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Feb 21 2012

Parents lose ‘right’ to shield children from facts

One of the most irritating bromides I hear from parents (predominantly conservative parents, but not exclusively) is that they don’t want things taught in their children’s schools that contradict their (the parents’) beliefs. I suppose the fear is that teaching children that not everyone thinks identically will so confuse them that their poor little heads will a’splode. I’ve actually had one person try to tell me that kids who learn things that contradict what their parents believe have a higher rate of developmental problems – so therefore public schooling is harmful. It took me way too long to stop taking that guy seriously (that’s what I get for trying to read conservative writers for the sake of ‘balance’).

First of all, bringing up a kid who knows how to disagree with you is a good thing. Second, since the only way to ensure your kid doesn’t encounter any dissenting opinions is to raise hir in a bubble, cut off from the entire world – there’s a legal term for that. Third, raising a child to accept authority unquestioningly puts them at greater risk of being taken in by unscrupulous hucksters of all manner of ideas. Fourth, it severely handicaps their ability to make independent decisions if ze’s never been exposed to stuff that Mom or Dad didn’t warn hir about. Fifth, it retards their understanding of the world – there are a lot of ideas out there and it’s important to be exposed to lots of them.

There is perhaps no corner in which this attitude is more popular than among parents who wish to raise their children in a particular religious tradition. Maybe it is because they know how weak and vapid the arguments for faith are, or maybe it’s because they truly believe that little Ashley couldn’t possibly cope with the knowledge that different beliefs exist, but religious parents are infuriated by the idea of comparative religious instruction. They’re about to get a lot angrier:

Canada’s top court on Friday rejected an appeal from parents in Quebec who sought the right to keep their children out of an ethics and religious culture program taught in the province’s schools. The program, which was introduced in 2008 to elementary and high schools by the provincial Education Ministry, replaced religion classes with a curriculum covering all major faiths found in Quebec culture, including Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and aboriginal beliefs.

“Exposing children to a comprehensive presentation of various religions without forcing the children to join them does not constitute an indoctrination of students that would infringe the freedom of religion of L and J [the appellants],” Madam Justice Marie Deschamps wrote in the main ruling.

So it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the chief justice of our Supreme Court – my interpretation of the Charter and the law upon which it is based are seldom at odds. This decision is no exception to that trend. Parents demanded the right to stuff their kids’ brains full of cotton swabs instead of allowing some facts to get in there. The Ministry of Education said “no, we have a responsibility to, y’know, educate.” The parents decided this was an unacceptable infringement on their religious liberties and sued. And lost.

Now, long-time Cromrades will know how dimly I view most arguments couched in the language of “religious freedom“. In most cases (in this country, anyway), it refers exclusively to the paranoid fantasies of the religious-minded that their beliefs are ‘under attack’ by the combined forces of… well let’s just say they think the world looks like this:

I've been waiting FOREVER for a chance to use this pic. Pay particular attention to the monkey. Also, the lady that teaches the public school class on sorcery is the only one who has fingers.

And I suppose these parents wake up drenched in terror-sweat at the thought of having this conversation with their kids:

Ashley: Mom, why do we believe in Jesus?

Mom: Because he died for our sins, honey.

Ashley: But Sakineh doesn’t believe that. How come?

Mom: Well honey, people have different beliefs about the world and you have to learn more about your faith tradition and why it’s true.

Ashley: No! Different ideas are CONFUSING! I’m going to go have Satan’s abortion! And then get a degree in paleontology!

Mom: Oh noes! Why didn’t I home schooool?

Ashley: Too late! My ability to think critically has made me try drugs and listen to rap music at an unacceptably loud volume!

The fact is that parents should be teaching their own values to their kids. It is the school’s job to impart facts and critical thinking instruction by which different values (including the values taught at the school) can be judged. When the child’s instruction comes into conflict with parental opinion, that should be a topic for discussion at home. Someone once challenged me to imagine that my child attended a school that taught explicit white supremacy as part of the curriculum. I guess they thought that would be a stumper. If I had a kid (heaven forfend), I would imagine I’d bring hir up to love critical inquiry as much as I do, and to challenge not only hir teachers but hir dear old dad as well. It would only become a problem if ze started getting bullied for not accepting the lesson on hir genetic impurity, but that’s a topic for another time.

Parents like this need to learn a lesson of their own: your religious freedom stops once it leaves the privacy of your own head. You should (and do) enjoy an inviolable right to believe however you choose, and if there were ever a law passed forcing a person to choose a religion (or to choose no religion), I would be fighting it right alongside you. This isn’t that – this is about preparing kids in Quebec schools to deal with a world in which they will repeatedly encounter beliefs that are different from those drilled into them at home. It is not anyone else’s job to help you secure the shackles onto your child’s mind.

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41 comments

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  1. 1
    unbound

    I completely agree with this. It is paramount that the children learn to apply critical thought not just due to what is taught in school, but even with the parents. I relish the debates I have with my children especially as they get better about responding to any points I bring up with counter-points (as opposed to just repeating a particular point that has already been addressed).

    Even if we get to the point of religion being removed from the equation, the children need to maintain that critical thought as there will always be the eternal struggle against bias and “facts” that aren’t always so factual.

  2. 2
    starskeptic

    …when do we use the laptop for target practice?..

  3. 3
    ildi

    We used to have classes in parochial school on “why Protestants are wrong.” One example that has stuck with me is that the catacombs wouldn’t have had “pray for his soul” carved on the tombs if early Christians didn’t believe in purgatory. I wonder if they’ve added “why atheists are wrong” to the curriculum. Atheists didn’t exist in the Deep South in the seventies. Hell, Catholics barely existed in the Deep South in the seventies…

  4. 4
    mynameischeese

    That cartoon is classic! Just out of curiosity, does that religious ethics class mention the existence of non-religious people? Where I live, almost 90% of public schools are catholic (which doesn’t mean that the remaining 10% are secular, sadly. There are very few secular primary schools here). Anyway, it doesn’t bother me that my kid is being taught about the catholic faith Monday – Friday. It’s good for him to see that our non-religious way of doing things isn’t the only way. But it does kind of bother me that his peers are being taught in a way that makes it seem like the entire world is either catholic or protestant. It would be nice if they knew atheists exist. In secondary, they have to take a class about different faiths in the world, but these classes aren’t obliged to touch on the existence of non-religious people at all. Also, it’s very convenient for the church that people believe that 90% of the population is catholic as it justifies the church’s hand in secular affairs, like public education and health.

  5. 5
    Pteryxx

    Teaching kids to accept authority unquestioningly also puts them at risk, not just from ideas, but directly from abusers who exploit their trust. One would think parents would be more concerned about protecting their kids from actual harm than just making sure they never question anything. *sigh*

  6. 6
    Dianne

    Love this post.

    Adding to your list of why keeping kids in a bubble is a bad idea…Sixth, it doesn’t work. Kids grow up. They will hear about other ideas eventually. My father grew up in a Catholic household in a little town that was essentially 100% Catholic (or at least no one admitted to other beliefs), went to a Catholic school, etc. Then he went to college. He described it as “Hearing the other side of an argument that you’ve only heard one side of your whole life.” He doesn’t describe himself as atheistic, but I grew up without any particular religious indoctrination and the closest I’ve ever heard him come to making a statement about belief is that maybe there might be some force behind the universe-but if so, humans are likely quite unimportant to it.

  7. 7
    jamessweet

    So I live right near the Hill Cumorah Pageant. (Look it up if you haven’t heard of it) It really is quite the spectacle, and worth seeing if you are in town. It’s batshit crazy bullocks, of course, but it’s also a night of free entertainment with fire and ‘splosions and all kinds of crazy shit.

    My wife and I used to like going, but since we have kids, I am reluctant to take them. I do not think the material is age-appropriate for kids under maybe 8 or 9. Not because of the violence — though there is a bit of that — but because I am not comfortable with them being presented with a load of complete bullshit and being repeatedly told it is true. I know that kids are much better at separating fantasy vs. reality than us adults often give them credit for, but since the show repeatedly emphasizes that it is relating a true story… well, I don’t really want them getting confused about that.

    But sometimes I wonder if I’m being just as bad as these parents who want to shield their children from different perspectives. I think it’s different because a) I’m totally fine with them seeing it once they are old enough to understand that some adults might believe something passionately and assert it as an obvious fact even though they are badly mistaken; and b) although it forces me to be a bit of an absolutist, the stuff they are trying to shield their kids from is factual, while the stuff I am trying to shield them from is nutters.

    I dunno… thoughts?

  8. 8
    Guillaume Muller

    @ mynameischeese:

    This is Quebec we are talking about. Agnostic/cultural catholic is the default “religion”. There is no “moral” political party. I can’t name one overtly religious journalist or pundit. When the catholic church dare say something about a controversial issue, they are universally panned as dinosaurs. Practicing religious people are the weird ones, regarded with suspicion. Worry not, kids in Quebec know about atheism.

  9. 9
    richardelguru

    “My ability to think critically has made me … listen to rap music at an unacceptably loud volume!”
    As the father of several independent-minded children I must report that there is considerable evidence to support this phenomenon. And not just rap!
     
    Oh! Yes! And that wonderful cartoon: do you think that the ACLU guy is supposed to look evilly ‘foreign’, and why on earth is there a bear or a dog(??) hiding behind the gay guy?

  10. 10
    lordshipmayhem

    This is a most excellent post – and poor Ashley! No Wonder she went on to create ashleymadison.com!! :P

    It isn’t just alternate religious beliefs that the Christian right (and often, the Islamic traditionalists) try to shield their little darlings from – there’s that *sex* word. They might learn about it, they might try it, they might like it – and where will their souls be going once they’ve eaten the banana of knowledge? That actual knowledge about the human reproductive system might be superior to schoolyard speculation is a concept that never enters these parents’ heads.

  11. 11
    glenmorangie10

    It’s been a while since I stopped practicing family law, but it still pushes the bile to the edge of my throat when I hear parents talk about their rights when it comes to children.
    “I have the right to see my daughter!”
    No, you don’t. Your daughter has the right to see you.
    “I have a right to get child support from him!”
    No, you don’t. Your child has the right to support, which you receive and dispose of on her behalf.

    Education is a right of the child. A parent’s opportunuty to shape a child’s mind does not arise from the parent’s rights. It arises from his or her duty. I don’t ever want the state stepping in capriciously to dictate the minutiae of moral and cultural education in the home, but where a parent fails in the duty to provide education, someone must protect the right of the child.

  12. 12
    Jackson

    I would be upset if our schools didn’t teach about white supremacy, or if, heaven-forbid, they acted like white supremacy no longer existed.

  13. 13
    Desert Son, OM

    It’s the corollary of the situation in which many people confuse “Freedom of Speech” with “Freedom From Criticism,” the former of which should be defended, the latter of which shouldn’t.

    As an aside, I don’t understand the relationship between the Islam Conversion character, the Atheism Rules character, and the dice? Is that supposed to be shooting craps, or role-playing games, perhaps? I can haz confused?

    Still learning,

    Robert

  14. 14
    Crommunist

    I am pretty sure they don’t. They definitely don’t make it explicit.

  15. 15
    Cathy W

    I’m not sure why they particularly picked “Atheism Rules” and “Islam Conversion” for the spot, but it’s part of the crucifixion story: the Roman soldiers played dice for Jesus’s stuff.

  16. 16
    Desert Son, OM

    cathyw at 12.1:

    it’s part of the crucifixion story: the Roman soldiers played dice for Jesus’s stuff.

    Thanks for the clarification.

    New and improved Persecution Cartoon! Now with even more Historical Hilarity! Pay no attention to Islam postdating Christian crucifixion myth by about six centuries, and the Roman imperials having called Christians “atheists” because the Christians didn’t believe in gods like Jupiter Capitolinus and Neptune and Mars! Shoehorn them into the image nevertheless!

    Still learning,

    Robert

  17. 17
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    I’ve got no advice, but my thought is: Weird.

  18. 18
    Crommunist

    It’s a monkey! ‘Cause, k’ynow… evolution.

  19. 19
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    I know I don’t remember seeing anything about it. Especially with regards to history class (particularly Canadian).

  20. 20
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    Some of my fondest memories as a kid are of the time I spent with my father, where he taught me about critical thinking, and why it’s important to ask whether things people believe are true. We watched science documentaries, took walks and he taught me how to look up things I didn’t know, because it was important not to just ask the nearest grownup.

    I also remember him turning to mom and asking why they taught me to include them in the “question everything!” when I was calling into question something they said. There was pride in his voice.

  21. 21
    Pteryxx

    I dunno about Canadian schools, but for me in the US, I sure didn’t learn about white supremacism, or anything about race past slavery and Nazis and that guy who made stuff from peanuts. Always it was “And this happened and now it’s over so everything’s fine now.” I’ve learned more about history from Crommunist and other bloggers on FTB in the last two months than I learned in my entire schooling right through a master’s degree… and damn is it depressing.

  22. 22
    Pteryxx

    Naw, the monkey’s behind the education guy. I figured the dog behind the gay dude was a Man-On-Dog reference.

  23. 23
    Pteryxx

    Wow, and I just noticed that every single caricature in that cartoon is a white male – except when the caricature’s explicitly racist (the monkey, the supposed Muslim) or sexist (the Sorcery woman). I guess including a Diversity caricature would’ve been rather ironic.

    (meta to Ian: since you use images as commentary so much, would you consider including an IMG link and/or alt text as a placeholder that I could click on? I’m usually on dial-up and browsing in image-free mode, so with no placeholder I have to change browser settings and re-load everything. Also disabled-friendly. /nitpick)

  24. 24
    Elly

    You don’t say how old your kids are, but I’m guessing maybe kindergarten – 1st grade (i.e., younger than 8 – 9, but older than toddlers/preschoolers).

    I think you don’t need to be too concerned, since the pageant you describe will be mostly a whirl of sights, sounds, colors and impressions from their perspectives. They’ll barely be tracking on the story – since there will be plenty of other stimuli competing for their attention.

    Even if they do ask questions about the story, simple answers will suffice: young children often ask “deep” questions, but their depth is an illusion foisted on them by us (adults), due to our experiences with life in all its complexity. But in the end, they’ll be satisfied with your reassurance that – it’s just a story that people living long ago believed to be true, but it really isn’t.

  25. 25
    Pteryxx

    I don’t think “My story is THE TRUTH” really qualifies as a “perspective”. The perspectives of different people deserve respect, sure, but truth-claims should be held to higher (and impersonal) standards – starting with “This is how we know it’s true” and going on from there.

    IMHO, media should be rated for violence, sexual explicitness, and degree of hypocrisy. >_>

  26. 26
    Pteryxx

    Um… as a former 7-year-old, I take issue with the claim that children that young can’t have “deep” questions. When I was six and seven, I was already asking adults why there were different, manifestly unfair “rules” for girls vs boys, and why did they keep saying dinosaurs were fake and stars/galaxies were just pretty lights in the sky. For some questions I didn’t get satisfactory answers until, well, now.

    If you think children don’t ask deep questions, they probably know better than to ask YOU.

  27. 27
    Crommunist

    Children are cognitively limited by physiology. There is ample physiological and psychological evidence to suggest that kids as young as 7 not only do not think of things in the ‘deeper’ way adults do, but that they can not. Issues of “fair” and “unfair” are actually a great example of Elly’s point – kids may find a great many things “unfair” about adult decision-making (and they hold no compunction about announcing it) because their brains simply cannot do the kind of third-party processing that takes years to develop both as a skill and as a structure.

    I think kids are often far more capable and intuitive than we give them credit for, but I don’t think Elly’s statement is unfair. The truth holds for adolescents and people who don’t have kids (like me). There are conformational and experiential changes that you can’t just brain your way into through sheer force of will.

  28. 28
    Elly

    If you think children don’t ask deep questions, they probably know better than to ask YOU.

    @Pteryxx: There are two basic problems with this contention.

    1. I have two children. In addition, I was a parent-volunteer in their (public) elementary school classrooms, and quite involved in their educations. I’ve spent quite a bit of time around very young children, in fact.

    2. My kids are now in college: so I have the luxury of observing just how well my (and their dad’s) parenting worked out.

    I will not ask you to take my word for my kids’ creativity or ability to think critically. You can observe it directly on their blog: http://tellyroftales.com/. My daughter is “Gnomethief” (the artist); my son is “Topp Hatt” (the storyteller). I especially recommend this rant: http://tellyroftales.com/?p=465 about her high school “Navigation” class, lol.

    FWIW, parenting is something of a “performance art.” My point was that – most of the time – young children are content with simple answers to seemingly complex questions. But when they’re not, they’ll continue to ask, provided a parent leaves the door open to communication vs. being dismissive. I’m sorry your parents did not give you satisfactory answers to your questions. Had you been my kid, you would have – and if you don’t believe me, feel free to go and ask my kids.

  29. 29
    Pteryxx

    replying to Crommunist: Of course children don’t have the experience, cognitive power or capability of adults, and they probably can’t comprehend an adult-level discussion. That still doesn’t justify claiming that a deep-sounding question must be “illusory” just because it’s coming from a child. (Unless you’re conflating “depth” with complexity in lieu of significance.) It only justifies giving a clear, straightforward answer.

    I’ll point out that the fully detailed answer to “why are there different rules for girls and boys” isn’t simple for even adults to understand, but the question still isn’t trivial or shallow. “There just are” is DEFINITELY a shallow dismissive answer. But when talking to a child, I’d start with “Because people sometimes get upset when others don’t act the way they expected, and they expect girls and boys to act different ways.”

    (I’m not talking about religion because I didn’t ask those questions when I was seven.)

  30. 30
    Pteryxx

    replying to Elly: (emphasis mine)

    My point was that – most of the time – young children are content with simple answers to seemingly complex questions. But when they’re not, they’ll continue to ask, provided a parent leaves the door open to communication vs. being dismissive.

    Okay, then there is conflation going on about “depth” meaning complexity specifically as opposed to significance. I’m still not comfortable with the original phrasing, but now it’s more about recognizing the child’s ability to comprehend the answers (and interest in doing so) when the question, I’d say, is inherently complex. So I’m good with an answer that’s respectful and accurate, as well as simple.

  31. 31
    JesseW, the Juggling Janitor

    Thanks for the link to the Tim Wise essay. I hadn’t read it before — it’s filled with his usual passion and wit, as was your post. Thanks.

  32. 32
    Elly

    @pteryxx:

    I would think from the context of my original, that I did not equate “simple” with either “disrespectful,” or “inaccurate” – particularly since the sample answer I gave to a (hypothetical) question about the truth of the Pageant story raised was neither.

    FWIW, I’m glad you’re now comfortable with my clarification, since I’d hate like hell to turn this portion of the comment thread into a debate about my phrasing, or whether kids should avoid asking me questions, instead of a discussion of whether James Sweet should take his kids to the Hill Cumorah Pageant or not.

  33. 33
    Crommunist

    Tim is one of the navigational aids I use when trying to become a better writer. I love his stuff. If I get one paragraph that reads like a Wise one, I am giddy for days.

  34. 34
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Yes.

    In developing the learning and evaluation situations, the teacher must ensure that…cultural expressions and expressions derived from representations of the world and of human beings that reflect the meaning and value of human experience outside of religious beliefs and affiliation are addressed during the cycle

    Also, kids are introduced to some critical thinking skills, like recognising fallacious argumentation techniques.

    https://www7.mels.gouv.qc.ca/DC/ECR/pdf/ecr_elementary.pdf
    https://www7.mels.gouv.qc.ca/DC/ECR/pdf/ecr_secondary.pdf

  35. 35
    mynameischeese

    You sold me. I’m booking my next holiday to Quebec.

  36. 36
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    I know that kids are much better at separating fantasy vs. reality than us adults often give them credit for, but since the show repeatedly emphasizes that it is relating a true story… well, I don’t really want them getting confused about that.

    I think that’s the problem about those religious stories:
    Adults insist that they’re real.
    My kids have lots of imagination, we play make belief all the time. There’s this wonderfull walruss-girl Antje who’s almost living with us, we can change from being the friends of Winnie the Pooh to fairies in no time, but I don’t think that either of them believes that there actually is a wolf in the living room for a second.
    But how would they react if I actually behaved as if there were a wolf in the living-room? If I consistently fed it meet, if I forbid them to go near a certain corner, if I threatened them with sending them to the wolf, if I showed fear before the wolf?
    I think that this is the big difference.
    And I think that it’s OK to give our children time to acquire those critical thinking skills they need.
    After all I’m not indoctrinating my children in believing X, I simply do not instill Y into their minds and I object for anybody else to do so.
    In the meantime I try to teach them about thinking, about evidence, about not just to accept claims.
    For example, I don’t just say “stay away, it is hot”.
    That would mean I’d expect them to accept my authority on the matter. Instead, I took them to the stove/pan/fire and we approached the heat-source slowly together, so they could feel it without burning themselves. So they have evidence for my claim.

  37. 37
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Dear parents
    You don’t have no fucking rights to your children.
    You enjoy the privilege of being the most important people in their lives for a long time.
    Don’t fuck up.

    Signed
    A parent

    “Parental rights” is a word that drives up my blood pressure.
    Children have rights.
    IMO, vaccinations, science and sex-ed are among them (education in general is, but those things especially)

  38. 38
    scotlyn

    The prime value that I have consciouslytaught my children is question authority, think things through for yourself. (There’s no accounting for what you unconsciously teach them, unless you are more self-aware than most of us).

    Strangely, people often comment on their politeness, kindness, etc, stuff like that. Am I doing it rong?

  39. 39
    Guillaume Muller

    Today, in one of the two largest newspaper of the province, the editorial team blog featured Sam Harris.
    http://blogues.cyberpresse.ca/edito/2012/02/21/tout-nest-pas-relatif/?utm_categorieinterne=trafficdrivers&utm_contenuinterne=cyberpresse_bloguesaccueilcp_BO3_accueil_ECRAN1POS3

  40. 40
    MaNonny

    Maybe it’s a wolf? Like “Jesus is being fed to the wolves”? Otherwise, I have no idea.

  41. 41
    jamessweet

    You don’t say how old your kids are

    The oldest is turning three in a couple weeks, heh, so maybe I am overthinking it. I guess it’s because, at that age, I’m not sure he’s capable of grasping the idea that “it’s just a story that people living long ago believed to be true, but it really isn’t”. I dunno, I guess he’d probably just see it as another TV show, heh.

  1. 42
    The Cognitive Dissonance of Parents | Secular Somnambulist

    [...] to teach their child their values, you come to another fine line. It’s been mentioned by Crommunist that it’s an educational authority’s job to teach children facts and how to think for [...]

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