Most religious instruction before the age of about 12 is just brainwashing. Maybe that's rather harsh, but that's how I view it. Children can't grasp abstract concepts until they are roughly 12-years-old, so if you tell them God exists, they accept it at face value.
Religious instruction to young children is primarily meant to teach them to believe what their parents believe.
Of course, plenty of parents believe that's how they should rear their children and I won't tell others how to do that, even if I disagree. And, hell yes, people are going to disagree with me, especially Christians - probably vehemently - and even some of my fellow Pagans.
In the Abrahamic religions, it is especially imperative to "get them while they're young", so they grow up absolutely believing something their parents believe to be true. In Paganism, we tend to be much less dogmatic about making sure our children think like us. Still, I think even with Pagan families, the heavy talks about deity can wait.
Personally, I feel we should rear our children to be humanists first. Spirituality should come second.
As far as I'm concerned, the focus ought to be on teaching children values, right vs. wrong, and what it means to be "good". You don't need any sort of higher power for that. I think we ought to focus on a child's individual value and the value of humanity. Children should learn to do something right because it feels right - not because they fear retribution.
When someone or something dies, I also don't think we need to bring the Summerland into explaining death. I think we should be straightforward and honest, and say, "Their body stopped working." If a child wants to know if a person's spirit goes on, then I think it can be explained without the "he's gone to a better place" fairy tale. Instead, I feel like it is better to say, "We really don't know what happens to a person's thoughts and consciousness when they die. We'd like to think it becomes part of the world in a different way."
I'm not saying we shouldn't celebrate the Pagan holidays with our children or mention spiritual matters around the house (after all, I talked about how to share Paganism with your children previously), but I don't actually sit down with my children and say, "There's a Goddess who runs the whole universal schebang." It's like I said in my "Raising Pagans" post - I think children need the freedom to sort things out for themselves. I like to give them some guidance, but try to make it age appropriate and keep it from sounding like This Is The Way It Is.
When I tell stories, I explain that that's all they are - stories with lessons in them. The Bible is the same thing - myths and metaphors about how a certain group of people think others ought to live. There are some mystery and initiation stories in it too, but children won't understand any of that until they're older. I think that's why it's important to be up front about the fact that none of the stories in the Bible or other mythologies actually happened, and that if they did, they are extremely exaggerated versions of historic facts.
I think some children are inherently spiritual, and of course I don't think they should be denied the chance to explore that. I think if they ask, it's fine to sit down and say, "Well, this is what mommy/daddy believes, and why we believe it..."
However, I feel that religious instruction with the idea of telling children to believe something is wrong. Anything that is about swaying a child to think a certain way without giving them a chance to analyze the information is not fair to them. So I hope folks understand the difference.
Like I said, I do expect people will disagree. We all have to rear our children the way we think is best.
I just want mine to care about humanity first, since that is right in front of them. This is the world in which they live, and want them to have concrete reasons for trying to be a useful and productive part of it.
Copyright (c) 2013 Wendy L. Callahan