About one-third of the nation’s under-30 population now declare themselves as nonreligious. A good deal more are not affiliated with an official religious organization or are dramatically less active and committed than their parents were. Yet the vast majority of couples starting a family have a strong desire for their children to be morally grounded in addition to happy and successful.
No matter what their age or background, most parents want kids to be able to identify right from wrong, fair from unfair, and to have love and compassion in their hearts and minds, which guides their actions.
“There are many positive, good ways to raise children,” says Gladys Maged, administrator at Kahal B’raira, a secular congregation for humanistic Judaism. For Maged and many others, humanism provides a way to be a part of something that allows you to raise children with the ethics and values of a culture not dependant on an interceding God. “You want your children to grow up to be good citizens, to be caring people; you may want them to have an orientation of social justice, and in my case I also wanted them to have the gift of my heritage, the Jewish heritage,” she says.
According to Maged, a powerful aid in raising a moral child is community. “If you are part of a positive community of people, you will find many of the elements of good parenting are actually shared,” she says. “That’s part of why people join a religious group, but that’s available in my community without a belief in a higher power.” She says the parents of Kahal B’raira are hungry for ways to show their children what it means to contribute, and they set an example by being a part of an active group of adults “who want to work together and care about each other.”
Katrina Joseph, head of school at the Academy at Foxborough, a nondenominational, nonprofit Christian institution welcoming students from all manner of religious and nonreligious backgrounds, agrees it is important to be a member of a community and to give of oneself, but adds, “I don’t think volunteerism or doing good takes the place of having faith.”
Joseph is speaking from the perspective of her personal beliefs and also from the positives she has witnessed through her work at the Academy. “A large percentage [of parents] are coming here for the academics, and then some are here for the morals. And morals is doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,” she explains. Joseph says families love the school’s strong community and nurturing environment, but for the program to work, it first requires a commitment and understanding on the parents’ behalf.
“We have families visit the school and say they want [their children] to decide on what their moral compass will be. It’s confusing. Children basically learn their moral compass from their parents,” says Joseph. “To leave it to a child to learn on their own … I think wolves train their children in the way to go; what would make us think we shouldn’t?”
Her school uses Biblical standards and teachings in conjunction with everyday life as a basis to help children grow. She says families of the school ranging from the nonreligious to devout Hindus have been supportive of the religious aspect of the curriculum. “They like the morals that are taught by Christ. They don’t have an issue with the Biblical teachings,” she says.
Arnold Zar-Kessler, head of school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, asserts that when it comes to parenting and raising moral children, “you get what you aim for. And if what you aim for as a family and an institution and ultimately a community is a moral compass, and you are purposive about it and build your program around it, then you are more likely to get it.”
“There’s no secret sauce in this,” says Zar-Kessler, who believes there are many ways to get moral and ethical foundations without being part of a religious community. To Zar-Kessler it’s about doing your research and choosing to invest in what is proven to work. “Our kids turn out to have a better sense of themselves, a firmer foundation, a deeper understanding of their own personal well-being than kids coming from environments that don’t have this sort of grounding.”
Solomon Schechter is affiliated with the conservative Jewish movement and spends roughly half its day on Jewish studies aimed at helping students become better prepared to be citizens in the modern world with a firm foundation in the tradition. “I believe in the mysticism of Judaism, but that’s not the point here,” says Zar-Kessler. “It takes a village to raise a child … well, this village cares about the moral compass of children. It doesn’t work because there’s some secret text somewhere that throws the switch. It works when you have everybody aligned on the same page.”
So you can be a member of a church, temple or mosque, private, public or religious school, but if you only devote an hour or so a week to moral development, it’s not going to work. Using the Malcolm Gladwell book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Back Bay Books, 2002) as a reference, Zar-Kessler describes the point when you put in the right level of instruction and connection to a community to integrate moral standards into a child’s life. “If you want your kids to grow up with a moral compass, invest 10,000 hours in whatever tradition works for you and you are going to have a kid with a moral compass.”
There are many ways for parents to take action in the modern world to give their children and family a moral example. It emanates from the desire that children learn right from wrong and how to operate in society in a way they can be proud of. Certainly community helps, as can religion. From there it’s about what you are comfortable with, what is logical and what you ultimately believe in.
“It’s very possible to raise caring, ethical compassionate children without any community,” says Maged. “Parents can share and model those values. But because there are so many wonderful communities organized around so many positive things, why would you not want to join [one] where children can see a whole range of people together acting for good?”
And what about the question of God, and the fear of a higher power looking down on the world and judging its inhabitants on how they behave? In Joseph’s opinion you have to rely on something bigger. “We say that we plant the seed and then God waters it. If you believe that everything is within your control and there’s nothing else guiding you, what is your hope?”
Others, like Maged, take a somewhat different perspective. “I think children come into the world generous and caring beings. If that is nurtured it will continue,” she says. “If you put enough fear and punishment into them you can produce short-term compliance, but I would like a child that grows up having chosen to do these things, wanting to do these things as a lifelong habit.”
To Zar-Kessler, religion is a mechanism that allows individuals to see their link in the chain of history and as a part of a greater story, and because of this it’s a winner. “I can’t convince someone, and nor would I want to, about the merits of one religion or another. What I am saying is religion in general links us to the grand story through time and the grand story beyond one’s self. And because it does that it solves the greatest problem of the modern world. The problem of alienation. One can feel connected.”
Parents wrestling with these difficult questions about how to raise their children to be moral and good, and wondering about the role religion, community and their own involvement plays, will benefit from taking the time to read books and articles, such as this one, and searching for answers from trusted sources. Chances are that if you are taking action, following your heart and letting your children follow their own, then you are doing things right. Higher power or not, we live in a society that can only be helped by more members having a stronger sense of morality. As parents, we can shape a brighter future by taking the lead in raising really good kids.
Brain Spero is a freelance writer and parent of a school-age son.