Babies don't come with a user manual, but luckily there are certain aspects of raising a child that you can research to feel confident in your choice. The right way to install car seat, the correct way to swaddle, at what temperature is a fever high enough to head to the doctor. But when it comes to the question of whether or not to raise your kids in a religion, all you have to go on is faith. Although I was raised Catholic, as a 30-something female typing at this very moment, the truth is that I don't believe in the concept of God as set forth by most major religions. Neither does my partner. But in spite of our personal beliefs, we both want our children to believe in God.
I grew up as a Casual Catholic™. We went to Church on major holidays like Easter and Christmas and the odd Sunday in between. My parents never forced us to say grace before meals or made me say prayers before bed, and if there was a Bible in the house, it was shoved somewhere in the bookcase collecting dust. However, I did attend a Catholic school from kindergarten until high school. I received all the usual sacraments during those years, including my Confirmation when I was 13. Doing nine years in a uniform is why I never understood everyone's obsession with Britney's little plaid skirt in the video for "Hit Me Baby One More Time" (they're itchy and stick to the back of your legs when you sweat), but all those hours singing hymns and reading Bible stories gave me a set of morals.
As a child trying to figure out who I was and how the world worked, the concepts of Heaven and Hell made sense to me. I was really anxious as a little kid and had a wild imagination. I was always worried about someone I loved getting hurt or something bad happening to a family member, like a random shooting, car accident, or alien abduction (seriously, I used to stack my stuffed animals along the edge of my bed in order of least to most favorite in hopes that a kidnapper or alien looking to take me would be confused and steal a stuffed bear instead). Being told that God "had a plan for everyone," that "bad people would be punished for being bad by going to Hell," and "good people would be rewarded by going to Heaven" helped me compartmentalize my worries so they were easier to manage. I was still terrified by the idea of my mom or grandmother dying, but knowing that we'd be together one day in Heaven made me a little less afraid. My beliefs are what made me want to be nice to other kids. They prevented me from joining friends in shoplifting; they're the reason why I never smoked or did drugs. I was on a quest to find grace.
As I try to teach them right from wrong, I'm struggling to come up with good reasons as to why they should behave. Sure, they shouldn't jump on the couch because they could get hurt, and yes, they should share because it's the nice thing to do, but I can't find the words to explain to them why they should want to be nice people in the first place. For both my partner and me, those early moral lessons came to us in the form of Bible stories.
As I grew older and started to see that there are varying shades of grey between a "good" person and a "bad" one, I gradually became disillusioned with religion. Plus, once my teenage hormones laid eyes on a photo of Justin Timberlake, all plans of one day becoming a nun were definitely off. Because I was so young when I attended Catholic school, my religious studies never covered topics like abortion, birth control, or homosexuality, but as my worldview grew and I started to understand the my religion's stance on these issues, I was mortified. The loving God that I knew would never expect me to hold these views.
Beyond my disgust with the bigotry, believing that a giant dude in white robes was just lounging around watching my every move to see if I was good or bad seemed a little to much like the fictional Santa Claus for my brain. Plus, I still don't understand how Mary was married to Joseph and yet somehow a virgin when she got pregnant? Sure, in 2016 getting the 1,235 bobby pins out of your hair after your wedding means you might be too tired to consummate the wedding, but wasn't that the first order of business post-ceremony in the days of yore? Between my growing doubts and the demands of college and grad school, I stopped going to church altogether and stopped considering myself a believer.
I was mostly happy in my new role as a skeptic, and none of my friends questioned my new stance on religion. Since my partner had come to the exact same conclusions as I had after his own Catholic elementary school to public high school experience, giving up on God didn't change my life very much. Instead of going to church on Sunday before brunch, we went to the gym instead. I mean sure, I still get panic attacks over the fear of death and oblivion, but just typing that has made my chest tighten, so quickly, let's move on.
Presenting faith as an option for my children from a young age could offer them a source of comfort when they confront some of the more difficult facts of life, like death and violence. For me, that's reason enough to expose them to the concept of God.
I didn't plan on raising religious children. But as my boys' 6-month birthday approached, I found myself having awful dreams featuring teeny, tiny coffins. Even though I didn't really believe in the idea of Original Sin, I thought having the babies baptized would help ease some of my new-mom anxiety; plus, I was desperate for an excuse to put on a dress. I did feel better after the ceremony was over, but the day of the baptism was a guest appearance for us, and we haven't been back to church since.
My kids are 3 now, full of questions about everything and always looking for new and creative ways to test my nerves. As I try to teach them right from wrong, I'm struggling to come up with good reasons as to why they should behave. Sure, they shouldn't jump on the couch because they could get hurt, and yes, they should share because it's the nice thing to do, but I can't find the words to explain to them why they should want to be nice people in the first place. For both my partner and me, those early moral lessons came to us in the form of Bible stories. Slowly I found myself reaching more (and more often) for the kids' Bible stories we received as a gift as a way to try and give the boys a reason to stop throwing blocks and listen to me.
Those early years of religious education helped mold me into a person who, at my core, wants to be good. I hope it does the same for my sons.
When we made the decision to send them to a Catholic preschool this fall over a private one (there are no public preschools in my town), it just felt like the right move. I like knowing that they will grow up the same way their parents did, at least for the first couple years. I still don't agree with many of the institutional religious teachings (although Pope Francis has expressed views that are more in line with my own). But presenting faith as an option for my children from a young age could offer them a source of comfort when they confront some of the more difficult facts of life, like death and violence. For me, that's reason enough to expose them to the concept of God.
It took becoming a parent for me to realize that regardless of my adult opinions of the religion, those early years of religious education helped mold me into a person who, at my core, wants to be good. I hope it does the same for my sons. I have great memories growing up alongside religion, and I want to pass those on to my own kids, at least until they're old enough to form their own opinions about religion.