O.C. Parents Reclaim Their Beliefs for Children’s Sake : Religion: Baby-boomers hope training in values will give their offspring ‘moral armor’ in a dangerous world.
Eileen Bruchman, 36, a lapsed Catholic living in Mission Viejo, recalls that the day after a visit from her devout parents, her daughter asked innocently enough: “Are we Catholic?”
“I said, ‘No, we’re not.’ ”
“She said, ‘What are we?’
“I tried to explain to her, we are not part of any religion. When you come down to it, we believe in God.” Then she asked, ‘How do you know if there’s a God if you can’t see him?
“I said, ‘I just know there is one.’ ”
What and how to tell children about God and religion is a deeply felt, but often perplexing, issue for parents, according to The Times Orange County Poll on religion and beliefs, which interviewed 600 adults on a wide range of spiritual issues.
The poll, conducted by Mark Baldasare & Associates, found that almost nine in 10 county residents say it is “very important” or “somewhat important” that children receive religious training in a church or synagogue. Nearly all churchgoers--98%--feel that way.
Not only do parents want some “moral armor” to protect their children from an increasingly frightening world of drugs, crime, divorce and AIDS, but in many cases they are also seeking their own answers to the timeless, existential questions posed by youngsters.
For devout Jews, Muslims, Protestants or others who follow a traditional path, the issue of spiritual training for children is straightforward--it must be done. At the opposite pole, skeptics often have no pangs about doing nothing. But in a largely secular society, the issue presents a dilemma for the many parents who believe their children need religion more than the parents do.
Families often come face to face with the big religious questions--about life and death and what it all means--when a grandparent dies.
And so it is indeed the children who lead their parents into a theological thicket.
“I think most people, even secular people are going to be uncomfortable with the idea of having their children grow up without answers to these difficult questions,” said Anthony Brandt, a contributing editor of Parenting Magazine. “It’s very hard for any adult to face a young child of 5, and try to explain to that child that daddy or mommy doesn’t think that religion makes any sense.
“What are you going to say to a child who asks, ‘What happened to grandpa? That he just went into the ground and that was that? You want to comfort them. The religious way is the standard way.”
The Times Orange County Poll supports that view, finding that children provide a spur to church membership. Of families with children in the home, 58% belong to a church or temple, while in homes without children only 46% belong.
A similar point is made by sociologist Wade Clark Roof, professor of religion and society at UC Santa Barbara.
For the last three years, Roof has studied 1,400 baby-boomers in four states: California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Ohio. He has found that many fell away from religious institutions in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but now feel a minimal obligation to at least “expose” children to spiritual values. Of these lapsed churchgoers, his survey has found that 40% have returned not necessarily to a strong religious commitment, but more to explore what religious institutions might have to offer them.
Their talk about religion is quite vague, he said. Less than salvation or dogma, parents were seeking psychological-type guidance to help their children have a “good life” and be “good people,” Roof said.
Bruchman of Mission Viejo said she explored many religions as a young woman and renewed her search when she was 28, the year her daughter was born. But she said she repeatedly ran up against the same wall: a “morbid sense of condemnation” for wrongdoing in organized religions.
Now she believes you don’t have to go to church to raise children to be moral. “Good is good, bad is bad, and there are gray areas. If you’re a decent human being, you can figure it out,” she said.
So far, she said her daughter, 8, hasn’t expressed any need for religion. Bruchman is satisfied with a secular approach for her child.
If ever her daughter wanted to go to church, Bruchman said, she would encourage her husband to join them so that attending services could be a family event. But once her daughter reached 15, “I’d drop her off,” she said.
Some parents do solve the problem by dropping off their children at church or synagogue--or even having the nanny do it. At least one Baptist Church in Orange County sends buses out on Sunday mornings to round up children for Sunday school.
Many Jewish parents become concerned when their children start going to public school and return home talking about Jesus, said Rabbi Bernard King of Temple Shir Ha-Ma’Alot in Newport Beach. “They immediately join the temple and enroll them” in religious training.
King said he points out to the parents who send their kids, but don’t attend themselves, that they are making a “major statement.” Essentially, he says they are telling their children that religion is important--but does not have a high priority. He said the mixed message and the double standard dilute the effectiveness of religious training.
Some parents join a temple, but only until their child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. They are common enough to have earned the nickname “pediatric Jews.”
Said King: “I feel it’s better to give kids a solid grounding in certainly Judaism from my perspective, or Christianity or any other, which they may reject later. I think they’re healthier for it, rather than something wishy-washy. (Otherwise) Kids feel wishy-washy. Never quite grounded.”
Ty Rose, minister to children at the South Coast Community Church in Irvine, said most parents come to church with their children, but many are still seeking experts to provide the training.
More than 2,000 children come for religious training and other classes at his super church, designed for non-traditional families of the ‘90s. “Unfortunately with our families being so dual-income, and so many moms outside the home working, I think the time they have is limited. So they look for social institutions to pick up the ball,” Rose said.
However, he said: “Scripture says plainly the spiritual education of the child is the responsibility of the parent and the family. We are here to assist with that, but part of my view . . . is that much is learned by what is modeled in the home.”
Many parents, who themselves were dropped off at Sunday School by uninvolved parents, feel their children need religious training, but they are just not equipped to do it themselves, he said.
“We have a lot of people who come to us from little or no church background at all. So their kids don’t know some of the basics. Some kids don’t know who Jesus is.”
To make religion more appealing, Rose traded the term Sunday School three years ago for Discoveryland. The classes, he said, focus on discovering family, friends and nature, as well as God. He employs a mascot, a 6-foot-tall raccoon named Rex, to greet the children in Bible class.
Only occasionally, Rose said, has he had to remind parents not to use Discoveryland as a baby-sitting service.
Among traditional communities, however, the religious and moral indoctrination of children is paramount.
Muslims, for instance, are taught that it is a sin if their children do not receive such training, said Muzamil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Center of Orange County. “They will be responsible on the Day of Judgment if they have neglected their big duty, their children.
“Children are a gift of God, and the gift has to be properly nurtured,” Siddiqi said. “You have to take care of the physical needs of children, the educational needs of children and also their spiritual needs.” From the age of 5 or 6, children must learn to pray five times a day and read the Koran every day, he said.
On weekends, 600 children come to the Islamic School for further instruction. Those who can afford it send children full-time. There are 300 of these, and about 60 children come to the mosque daily to pray.
Traditional family beliefs motivate Maggie Jones, an interpreter and single mother in Irvine. “I believe 100% in my Catholic religion,” said Jones, who is a member of St. Elizabeth Anne Seton parish in Irvine.
“When you’re guiding a little tree and making it grow the way it’s supposed to, giving it the necessary food and tying it so it doesn’t go crooked, it becomes stronger. Once it is straight and strong, the tree is on its own. It’s the same with children.”
Last year, Jones’ three sons were enrolled in private Catholic schools. Even though they were on partial scholarships, she said, it was “a struggle. It’s a great part of my income.”
At school, they are required to perform community service as well as pray and attend Mass. At home they say prayers before dinner and at bedtime.
Local pastors and rabbis say that in the last five years they have seen the same return to churchgoing by baby-boomers as was found by sociologist Roof.
However, citing a new era of spirituality, these church leaders said in interviews that parents who fell away from traditional religion are returning with their children to services because they are taking their own spirituality more seriously.
Karen Fisher, 42, of Laguna Niguel, a former schoolteacher with a family of three children, said she was concerned seven years ago when she moved to Orange County and found few Jewish playmates for the children. “In this environment, there’s a need to identify with their roots and where they came from.”
Mirroring her own experience, she sent her children to Sunday school at Temple Beth El in Laguna Niguel, then Hebrew School, and Jewish summer camp in Malibu. Her 2-year-old is about to start Tot Shabbat, a half-hour religious preschool. The entire family lights candles on Friday nights and observes Jewish holidays at the temple and at home.
“I would never say you’re Jewish and you have to be Jewish. I just wanted them to be exposed to the meaning of those holidays and the plight of the Jewish people.
“It all leads to a strengthening of character and some sort of meaningful spiritual practice,” she says. “I’m proud to be who I am, proud to be Jewish, and want to help to give meaning to what I believe in.”
For her children, even some of the fabled Jewish guilt might not be so bad, she believes. As a UC Berkeley undergraduate in 1967, Fisher said she trod the straight and narrow path partly because she would have been dismayed to disappoint her parents.
“They were wonderful parents. They gave me so much support. If I hadn’t had that that strong moral, ethical upbringing, maybe I wouldn’t have had the guilt and maybe my life would have taken a different turn.”
On the other hand, Don Coulson, 59, of Orange said he deliberately brought his children up in an agnostic environment because of negative religious experiences. He said he was belted by a Christian teacher who permanently impaired his hearing and was sexually harassed by an Anglican priest. A recovering alcoholic, he calls himself the “higher power.”
“I always brought them up to believe in themselves and have confidence in their own abilities, objectivism if you will. I don’t believe they should be leaning on an emotional crutch like the church.”
His children are grown now, and though his two boys “have no truck with religion,” he said his daughter has a “religious bent” and is searching. If she goes to church now, he said, “That’s her problem, she’s a big girl.”
“In your opinion, how important is it that children receive religious training in a church or synagogue?” Very Important: 60% Somewhat Important: 26% Not Important: 13% Don’t know: 1%
Very important Somewhat important Not important Child at Home 64% 24% 12% Church-goers 88 10 1
Don’t know Child at Home * Church-goers 1
* Less than 1%
Source: 1991 Times Orange County Poll
A Look at the Series
Sunday: Religion and beliefs--a Times Orange County poll.
Monday: A look at full-service churches.
Tuesday: Rejecting the religious mainstream.
Today: The challenge for parents.
Thursday: The super-churches.
Friday: Mixing church and state.
How the Poll Was Conducted
The Times Orange County Poll, the most comprehensive poll ever taken on religious beliefs and practices in Orange County, was conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates. The telephone survey of 600 Orange County adult residents was conducted Oct. 4-7 on weekend days and weekday nights using a computer-generated random sample of telephone numbers. The margin of error is plus or minus 4%. For subgroups, such as church members, the margin would be larger.