Protestant “complementarianism” in any of its flavors held about the nature and role of women. The rapture/end times stuff appealed to the part of me that loves a good fantasy novel for a season, but as I came to understand Christianity better, I also came to see the harmful side to that perspective. I saw the inconsistency in the teaching about hell as a place somehow separated from God where God sends people (for whatever reason) from the start. (If everything is contingent on God, then it’s not possible to be separated from God.) And the whole thing about Jesus’ suffering and death somehow being a payment to God? That never seemed right to me, though I set it aside for some years while I learned more about this Christian thing.

I guess I somehow thought my kids, especially with the balance of what we taught and lived at home, were able to make the same critical distinctions. In retrospect, that was a silly assumption. After all, I took in everything to which I was exposed more or less uncritically (at least at first) when I was growing up. But I didn’t begin to realize the nature of my error until one of my older sons was a senior in high school. He was dating a devout Roman Catholic girl and I remember his surprise that there were Christian traditions (most of them, in fact) that did not hold to young earth creationism. He knew that I rejected YEC, as I had often mentioned its failings, but somehow that didn’t translate into a broader understanding that you could be Christian without believing the universe was a few thousand years old. I then began to notice my sons were absorbing ideas about women I considered harmful. I decided I needed to immerse myself in the environment in which I had been placing them when my younger son entered the student ministry.

I did that for a number of years and it was a valuable experience. I even found a close friend in the process, something I didn’t expect at all. Over time I came to better understand some of the ways the Baptist youth experience shapes and forms teenagers. (And by extension, I believe that’s even more true of the various children’s ministries.) When we place our children in an environment and tell them it is about God, we are lending our own formational power as parents to the structures and teachings of that environment. Spiritual formation is already a powerful force and when we lend our reinforcement — even tacitly — we do not necessarily get to choose what does and does not get reinforced.

When I had reached a point where I had pretty much decided I wasn’t comfortable having my children immersed in such an environment, I shared my concerns with a couple of friends. One of them wondered if church could really have that much influence. After all, kids spend an order of magnitude more time at school, with friends, and at home than at church. I knew some of the things my children had absorbed could only have been found at our church — at least among their particular circles of friends. And at the time I wandered into musings about the power of spiritual groups and teachings in general at any age, but especially in the formation of children. I’ve touched on some of those forces in this post.

But this past weekend while skating with my youngest daughter, a different thought popped into my head out of the blue. Let’s assume my friend’s point was accurate and the influence of church is directly proportional to the time spent at the church. And given that so much more time is spent at school and with friends, that means church has relatively little overall influence. If that’s true, then what’s the point in taking your children to any church, especially one in which it is understood that everything is purely “symbolic” and nothing actually happens?

It seems to me we can’t have it both ways. Either the church exerts a powerful influence in the formation of our children or it has little influence at all. If the former is true, then it’s important to consider everything about that influence since we can’t really control what they will or won’t absorb. If the latter is true, then there’s no point in taking them to any church at all. It’s a waste of time and effort. It can’t simultaneously be important to bring your children to church and have that experience be meaningless in their formation as human beings.

I don’t really have any answers or deep conclusions. I knew from my own experience and intuition that influence is not bound by number of hours so I never really considered the implications of the opposite conclusion. Nor can I say why the thought suddenly popped into my head years later. My mind is sometimes a mystery to me. I often work through thoughts by writing. If you’ve read this far expecting that I have answers to offer, I apologize. Sometimes I just want to make the questions clearer.

Grace and peace.

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