Teach Your Children To Think: Kids, skepticism, and safety
I was in church, preparing to speak at a Lenten service, when my wife called me with the wonderful news about Elizabeth Smart's safe return. At the moment, we don't know much more than the fact that she is alive and well, but the news got me to thinking about children and their safety. It's very possible that none of the following thoughts are relevant to her case, but her return inspired me to share some advice about teaching your children to stay safe.
A friend of mine once told me that during her teenage years, she lived in terror of cults and charismatic preachers. She couldn't figure out why -- couldn't articulate the reason for this fear. All she knew is that she felt an extreme level of vulnerability to cults of any kind.
When she got older and more self-aware, she realized that she had been raised in an environment where questioning was not allowed -- not her parents, not her teachers, and especially not her pastors. She had been taught that respect equalled unquestioning loyalty, and questioning was the same as betrayal and rejection.
Unfortunately, this kind of teaching has become more common, not less. Some religions teach that if you ask even the simplest questions, then your faith (and, presumably, God) will unravel like a cheap suit. In teaching children, they emphasize obedience instead of love, mercy or kindness.
This was the environment experienced by my friend. And on some level, she could sense that she was very susceptible to recruitment by a cult.
Luckily, she managed to avoid recruitment, although she came within a hair's-breadth of becoming a "Moonie." Her parents ordered her to come home just in the nick of time, but it never occurred to them that her spiritual training needed some work.
Sometimes, parents feel like they are in a never-ending power struggle with their kids. In many ways they're right -- kids constantly test boundaries, and then they develop a massive case of "Smart Mouth" until you just want to scream. So I can imagine an exhausted parent looking at me and asking, "And you want me to encourage this?? Get away from me!"
No. That's not what I'm saying.
According to the experts (CSJ.org) these are some of the characteristics of people who are susceptible to brainwashing, mind control or cult recruitment:
1. Inability to say no
2. Inability to express doubt or criticism
3. Not able to question what one is told
4. Need for absolute answers
When your child is driving you crazy with questions, try to resist the temptation to finally yell, "Because I said so, that's why!" (I acknowledge that this will not always be possible.) Try not to teach your child to blindly accept what they are told. Questioning, reasoning, and criticising what is said is not dangerous or disloyal -- on the contrary, those are the tools that help children develop into rational, strong, self-confident adults.
Don't just tell your kids what to believe. Tell them why you believe it. Teach them to demand reasons and evidence, so they have some fundamental principles, some bedrock on which their beliefs can rest. For example, there is no excuse for the fact that my friend had not been taught the difference between the teachings of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Moonies. Any decent religious classes should have taught her how to discern false prophets from the Real Thing. But she wasn't the only one with a deficient spiritual education. Thousands of people joined cults back then, and thousands of people join cults today.
There are too many organizations that practice a "Believe what I tell you, don't ask why, and give me your checkbook" philosophy. Members of those organizations are vulnerable to any convincing, charismatic person who comes along. Strive to teach your children differently, so if they are ever confronted by a cult recruiter, their instinct will be, "that doesn't quite sound right, so I'd better go check it out, goodbye."
This questioning attitude can be a life-saver. Law enforcement experts report that pedophiles still lure young children with the simplest lies, like "Your mom told me to pick you up from school." Instead of teaching obedience, parents should work to teach healthy questioning, so your child would think, "Wait a minnit, mommy never said anything about not picking me up, and I've never seen this person before, so I'm gonna go ask my teacher."
Strong values, real values, will stand up to questioning, just like a strong, real religious faith. In fact, the questioning will make the values stronger, and make your child stronger for knowing them.
You can't be with your child every minute of every day. But if you teach your child properly, they'll carry your values with them, and will be much more resistant to the next charlatan that comes along.