the age of accountability

Tim has written an excellent, thought-provoking essay about the FLDS sect and their indoctrination of woman and children into the belief that it’s OK for a middle-aged man to “marry” and have sex with multiple underage “wives.” He points out that many religions offer their own indoctrinations of one sort or another, and he points out that in many Christian churches, very young children are encouraged to get up and proclaim their own personal relationship with Jesus. He ends his essay as follows:

Perhaps the members of the FLDS Church are afraid that if the girls were older, that they might choose to not marry 49 year-old men. Perhaps they might not choose to engage in that kind of lifestyle at all. Perhaps they would choose to think for themselves, instead of just falling mindlessly into behaviors that are so easily encouraged when a child is so young.

Perhaps Christians (like myself) are guilty of the same thing with spiritual issues.

I had no idea that children made “professions of faith” at age 5 or 7. But here’s the thing: kids that age also make “professions of faith” in Santa Claus. They’re raised in an environment where the adults around them tell tales of a big guy in a red suit who arrives by night with a sleigh full of toys; and sure enough, on Christmas morning, the toys are there. So of course they believe in Santa: the proof is under the tree, plus their parents told them this was The Truth. They’ll continue to believe until reason and common sense (or friends in the know) convince them otherwise.

Now I’ll use Christianity as an example, although I don’t mean to single it out. Take a small child who’s being raised in a Christian environment. The child’s parents tell them about the big guy in heaven and his son, and about all the wonders that befall those who Believe. It’s clear that having a “personal relationship with Jesus” is a Very Big Deal to the child’s family and friends. And sure enough, the child sees that when people get up in church on Sunday and talk about their relationship with Jesus, those folks get a lot of positive attention. The child knows that their parents expect them to announce their belief at some point. Maybe one of their friends has already made the trip to the altar and been subsequently showered with praise. So of course the child will do the same thing: all the evidence is that they’ll be rewarded for doing so, and their parents have told them that this is The Truth. They’ll continue to believe — how long? In some cases, forever. In other cases, until new people, new situations, or their own contemplation, convinces them to change their minds.

I go to a Unitarian Universalist church. We don’t have a specific creed or dogma; each member is free to determine their own spiritual path and individual belief structure. Our Sunday School classes teach the basics of all the major world religions, familiarizing our children with the history, major figures, and beliefs of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Humanism, and more. We stress to the kids that it will be up to them to determine what they believe.

But despite that broad education, the fact is that our kids also have a natural tendency to believe in the same things their parents do. My own children have grown up with a Humanist/Atheist mother and a Humanist father who has a vague sense of god as the life force that binds the world together. We’re very liberal Democrats. And surprise, surprise, our teenage kids have liberal beliefs about social issues, they’re Obama supporters, and my daughter is a professed Atheist.

My daughter is 16. I believe she’s mature enough to make a statement about her belief (or lack thereof). My son is 13; he’s still sorting out his thoughts, and I wouldn’t ask him to make a firm statement about where he stands on religion. I wouldn’t begin to ask a 5 or 7 year old for a real, permanent statement of their faith — just as they’ll say they believe in Santa, if you ask them about religion you’ll get a recitation of what they know their parents want to hear and whatever will get them the most positive attention.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Along similar lines, I expect this is why nationally, laws indicate that kids under 16 can’t legally consent to have sex; having raised a child to that age, I’ve definitely seen this age as a defining point in her growth and maturity. My almost-13 year old son is by no means anywhere close to being ready for the emotional or physical toll of a sexual relationship.

I consider it unconscionable for the FLDS sect to “marry” girls that age to men so much older; girls of 13 or 14 aren’t ready to give informed consent to sex with anyone, let alone a 40 or 50 year old man. I absolutely believe that those women and children go along with the program because domineering older men have embedded those thoughts in their heads from infancy on; and in their sequestered environment, they don’t know any other way. As Tim suggests, if the sect waited until the girls were mature enough to make their own choice, they would almost certainly resist the idea of a union with a vastly older partner they have no affection for.

If we all waited until our children were 16 before we mentioned our religious beliefs (or political stands, or any other strongly held opinions), then I think many people would be surprised and perhaps shocked at the outcome. If I presented the notion of Santa Claus to my daughter out of the blue today, she’d be very unlikely to believe. If a 16 year old who had never heard stories of any supernatural origin of the earth or been told of a supreme being were given an outline of Christianity’s fundamental tenets, including the 7-day creation, the virgin birth, the rising of the dead man, and so on, I think they’d be very unlikely to believe that, either.

But we all want our children to be like us, and to believe what we believe. I am a parent; thus I indoctrinate. The important difference between me (or my Christian friends) and people like those in the FLDS sect is that we’re trying to give our children positive, constructive beliefs that we think will help them lead good lives and be good people. The FLDS parents (and others in similar cults) are giving their children negative beliefs that encourage them to participate in harmful, destructive, even illegal behavior. As far as I’m concerned, their right to teach their children about their faith ends when child abuse begins.

5 responses to “the age of accountability

  1. My oldest son made the following observation about the questions of emotional maturity and our assessment in America:

    “Perhaps children are capable of much more than we in America train them to be ready to accept and deal with. Is it possible that in our culture, we insulate kids from a whole range of decisions that they might otherwise have to make, and might very well make successfully?”

    While I’m right there with you in regards to 13 year-old girls having intercourse with 49 year-old men, his comment did make me stop to wonder. A family counselor I once listened to said that one of the biggest mistakes we (humans) make is underestimating the ability of our loved ones to deal with difficult situations. I’m wondering if there may be something to this. – Tim

  2. There is so much beauty and truth to be found in parts of most religious teachings (and some shared ones, at that) that it would almost be abuse not to share this with children. The inappropriateness probably comes when we start to tell them too young (and in ways that even mature age cannot completely over-ride) which of the religions themselves to follow.

  3. Maybe because I grew up in a house with some religious confusion is the reason I can make up my own mind now. I grew up in a home where questioning was valued. My parents saw it as a way to strengthen ones beliefs and find new ones if something turned out to be wrong. Dinner table conversations could well be civil debates which we observed or chimed into if we could add something. I found what’s right for me. My sister has found what’s right for her. That’s a debt of gratitude I owe my parents. And I dare say it’s one your children will owe you and your husband.

  4. How appropriate it is to read this entry tonight, after an experience earlioer today, during my stint in the Info Booth at the Louisville Science Center! Among the 600 school children who visited the Center today, we had a very large contingent from the Christian Academy (sorry I don’t know which campus, but many were wearing red polo shirts with a small, tasteful CA logo). One adult sporting a “Chaperone” name tag came to my booth, trailed by a dozen or so pupils who looked to be 3rd or 4th graders, and asked, “We only have about an hour — which exhibits do you suggest we see?” When I recommended they start on the third floor, with the World Within Us — a wonderful array of interactive, hands-on learning experiences about the human body — the adult said, “Oh, no, we’re supposed to avoid that section.” Thinking I must have heard wrong, I asked what she meant. She showed me a computer printout of the field trip’s schedule, and there in large, bold-letter, underlined print, was the command, AVOID THE WORLD WITHIN US!!
    Now, there are two possible areas which might have caused this action on the school’s part. One is a display of fetal development from conception to full term. The other is a small area about birth control. Both areas are away from the main traffic pattern, so that you almost have to hunt for them. But they’re there, and this presence is apparently enough to make the entire floor off-limits to impressionable young minds. What if the children should ask questions? What if they began to wonder? But by avoiding the whole exhibit, classes miss some excellent lessons about the dangers of smoking, drugs, and alcohol; and about disease prevention and healthful living. In my 13 years as a Science Center volunteer, this was my first encounter with such censorship by a school’s administration. No wonder this blog entry was a perfect, albeit discouraging, tie-in for my day.

  5. afm: Scary. Very, very scary. This is the kind of head-in-the-sand behavior that I absolutely don’t understand.

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