This is a great idea for Nate. This is a bad idea for anyone in the room who would prefer to enjoy dinner without hearing a resounding chorus of the Spongebob Squarepants theme song as the turkey is served.
Nate was teasing a sweet little five year-old, our host’s goddaughter, about something or other, when she suddenly folded her arms across her chest, jutted out her lower lip, and exclaimed,
You said something mean to me! You’re not going to heaven!
Now of all the people to say this to.
I was worried that Nate would respond by going off on a rant to a preschooler about heaven being a fabrication of man, created as part of a master plan from corrupt religious institutions to usurp power from the masses blah blah blah…but he showed remarkable restraint. In fact, it was me who demolished the awkward pause in the room with a (equally awkward) comment about how, since they were Catholic, at least we could say we were sorry before we die and then all will be forgiven. The little girl’s mom laughed. Her aunt, not so much. But then, she was still sore with me for my earlier Bush joke. A Bush fan in the New York metro area! Mea culpa – I didn’t know such a thing existed.
I hadn’t thought much about the incident again until yesterday, when I read Julie’s thought-provoking post at the Imperfect Parent about using the expression “oh my God” in front of children who have been told that this is a biblical violation. And I started wondering about religion and morality in children.
(Now in the spirit of disclosure: I’m not entirely reverent when it comes to institutional religion. I’m not quite as antagonistic as my sigOth, but I did do a little riff here a few months back on evangelical ice cream truck drivers that might not sit well with some of my more devout Mormon-in-laws. Extreme beliefs in any form make me uncomfortable, and I admit I include a five year old’s ability to quote bible verses in that category.)
Based on this little girl’s remark, I’m wondering whether the concept of hell–or at least not going to heaven–is used by religious school teachers as sort of an eternal naughty chair, a threat to keep kids in check: Be nice to your sister or you won’t go to heaven. Stop picking your nose or you won’t go to heaven. Scratch mommy’s back or you won’t go to heaven.
It certainly seems an easier way to parent than, say, telling your kid he won’t go to his Little League World Series. Make good on that threat and he hates you. But who can he hate if you tell him he won’t enter the pearly gates in 2096? God? St Peter? The Lucky Charms guy?
Then I started to think about (and I know, I’m getting on a bit of a slippery slope here) whether there’s actually any downside in instilling a moral code in children that’s based on eternal reward and punishment. Isn’t it enough to be good for goodness sake? Can’t children learn to be kind, be responsible, be charitable, because It’s the Right Thing To Do, and not just because when you die you’ll get to play with kittens and eat ice cream all day?
Don’t we have faith enough in our own inner moral compasses–and in those of our children?
I’d like some other perspectives on this.