A few posts have gone up recently regarding raising your children in a spiritual tradition, and all the samsara that goes with it. Check out Nathan’s post, John’s post, Mumon’s post, and Karen’s post for some interesting perspectives. (I would say that my post here is inspired by, rather than a response to these posts).
Interesting perspectives. That’s what they are. Perspectives. Of the 4 mentioned above, all are parents save Nathan, who speaks from experience of working with children and running a successful children’s program in his Zen sangha to which he is very much involved. When I read these posts I see a deep sense of caring. Really caring about the children, their lives, their minds, their future selfs.
And something else is there as well. Parents and caregivers projecting what they wish the desired outcome to be. Parents that want their children to be Buddhist or Christian or Atheist or open-minded or skeptical or whatever; they all want something for their children, all to take on a specific role or mindset. And that is part of parenting. You have to want something for your children, and most of us want what is best for them. We all have our different flavors of “best” peppered by the experiences and luggage we bring with us to the table of life.
Personally, I think telling a child what to believe, or “hey Johnny, you’re a Christian, so you believe in ‘x'” is wrong, and does them a disservice. It takes away the process of discovery and replaces it with dogma, at a time in their lives where fostering an attitude of discovery and imagination is most crucial. Spirituality is a very wonderous, malleable thing. To force it into a shape before a child has had the time to poke and prod at it robs them of an experience that is very special, something that will take a terrible amount of work to get back later in life, if at all.
But what of raising a child Buddhist, or in a Buddhist community? Is there a difference? I tend to think so, at least to some degree. Buddhism has less to do with belief, and more to do with results. For instance, take the five precepts. This is a teaching I could explain to my children that will lead to examination, and more questions. There is no “because ‘x’ holy book says so answer; there are only questions of “why” and “how” to be met with their own experiences and guidance from father and mother. In Buddhism we seek noble qualities, not adherence to doctrine.
Why do we take the precept to refrain from taking life?
To affirm and honor life, because it is precious. Why else do think we should not take life?
Why do we take the precept to refrain from taking what isn’t given?
To develop generosity, and to accept ourselves wholly. Why else do you think we shouldn’t take what belongs to us?
Why do we take the precept to refrain from wrong speech?
To develop compassion, live our truth, and honor others. Why else should we tell the truth, and not speak unkindly of others?
One day my son and daughter will ask me about Buddha and meditation and being a Buddhist. The questions they ask will come from a genuine place of wonder and curiosity, and my answers should foster that state of mind.
What’s a Buddhist?
Someone that follows the teachings of the Buddha.
What did he teach?
He taught many things. First he taught us that life isn’t always what it seems or what we want it to be. At times this can cause us to be sad, or even angry. So he taught us to use compassion, wisdom, and have the right frame of mind so that we don’t have to live that way.
Oh. So why do you sit on that pillow in the living room?
That’s one way to help me develop the right frame of mind.
That is a nice pretend scenario of a conversation that might take place. But given my son’s nature I can only imagine the questions that will soon follow. It will be awhile until the questions begin to emerge, but in time they will. And when that time comes I have no qualms with asking him if he wants to practice with me. And if he says no, he says no and he will enjoy racing matchbox cars around the Kitchen 500.
Spiritual communities can be great environments for children. But when the activities include having them sing songs in praise of people and ideals they have no way of understanding, I draw a line.
Presently we have no formal sangha or spiritual community to raise our children in. Our religious practice revolves around our attempt to manifest spirituality in our daily lives and activity. So there is no temple to “drag” them to. And there isn’t much in the way of belief to indoctrinate them in. There are our daily successes and failures that will guide and shape them. For those with access to a sangha or dharma center, their perspective will be different; I cannot speak to the experience of others.
Or maybe they’ll never really take an interest in Dad’s Buddhism. Maybe they’d rather play with the Tarot cards on our shelves, mesmerized by the dozens of different artist’s depictions of the journey of The Fool. Maybe they’d rather read The Lord of the Rings and get lost in The Shire. Maybe they’d rather spend the day in the woods taking in deep breaths of dead leaves and cedar, running from whatever forest creature they might imagine is in pursuit.
It really is up to them. I’ll be steering them in a direction that keeps them on the road. But that is my perspective, and that is where I feel my children would benefit most. For now I’m focusing on raising compassionate, spiritual children. We can worry about the framework later.