Wednesday, February 09, 2011


What to teach children

On Tuesday, a local radio talk show hosted by Brian Lehrer included a call-in segment about sleep-over parties for children. It seems that some parents don’t allow their children to host or to attend them. Who knew? The guest for the segment was a pediatrician called Perri Klass.

I wasn’t especially interested in the topic (and some of the commentors on the web page agree in ridiculing tones), and I’m not especially interested in talking about it here. But I happened to be in my car and I heard it... and what did interest me was the last caller, Max in Larchmont. Here’s my transcript starting at about 12:35 into the audio stream:

Max: I’m calling because I’m wondering if the doctor has heard about people having problems with religious and political differences. I have three kids, and when they sleep over at other people’s houses, especially if they’re religious... my wife and I, we teach our children that religion is a pernicious force in the world, and is a terrible thing, and sometimes the parents of other kids get upset if my kids tell them that while they’re doing their prayers or something.

Lehrer: Well, while they’re doing their prayers may not be very nice. But, all right, so how do you handle it... Max, how do you handle it?

Max: We just... I don’t know if the doctor agrees, I think children should be legally shielded from religion until they’re sixteen. I think it’s crazy to expose children to superstitious ideas like that; it makes them dumb. And I think a lot of the kids are swayed when my kids meet their kids and they stop going to Hebrew school and so forth, and I think that’s a good thing.

Lehrer: Thank you, Max. Doctor Klass, any response?

Klass: Well, I’ll just make a general response, which is that if you’re gonna let your children go over to other people’s houses, either for sleep-overs or during the day, you’re gonna have to teach ’em to be good guests. Leaving aside your politics and leaving aside your religious issues, if you’re going to go into somebody’s house and you’re going to accept their hospitality, part of growing up is learning to be a good and respectful guest. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to agree with things that you absolutely don’t agree with, and it doesn’t mean you have to necessarily join in practices which aren’t yours, but you do have to learn how to be polite, or, in the great way of the world, you won’t be invited back.

Some of the last batch of comments talk about Max’s call (unfortunately, they’re not numbered, but start with MP from Brooklyn at 11:58, and read up from there). Some think it’s a prank call, and not real. Some support the attitude (Robin from NYC, YZ from Brooklyn). One, Samantha from Sunny Riverdale seems to think the kids should be shunned for their parents’ attitude. That certainly seems the good, Christian thing to do, eh?

I agree with Max: as I’ve said many times, I consider religious indoctrination to be tantamount to child abuse. Teaching children made-up nonsense as truth, whether it be...

  • about Xenu the space dictator abducting his citizens, bringing them to Earth, and then killing them by blowing up volcanoes, or
  • about Apollo driving his chariot across the sky, carrying the sun through the day, or
  • about a talking snake convincing a primordial couple to sin by eating the wrong fruit, or
  • about a virgin who had been separated from that original sin giving birth to God’s son, who was then tortured to death but rose from the dead to rule in heaven, or
  • about Isildur defeating Sauron and severing his finger (and ring) in the Battle of Dagorlad, ludicrous, and, yes, often makes them dumb. It certainly ill prepares them to think critically, when we demand that they accept preposterous stories without question, simply because it is written, it’s God’s word, and they must have faith. We spend far too much time either actively promoting belief in fantasy or passively allowing it to interfere with the education we need to be giving children — see, for example, this article.

All that said, though, I agree with Dr Klass: we don’t call people our friends, go to their houses, eat their food, sleep in their beds, and tell them, while we’re there, that their beliefs are stupid and ridiculous. Whatever we think, and however public we are about it otherwise, when we’re invited to people’s homes we make a choice: we decline the invitation if we’re unwilling to be civil, or we accept the invitation and stay clear of things that we know will upset them.

And, so, it’s a pity that Max and his wife have what I think is an admirable approach to teaching their children sense and reason... and yet have chosen not to teach them civility and the polite behaviour of a guest.

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