Thursday, January 21, 2010

Buddhist Children? What to do about Budddhism with the Kids

John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt posted his thoughts about raising children in a Buddhist context. In particular, he very clearly rejected overtly teaching children Buddhism in a way that indoctrinates them.

Western Buddhist Centers that want to provide some child care is fine but when it is something that involves religious indoctrination it makes me ill. I know that this is going to come off as insulting but when I think of anyone of any tradition or religion telling my daughter what to believe it makes me physically ill.

First, here's what Merriam-Webster has to say about indoctrination.

Main Entry: in·doc·tri·nate
Pronunciation: \in-ˈdäk-trə-ˌnāt\
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): in·doc·tri·nat·ed; in·doc·tri·nat·ing
Etymology: probably from Middle English endoctrinen, from Anglo-French endoctriner, from en- + doctrine doctrine
Date: 1626

1 : to instruct especially in fundamentals or rudiments : teach
2 : to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle

Now, what I would like to say is that I am a member of a "Western Buddhist Center" that places a heavy emphasis on working with children. We have a fully-functioning bi-weekly program for children of all ages, with classes broken down by grade level that work on basic Buddhist teachings through discussion, play, art, and even some meditation and chanting. Is it indoctrination? Yes, in the sense of definition number 1 above. Part of the problem with the word indoctrination is that it's meaning is so broad, almost any learning environment could be said to be indoctrinating.

John writes, "We (my wife and daughter) are a family but we are not Buddhist and I don’t want to raise or convert anyone to Buddhism. I don’t want to raise a religion. I want to raise a person. A free-thinker. An individual."

Before I joined our board of directors, I was a teacher in the 2nd-3rd grade class at our meditation center. I loved working with kids this age because they are inquisitive, active, and haven't given in yet for the most part to softening the answers they give, or the questions they ask. I watched parents struggle with the bluntness that occurred at times, but I felt it was wonderful to have kids sharing stories with each other about what they loved, what they hated, death, animals, bugs, going to the bathroom, and, well, you get the drift. We had a very simply chant to open the class that was basically a vow to take care of each other, animals, the planet, and our toys (gotta remember those toys, right?). A few of the kids didn't want to chant, or would make up their own words, but to me, it was most important that we do something together to mark off the time as our group's time. That's a value of ritual, even a simple one that takes 30 seconds. If you consider me a tyrant for imposing a bit of ritual on those classes, so be it.

I sometimes wonder if much of Buddhist practice is going to survive here in North America because we're so hellbent on maintaining our individuality that we can barely see the value of community. In fact, I'd argue that most of us have a deep longing for community that competes with this individualism, and this is partly why it's been so difficult to develop healthy "brick and mortar" sanghas. I also think this issue plays out in a slightly different way in the online Buddhist community. Specifically, the desire to be right, to make a great point about practice, sometimes trumps sharing space with others and working together to come to a greater understanding about an issue.

John's distaste for the controlling, life numbing methods of religious instruction seen in some of the monotheistic communities of North America is something I share. And yet, at the same time, if a parent practices Buddhism, or any spiritual tradition, the child will be influenced. There's no way around it. Why is it wrong for the sangha the parents attend to provide classes for their children?

What I find with the parents at our center is that they want to practice and have their family. They don't want to divide everything up, disappearing to do their zen thing for a few hours a week, and then trying to run a household the rest of the time. They also want their children to spend time in a community that isn't their school. But mostly they just want to be with their kids, and not have to shuttle them around whenever they want to go to Sunday service, or take a class.

At the end of John's post, he quotes a comment that a mother who practices Buddhism left on another blog about raising children. She writes:

Whenever we are trying to impose anything – a way of thinking, a belief system, the expectation of an outcome – it is not satisfactorily resolved. We resolve this question only through our own practice, as we let go of the notion that there is anything dogmatic that will benefit either ourselves or our children. Satisfied with things as they are, we can be ourselves, and let our children grow up to be themselves as well, each of us on a path that is entirely our own

I think it's worth striving for not imposing your views on your children, but let's face it: parents impose things on their children, sometimes even without knowing. I'd even say the desire to raise a child as a free thinker could become an imposition if the children becomes dogmatic about something in a way that the parents consider wrong or destructive. Even teaching basic safety, healthy habits, and respect for other requires that a parent stop their children from doing and thinking things to the contrary. Sure, these issues are different than religious teachings, but I don't think there is a clear cut answer to the question of indoctrination posed by John and also raised by the mother in the quote above.

The way I see it, it's fine to skip the overtly Buddhist teachings if that works for your family. And I also think it's fine if you want to have your children in an overtly Buddhist program. I'm well aware that the complexities of every family means a different approach in every family. But I have to wonder if some of the concerns about indoctrination are coming from memories of Sunday Schools or their equivalents.


Anonymous said...

Nice post! And I agree that it is up to the family on how they raise their children. I don't scoff at people who prefer a religious education but I do see a possibility of danger there.

To stress the non-doctrinal aspects of Buddhist practice, I think, is to stress the positive of any religion. That is fine. But I have taught for a number of years (in a secular environment) and get to whitness first hand how harmful indoctrination can be. Children grasp at absolutes and there is no reason to play that in a way where they become so attached to one view that all others fall to the wayside.

I was raised in a largely Christian household but one that showcased that there are many ways of spiritual release and one that emphasized understanding before judgement.

If you can temper doctrine with compassion then I think you would do the job well.

I am already getting crap for this post elsewhere that is not so nicely framed as yours, Nathan!



Robyn said...

Oh - interesting topic! And one that is playing out everyday in our household...I may have to blog about it too!

I think there are relationships between general education for children, and how that is presented, and how religious education is presented. I don't think you can separate religion out very clearly.

Hmmm, so many thoughts on two of my favourite topics!

zendotstudio said...

Interesting discussion. I think from observing my daughter growing up, it seems kids learn most from what they see people doing, not by all the things we say.

But it is more complicated than that, every child is different, every parent, every situation. We all know people who rebelled against family enforced religion.

Each parent gets to carefully consider (or not) what they do and then the outcome takes its course. If there is Buddhist practice and meditation going on in the house in some way it will impact the children. When they're little they might like to sit with you and when they're teenagers they might roll their eyes at their "wacky" parents. But you never really know where it will go. I think as parents we are always doing the best we can and sometimes we make mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Since you've quoted me within your post, I hope you don't mind if I elaborate. I am a Zen priest, a wife and a mother. For those whose Buddhist practice is more doctrinal or philosophical, it may seem quite natural to share teachings, explore questions and arrive at answers. I practice to liberate myself from that. My daughter has never been excluded from my sangha or our programs; in fact, it functions as her home away from home. Having my own child has made me acutely aware, however, of how tempting it is to "teach" something to a child purely to serve my own agenda. I always respond to her questions but as yet she has had no questions about Buddhism, and her view of life and its mysteries seems as genuine as my own. I ran a children's program at my Zen Center for four years. Alas, the children were great, but no parents stuck around to practice!

Algernon said...

Also worth mentioning is the teaching method employed at a Buddhist "Sunday School" program. A dialogical method would not be indoctrination, except perhaps an indoctrination to think for oneself and ask questions.

We don't have to 'teach' the kids anything. We can present a jataka tale or something similar that presents a question or suggestion from Buddhist tradition, and engage the children in a dialogue that gets them talking about what they think or asking their own questions.

Nathan said...

Hi Karen,

"For those whose Buddhist practice is more doctrinal or philosophical, it may seem quite natural to share teachings, explore questions and arrive at answers. I practice to liberate myself from that."

I'm not quite sure what you mean by liberate yourself from "that."

If you mean coming to a set of pat answers with children, I'd say Yes, let's be liberated from that. In fact, from what I've seen in my own sangha's children's programs, that's exactly what is happening. Questions are explored, but answers aren't drawn like lines in the sand.

I can understand your caution about wanting to "teach" children something, and I can imagine there are plenty of people out there doing so. But running a children's program in a Buddhist center need not be that way.

In addition, as a member of Gen X, and a leader in my sangha, I look around all the time and wonder if it's all going to collapse in fifteen or twenty years. Maybe that's fine, and maybe that's what is going to happen regardless, but it does seem a bit strange to me that a lot of Buddhist parents seem skittish about talking directly with their kids about their own spiritual life. I don't understand that. It doesn't matter to me if you call it Buddhism or mindfulness or whatever - but passing on the teachings is important in my opinion, and it can't be done by just loving our children in my opinion.

nonlocalbeing said...

Nathan says:
“It does seem a bit strange to me that a lot of Buddhist parents seem skittish about talking directly with their kids about their own spiritual life. I don't understand that. It doesn't matter to me if you call it Buddhism or mindfulness or whatever—but passing on the teachings is important in my opinion, and it can't be done by just loving our children in my opinion.”

Related to this, I heard a sangha member speculate that the present aimlessness of her grown children resulted from her failure to provide a spiritual framework for them as they grew up. (I presume she came to Buddhism later.)

The same regret nags me. I felt I had nothing to offer my children spiritually. I myself was struggling to find meaning in life and did not wish to contaminate them with my deep doubts. I struggled to "figure it out" so that I could pass on to them what I had found. Funny thing: it turns out there's nothing to figure out. Too late.…

We haven't heard from our oldest son in ten years. I try to soothe myself with the fantasy—and I have at least some evidence to support this hypothesis—that, like the prince who leapt over the palace wall, he's on his own spiritual quest. Anyway, this is better than thinking that he's into something harmful to himself and others. So I think Nathan's right—just loving our children isn't enough.

About a week ago I was engaged in conversation with a group that included a brother and sister (maybe 13 and 16 years old) who are growing up with Buddhist teachings. Their emotional maturity amazed me, even humbled me. It seems to me they're on the right path. Learning how our minds work does not to me equate with indoctrination.

For an idea of how children's practice works at Clouds in Water Zen Center, check out past issues of the Dewdrop Digest.