Publisher's Desk - Should Parents Teach Their Kids Religion?
FOR MILLENNIA, IT HAS BEEN STANDARD PRACTICE for religious parents to pass on their tradition to their children. It has also been common for parents to want their children to join the family’s faith community. Times have changed. Nowadays, a significant number of parents consider themselves spiritual but profess no religious affiliation. Many follow secular humanism. Others focus exclusively on the secular education of their children, not wanting them to participate in religious activities or classes, as they see no career value in religion. Some are simply against religion. Marriages are now common between spouses of different faiths, particularly in Western countries. Recently I have heard some parents question if they even have the ethical right to ask their children to accept their religious beliefs and practices, reasoning that each human being should find his or her own spiritual way forward.
Then there are the pragmatic rationales: too busy to teach religion at home, not knowing enough about the religion, not attending religious activities on a regular basis, not being proud enough of their faith, and wanting their children to blend in well in an international school setting.
Hindu parents who don’t plan to teach religion in the home need to give serious thought as to how the next generation will learn the basics of good conduct and duties to family and community. Religions have traditionally been the most common source of this knowledge. On the web, you can find statements as to how children, given time, will figure out by themselves all about conduct and duty. However, I know educators who have sufficient personal experiences to strongly disagree. They have shared with me their dismay that many students in their school regularly cheat to get ahead in class. To them, winning is what matters, and the virtue of honesty is of lesser import.
Are there nonreligious resources for teaching ethical conduct? “Positive Psychology” is a one example. Respected for its comprehensive approach to learning values and duties, it has developed twenty-four character strengths described as “...the psychological ingredients for displaying human goodness, and they serve as pathways for developing a life of greater well-being.” See: www.viacharacter.org/character-strengths-via
A Study of How Religions Are Teaching Children
To understand how religion is being taught we can turn to the 2019 book Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America, authored by Professor Christian Smith and coauthored with Bridget Ritz and Michael Rotolo, who interviewed hundreds of individuals of diverse religious backgrounds, including Hindus and Buddhists. They discovered that, despite massive diversity, parents share a nearly identical approach to socializing their children religiously. For almost all, religion is important for the foundation it provides for becoming one’s best self on life’s journey.
On a small scale, we did some research in Asia among Hindu parents and found that many hold a similar perspective: that faith training develops character and helps their children to more confidently and effectively handle life’s challenges. Parents shared with me that religion is like a kite string that holds individuals to their earth-bound reality and keeps them from drifting into oblivion. One parent explained that learning about the many challenges Hinduism faced in past centuries teaches children how great Hinduism is; it cannot be destroyed. In my opinion, the ways in which Hinduism can provide benefits to our next generation are significant and should not be dismissed. Let’s explore three.
Finding Enduring Happiness
Parents are naturally focused on raising their children to be successful. To many, success is defined almost exclusively as material prosperity, which is best achieved by pursuing a high paying, highly demanding professional career. Of course, this strategy includes marrying an equally educated and socially positioned spouse. This definition of success ignores a crucial component—being happy. I have met dozens of men and women who shared that they had always thought professional achievements and financial abundance would make them happy but found that it did not. Hinduism teaches that lasting happiness does not come from what we achieve in the material world. That kind of fulfillment is fleeting. Whatever is gained can be lost. Enduring happiness comes from abiding in our soul nature, our inner, spiritual self. My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, stated it this way: “Learn to be happy by seeking happiness, not from others but from the depths of the soul itself.” To achieve this, he taught: “Put a smile on the faces of other people. Gain your happiness and your positive states of mind by making other people happy.” He knew that contentment, comes from giving and not from getting.
There are few things that ruin the quality of life more than anger. Therefore, learning to minimize expressions of this negative emotion and eventually eliminate them is important. A deep understanding of the law of karma allows us to accept what is happening to us as what should be happening to us and not become angry about it. We accept that it is in our karma to experience what we are undergoing, both positive and negative. Whatever is happening to us is precipitated by our actions in this and past lives.
Religious training: Each of us has a duty to pass our heritage on to the next generation. Above, a young mother teachers her child that even the distant moon is worthy of our reverence, acknowledging the Hindu understanding of the interconnected sacredness of all things
Hindu children face stress in the form of major exams in school, which start as early as age eight in Asian countries. Under such stress, they can’t do their best work or learn effectively. Hatha yoga asana routines have the power to balance the nervous system and reduce anxiety if performed regularly every week. Another method is the regular practice of diaphragmatic breathing. The basic idea is to train yourself, and your kids, to breathe from the diaphragm and not from the chest. This is the natural way. It is how babies breathe. However, once we take on life’s tensions, the diaphragm tightens and we tend to expand the chest when we breathe. The diaphragm can be felt right below your solar plexus, just below where the ribs separate. To locate it, place your fingertips on the diaphragm and cough. When your fingers are directly on the diaphragm, they will jump as you cough. Whenever you need to relax, such as before (and during!) an important meeting or exam, take just one minute to breathe deeply from the diaphragm. Doing this a few times will convince you of pranayama’s power to ease tensions in the nervous system. It will become a tool you can use in many situations.
These three examples clearly show that the beliefs and practices of Hinduism are designed to help an individual live a happier, more creative and more successful life.
Here’s a quote from a participant in our informal survey in Asia: “Learning religion is paramount—especially with the kind of challenges children face these days. More often than not, Hindu religion is narrowly viewed from the ritualistic point of view. Many fail to see the entirety of the religion and how it encapsulates human life as a whole in all aspects—metaphysics, yoga, ayurveda, human values, rituals, vastu, astrology and culture. If Hindus realize how wholesome the religion truly is, I am sure they will be more than willing to teach it or send their children to religious classes.”
There is no better way to conclude than to draw from the bold wisdom of my Gurudeva In speaking to an audience of Saivite Hindus, he stated: “Yes, we have but one duty to perform: to pass our religion on to the next generation, the next, the next and the next. How is this done? Through Saivite education, building more schools. We must educate our youth well. The alternative is to allow Saivism to be conquered by atheism, to be conquered by Christianity, to be conquered by Islam, to be conquered by existentialism and Western rationalism, materialism and secular humanism, and to be conquered by the liberal neo-Indian postulations which seek to cut the roots of tradition. Our only hope lies in educating the children, the young minds which are open and eager to learn, but which are being enticed away from their heritage. Hold them close, protect them, love them dearly and give them the treasures of Saivism. That is the greatest gift you can offer them. Everything else will perish. Everything else will decay.”
By Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami