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

Friday, May 14, 2010

Talking About Sinful Lifestyles With Children

Eric Brown wrote a post about the question of whether children of same-sex-couples should be allowed in Catholic schools the other day, which generated some interesting conversation. One of the problems that lies at the root of this controversy, I think, is the question of how to deal sinful lifestyles when talking to your children.

Obviously, one of the duties of a conscientious Catholic parents is to successfully pass on to their children belief in Catholic moral teaching. We believe, after all, that living according to the Church's moral teachings is key to both the happiness and salvation of our children, and both of these are things we ought to care about a good bit.

This much, at least, is widely agreed upon. Why, however, should that be a reason not to want your children exposed to the children of a same-sex-couple? Isn't that simply a great chance to talk about the Church's teachings about marriage and sexual morality?

Frankly, I (and I think many other Catholic parents) would rather not have to rush that one. Why?

Both thinking back to my own childhood and also about my children (currently ages 8 through 1.5) one of the things that stands out to me very clearly is that children are naturally dualistic. There's a reason why the fairy tale is a genre so enjoyed by children -- children like clear heroes and villains. The adult my be interested in why it is that the wicked witch became wicked, and whether she really thought she was wicked, but to a child, the fact that she is wicked is all they need. Heroes do good things, villains to bad things, and children under the age of 10-12 have a great deal of difficulty seeing people in between.

This is one of the reasons why my wife and I are very careful about what books and movies we expose our children to: Once someone is "the good guy", everything he does is admired and imitated. The flawed hero is not something that children are good at understanding. You see this when children interact with their real life friends as well. The girl down the street who is a "best friend" one day is "that mean girl I just hate, hate, hate" when she offends.

Thus, when I seek to keep my children from running into certain types of sins (divorce and remarriage, adultery, fornication, homosexual relationships) it's not so much because I don't want to explain these sins to my children, though that's part of it. It's more because I'd rather not have to deal with the delicate balancing act of trying to explain the "hate the sin, love the sinner" concept to a mind which is little capable of making the distinction.
"Daddy, there's a new girl in RE class named Heather. Instead of a mommy and a daddy, she has two mommies. How does she have two mommies?"

"Well, Virginia, only a man and a woman can make a baby together, that's how God made us. Miss Jennifer and Miss Jean may have adopted Heather, or maybe one of them had Heather before they met each other."

"But are Miss Jennifer and Miss Jean married?"

"No, women can't be married to each other. It would be very wrong for two women to live together as if they were married. God tells us that only men and women can marry because only men and women can have babies together. But some women try to live together as if they were married anyway."

"Oh."

* * * *

"Daddy, I told Heather that her mommies are not really married and she cried. Then she said I was a big liar. And one of the boys asked her if she was a dipe. What's a dipe?"

"I think the boy was trying to say a very mean word, and I don't think that you should use that word, Virginia. It was very mean of the boy to say that to her."

"But why did she say I was a liar? Her mommies aren't married. You said so. They can't be."

"Sometimes people don't like to hear things even if they are true, honey. Maybe it's better if you don't talk to Heather about her mommies."

"Oh."

* * * *

"Daddy, I asked one of Heather's mommies, Miss Jennifer, if she was really married, and she said she was! Then I told her you said God didn't like that and she said you must be judge-mental. Are you judge-mental, Daddy?"

"Not everyone understands what God tells us about marriage, Virginia. When Miss Jennifer said I was judgmental, she meant that she disagreed with what God tells us about marriage."

"Miss Jennifer said that God made some women so that they love each other, and so God means them to get married. Is that true, Daddy?"

"No, dear. Miss Jennifer is wrong."

Yes, it could be done, but no sane parent wants to get into these situations.

It's not a teaching opportunity, teaching only works well with people able to understand. It's an aggravation and confusion opportunity. Children have three modes when dealing with these situations: Assuming something is okay because the person in question seems nice; deciding to loudly despise the person because "he's bad"; and pestering all people involved with awkward questions. Since none of these are desirable, parents would prefer not to have to deal with the "two mommies" kind of problems unless family connection forces them to. Just as they'd rather not delve into the fact that the nice woman named Phyllis who comes to family functions with Uncle Edgar is not actually his wife, and will fail to draw a "teaching moment" from the fact that Aunt Belinda's oldest child was born two months after she got married.

Of course, family connections often result in children being forcibly exposed to sex out of wedlock, divorce, adultery, etc. But at least in my own experience, when these realities do in fact make themselves known to children the results are usually less than illuminating. Children are inveterate side takers, and if they do not (as they are surprisingly able to do) remain blithely unaware of a situation going on before their very eyes, they will tend to be the ones who say hurtful things loudly at gatherings which leave all the adults glaring at each other.

And if it's difficult to explain to children about a nasty divorce without the children deciding they need to make their moral indignation known by behaving badly in public toward one of the parties, it is that much harder to explain a situation to a child in which the sinners are apparently happy and united in their sin. If one makes a big deal of it, the child is likely to take things to far and attempt to do a little of their own evangelizing (with disastrous results.) If one is circumspect, the child will assume this is just fine, and is unlikely to believe you years later when you attempt to explain that such things are wrong.

While it may seem like singling out homosexuals for special scorn, the "same sex marriage" is perhaps the most difficult lifestyle sin to explain to children. Divorce, because it fractures a family, is naturally disliked by children. Adultery, if it somehow becomes known, will be so only in its home-breaking sense, and thus rejected similarly to divorce. Same sex marriage, however, is unique in claiming to be a marriage when it is not. And thus is by far the most difficult to explain to children. I don't think it's unjustified for parents, who care strongly about presenting a good example of what marriage really is to their children, to not want to have such an issue brought up to their children before the children are of sufficient mental and moral maturity to be able to understand the situation and the Church's response to it.

12 comments:

JMB said...

I agree with you. The other option which I've done in the past with my children is to simply tell them that it is NONE of their business. I know it sounds harsh, but children aren't privy to know everything about adults, whether their sin is public or private. We can signal to our children that we disaprove, but we certainly do not have to go into details why we do, especially if they are too young to understand or being just plain nosy.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

My little brothers go to a very small Catholic school and are classmates with a boy who has "two daddies." (I think they chose the school precisely because of its tiny student body and its repuation for being "progressive.")

One time, my brothers were talking about getting that classmate a birthday present, and I asked, "Is that the day he was born or the day he was adopted?"

I found myself on the receiving end of two wide-eyed stares. Then the younger of my brothers asked, "Why do you think he's adopted?"

Then my mother yelled from the other room: "Your sister is just teasing. Hahaha! What a joker!"

My brothers don't seem very bothered by the idea of two dads, but they do wonder where the mother is. They've asked about it, and the answer they got was predictably vague: "Oh, maybe she's in America . . . But don't ask your friend about her, okay? It might make him feel bad because she doesn't live with him."

Anyway, I have no quick answer here; just the opinion that the situation doesn't spell the end of the world. I can understand why parents wouldn't want to deal with that moral question when kids are so young, but I wonder whether the political situation in the United States is making this more of an issue than it has to be.

Anonymous said...

I really don't understand how you propose ignoring situations when they happen in your own family or neighborhood - if you live next door to a gay couple, for example, or a cousin is gay and the children ask about it. What do you do? Move? Never see your family again?

cliff said...

This is one of your best posts Darwin, imho. Then again, I've always been an avid fan of fairy tales, classic westerns, and other good guy/ bad guy scenarios.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Anonymous' question makes me think that the reason my mother is pretty laid back about my brothers' classmate's family situation is that she raised me in a big extended family that included her lesbian sister and the sister's long-term partner.

Darwin said...

Anon,

Actually, our next door neighbor is lesbian, and her current partner is around about half the time. We get along fine (it helps that she and I both got into vegetable gardening at the same time) and the kids occasionally help her out with yard work -- though as with any adult neighbor without kids, we only let them hang out with her outside, and we're careful not to let them pop over into her yard enough to be a bother.

Given that she doesn't had kids, and that we seem to have an implicit understanding that we interact on a neighborly level, with us not pushing our ideas about her lifestyle at her and her not trying to bring it up with our kids, this works fine. The kids have never noticed anything odd about this, partly because kids seem to just accept adult living arrangements as read without giving much thought to them, and partly because the partner is so mannish and deep voiced that the kids have identified her as "Miss Sally's* husband" -- though I've occasionally offered weakly, "I think that's just a friend of Miss Sally's, not her husband."

So, actually, I do propose ignoring some situations even when they're right in our family or neighborhood. I don't think everything has to be discussed with kids who aren't yet old enough to understand sexual relationships clearly anyway. But at the same time:

1) I don't want an institution which I turn to to help raise my kids in the faith to actively make things harder for me through the environment and community it creates. Real life already has plenty of tendency to make things hard for families trying to raise their kids Catholics in this culture as it is.

2) Interacting frequently with a gay couple with kids (if they explicitly do the "two mommies" or "two daddies" thing and even more so if they refer to themselves as married) strikes me as particularly problematic since gay marriage specifically contradicts the nature of marriage rather than just violating it (as divorce, unmarried parents, etc. do).

*Not her real name

Roz said...

About the school question, I would think it would be appropriate for the school's approach to be something like: "We would welcome your child. However, you should be aware that our religion and theology classes are an important part of the curriculum, and if the subject were to come up, we would be straightforward about the Catholic Church's teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin and that the Church does not support same-sex partnerships. Since we wholeheartedly want the best for all of our students, it seems reasonable to be concerned that your child could encounter situations for which she's not prepared. Shall we talk about that?"

We were always as clear as was age-appropriate about their uncle's homosexual relationship. We encouraged his affection for them and received his partners as "friends of uncle". But we didn't feel comfortable staying at their home when we were visiting the city. Just our approach.

Roz said...

I made an awkward segue in my comment. It should read, "When my children were young, my husband and I were always as clear as was age-appropriate with them about . . . "

Sorry.

JMB said...

Our neighbor growing up left her husband and four children for another woman. I was about 12 at the time when I heard the "full story" so to speak, but it had happened 7 years prior. If anything, I felt sorry for my friends who's mom left the house and left them to fend for themselves. It didn't shake my Catholic faith and my parents remained friendly with both husband and ex-wife. Why do we as parents assume that these things are going to cause our children to leave the faith?

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

As someone who has taught in a Catholic school, I see it from Roz's point of view as well.

Dante's Inferno was required reading for my students, and I really got into our discussion of Circle VI (where the sodomites, among others, go). Dante is very sad to see seven Noble Florentines there, whom he admired and who were pretty much virtuous in everything except their sexual activities. We talked about all the gay people in our families or who are our friends, and gay people we admire from the media. The lesson I hoped I was getting across was that being likable isn't enough: obedience is still required. And I don't think that anyone was grievously offended on behalf of a loved one. (Well, I hope!)

On the other hand, when we discussed Circle III (gluttons), one of my plumper students--usually one of my most talkative girls--wouldn't lift her eyes from her desk the entire hour! I felt so uncomfortable by her obvious shame and distress that I rushed through the whole lesson!

Darwin said...

Though to be clear: I'm not remotely worried about kids the age to be reading Inferno -- I'm more thinking of kids under 10, and the misplaced enthusiasm for, "Let's use the new members of the class to help everyone understand alternative lifestyles!"

Julia said...

I live in a large city, and we have several gay couples in our apartment building, including some who have adopted kids. Last year when my youngest was in kindergarten he had a friend who had two mommies. We didn't say anything; my son never noticed. Our general approach has been to always treat others (gay or not) as people first.

At some point the kids do notice and do ask, and for most of our children that's been at around age 10. We explain the basics, and the kids usually think that's a little odd, and rather than saying anything about gay relationships we simply say what we believe about relationships.

Around age 12 or 13, the topic resurfaces, this time with some depth. That's when we go into Church teaching.

But FWIW, the school system here absolutely teaches from a very early age that relationships are "between two people who feel attracted to each other", and that you should embark upon one "when you feel ready". If you're in an environment like that, you need to be open about your beliefs a lot earlier.

Perhaps I should mention that this is one reason we homeschool...