Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, June 09, 2008

What Will the Children Think

In an online debate about the "gay marriage" issue a while back, I heard a woman say that one of her concerns (in light of an assumption that the day of gay marriage was pretty much inevitably on its way) was how she would explain to a school-aged child why exactly she couldn't go visit a friend who had "two mommies" or "two daddies". This was immediately jumped on as being an incredibly homophobic idea. Why not, many asked, use this as a teaching moment? "Little Jenny has two mothers who love each other very much. However, we as Catholics believe that only a man and a woman can get married."

Now, the "teach the controversy" idea is a very popular one in the modern US. We like to think of ourselves as being open-minded and fair -- and also when you're talking to your opponents it's a good code for saying, "Sure you disagree with you, but do you mind teaching people my views anyway?"

However, as the parent (and looking back on having been a child) I think that the sheltering approach is probably the way to go.

Little though the idea may appeal to us at times, there are a lot of things that a mind not yet fully formed is simply not yet ready to deal with. One of these, I think, is "Sometimes people who seem nice or good in many ways do things which we consider gravely sinful -- even though it may not look very bad at first glance."

Actually, to be honest, it's an idea that even many minds which by rights should be fully formed do not seem to be able to deal with. All too often we hear in reference to some hot button personal morality issue, "The people I know who do X all seem like well adjusted and loving people, so how morally destructive can it really be?"

Instinctually, we seem to want to sort people out into "good guys" and "bad guys". As we get older, we hopefully get better at understanding that otherwise good people sometimes do bad things and seem to be pretty happy to go on doing them. We learn to see that people have strengths and weaknesses and can't be conveniently classified. But this takes a lot of time, and I really don't think kids under a certain age are up to doing it.

Perhaps I was just an overly judgemental child, but I remember clearly that one of the difficulties my parents had with me was that when I heard about someone's actions that I had strong moral opinions about, it was hard to keep me from swinging to a rather vocal "that's a bad person" point of view. So when an aunt had several children out of wedlock, or another aunt got married outside the Church, when an uncle walked out on his wife and kids, or when a friend or relative became Protestant, I had a tendency not only to decide that everything about that person was bad, but to volunteer this opinion at all sorts of inopportune times. It's not impossible that I was more of a jerk than most children, but I suspect that this was actually pretty normal.

So you're faced with an awkward situation as a parent in a highly diverse society. You can socialize a child throughout a diverse group of acquaintances, and either go light on the moral teaching, or be clear on moral issues and risk your children constantly coming out with comments and judgements that will be seen as deeply offensive; or you can choose to create an artificially homogeneous social set while your children are young, and hope to put off the "dealing with diversity" issue until your child's moral universe is more fully formed.

Obviously, one has limited choice in these issues. Sometimes they have a way of becoming obvious through friends or relatives in a way that is unavoidable. But to the extent possible, it seems to me that rearing children in a religiously and culturally homogeneous environment up to a certain age makes it easier for them to both deal well with diversity later in life and retail a solid religious and moral grounding. Actively encountering too much diversity too early in life, on the other hand, seems to increase the danger of lapsing into either intolerance or indifference.


Louise said...

Wow, I think your ideas are spot-on. I read a news article about a book called "King and King" that is part of the curriculum for first-graders at a school in Massachusetts. This book is about a prince who decides to marry another prince instead of a princess. Parents filed a lawsuit; it was dismissed. I am not a parent yet, but reflecting on how impressionable I was at that age, I was horrified, thinking of how confusing such a book (and the inevitable ensuing discussion) would have been for me. Nowadays it seems to be trendy to expose children to as much diversity as possible as early as possible so that they are more tolerant, but I completely agree with your assessment -- I don't think young children are able to handle the idea that "nice" people can do gravely immoral things.

Jennifer F. said...

It seems to me that rearing children in a religiously and culturally homogeneous environment up to a certain age makes it easier for them to both deal well with diversity later in life and retail a solid religious and moral grounding.

Absolutely. In fact, I think that studies have proven that this is so. This is something that's important to us, although it will be difficult since we have a lot of close friends and relatives who have drastically different values than ours.

This reminds me of a really interesting comment I got to a discussion about community and diversity over at my site.

Here's an excerpt from a comment that I thought had some really interesting thoughts on the issue of cultural diversity. I hope you don't mind the long comment, but I think there are some really interesting points here:


The underlying problem is that American society has lost most of its homogeneousness. Society/culture is supposed to provide this for us based on the common (more or less) values and characteristics that are shared.

When you live in a neighborhood (traditional) where it's more likely than not that the folks surrounding you will have a lot in common, and/or where possibly other family members live (again shared attachments and experiences), this all comes about rather naturally.

We aren't supposed to/meant to have to work so hard to intentionally build this and it is very unnatural, and thus very difficult.

For all it's nobility as an idea, diversity has created this situation. When people within a society, even a local one, become so different from one another that their culture (except at the most surface levels of sports and entertainment) is no longer shared, it becomes exceedingly difficult to partake of the kind of thing we are all seeking.

There's a fascinating article on this that came out late last year based on a massive Harvard study on this topic.

The Downside of Diversity

It seems the only real remedy for this is to (as so many have suggested) somehow build, or tap into, local areas that share more in common. But in a culture where folks are so transient, and the population is so diverse overall, this is a real challenge.

The only constructive thought I've had is that maybe we can 'leverage' our parishes more to attack this.

Maybe we can link up with other folks who are yearning for the same thing. At least you know you have a very high chance of hooking up with folks who 1) live close to you, and 2) share your religion (and hopefully your values).

But how do we do this without having to expend so much effort...we already have our hands full just caring for our families...that's why culture needs to provide this for us…because the people who need it most (young families with children), have the least amount of time and energy to tend to it.

Which gives me another thought....maybe the answer is to go through the parish to find the retirees/elderly folks who've been through this (raised their family) and ask them to tend to it for the younger families.

Maybe linking the two groups together is where the answer lies. I know it's not that simple, but just some food for thought...I am going to ponder this a bit more.


Great post, as always!

Literacy-chic said...

Very nice post. A very liberal friend of my mother's was nevertheless very upset when the mother of another child felt compelled to inform her daughter that her daughter's aunt is a lesbian--when the child was about 8 yrs. or so. Even they were trying to shelter the daughter from this fact that existed within their own family, as I guess they hadn't gotten to "Why does Aunt B live with Maggie" or whatever... And this from someone who answered every OTHER kind of sexual question at whatever age it was asked...

Melanie B said...

Amen. I'm all for sheltering. I think what the "teaching moment" people fail to take into consideration most of the time is the child's stage of moral development, what level of moral reasoning he or she is capable of. Just as with reading or math skills, there are thresholds of developmental readiness. One simply cannot teach some concepts before the child is ready to learn them and trying to force the issue does damage.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...


How selfish can you GET?

Look: I grew up on a ranch; my folks never had "the talk"-- they just explained bits and pieces of the biology side of it with animals, and by the time we were old enough to apply it to humans, we were also mature enough to figure out the rest.

Same with politics: they taught by example, and occasional stories, and by mom CONSTANTLY nagging us to see how a story could be viewed from a different perspective-- "if you can't argue against it, you don't know enough to argue for it."

I didn't even know homosexuality EXISTED until I was 13 or 14 or so, and smart enough to hold my tongue most of the time.

We've got several family friend who are homosexual-- good enough friends that one only took a week after mom and dad refused to go to her "wedding" to start talking to them again.... (all the kids were gone; military or college)

entropy said...

Excellent post. I was re-telling it to my husband last night and he finished it for me: they'll either be cynical or confused.