Hell, Hell is for Children

This Thanksgiving, Nate and I found ourselves seated at the children’s table.

This is a great idea for Nate. This is a bad idea for anyone in the room who would prefer to enjoy dinner without hearing a resounding chorus of the Spongebob Squarepants theme song as the turkey is served.

Nate was teasing a sweet little five year-old, our host’s goddaughter, about something or other, when she suddenly folded her arms across her chest, jutted out her lower lip, and exclaimed,

You said something mean to me! You’re not going to heaven!

Now of all the people to say this to.

I was worried that Nate would respond by going off on a rant to a preschooler about heaven being a fabrication of man, created as part of a master plan from corrupt religious institutions to usurp power from the masses blah blah blah…but he showed remarkable restraint. In fact, it was me who demolished the awkward pause in the room with a (equally awkward) comment about how, since they were Catholic, at least we could say we were sorry before we die and then all will be forgiven. The little girl’s mom laughed. Her aunt, not so much. But then, she was still sore with me for my earlier Bush joke. A Bush fan in the New York metro area! Mea culpa – I didn’t know such a thing existed.

I hadn’t thought much about the incident again until yesterday, when I read Julie’s thought-provoking post at the Imperfect Parent about using the expression “oh my God” in front of children who have been told that this is a biblical violation. And I started wondering about religion and morality in children.

(Now in the spirit of disclosure: I’m not entirely reverent when it comes to institutional religion. I’m not quite as antagonistic as my sigOth, but I did do a little riff here a few months back on evangelical ice cream truck drivers that might not sit well with some of my more devout Mormon-in-laws. Extreme beliefs in any form make me uncomfortable, and I admit I include a five year old’s ability to quote bible verses in that category.)

Based on this little girl’s remark, I’m wondering whether the concept of hell–or at least not going to heaven–is used by religious school teachers as sort of an eternal naughty chair, a threat to keep kids in check: Be nice to your sister or you won’t go to heaven. Stop picking your nose or you won’t go to heaven. Scratch mommy’s back or you won’t go to heaven.

It certainly seems an easier way to parent than, say, telling your kid he won’t go to his Little League World Series. Make good on that threat and he hates you. But who can he hate if you tell him he won’t enter the pearly gates in 2096? God? St Peter? The Lucky Charms guy?

Then I started to think about (and I know, I’m getting on a bit of a slippery slope here) whether there’s actually any downside in instilling a moral code in children that’s based on eternal reward and punishment. Isn’t it enough to be good for goodness sake? Can’t children learn to be kind, be responsible, be charitable, because It’s the Right Thing To Do, and not just because when you die you’ll get to play with kittens and eat ice cream all day?

Don’t we have faith enough in our own inner moral compasses–and in those of our children?


I’d like some other perspectives on this.


73 thoughts on “Hell, Hell is for Children”

  1. I had a similar reaction once when a young female relative asked me (and my kids) why we didn’t listen to Christian music. It also reminds me of a good friend whose nieces and nephews were homeschooled fundamentalists. One day while he was driving them around town they passed a street that had a bar on the corner. One of the kids piped up with, “THAT’S the place where the sinners go!!” I was stunned that young children had been programmed to judge others in such a manner…not to mention the fact that, despite what their holy book teaches, they didn’t consider themselves to be sinners.When kids say stuff like this you know it’s because they’re been brainwashed into saying it. It’s tempting to say something back, but then you have to realized you’re arguing with someone who isn’t really allowed to think for himself/herself. And adult is another thing. Of course, in your case, the kid made a judgement about your–ahem–final destination and in my book, them’s fightin’ words. I might have said to the child, “Well…fortunately for me, you’re not God and you don’t get to decide what happens to anybody.” But that’s me. I’m a bitch.

  2. I hadn’t really thought about this before but, now that you mention it, I think using the threat of Eternal Damnation is much more powerful than “no ice cream for you.” Thanks for the parenting tip, Liz. Can’t wait to try it out!

  3. My friend, who was often in trouble in elementary school, said he pictured heaven as a place with all of the “good” children sitting in rows like at school. That didn’t appeal to him at all. So all that Catholic school talk about going to heaven can have the opposite effect sometimes.

  4. I remember being in 3rd grade, and my best friend and I were reading a book about a girl living through the Holocaust and being in a concentration camp. It was an amazing experience for me to read that. My friend said, “it’s too bad she’s going to hell.” I asked why, and she said, “because she’s Jewish. Only Christians that are saved by Jesus Christ will go to heaven.” Ever since then, I’ve had a problem with religion.Obviously this girl’s parents and church taught her that. I NEVER want to teach my child intolerance and how to judge others. I don’t want to say to my kid, you did XYZ so you’re going to hell, because that’s teaching him to judge and condemn others.

  5. Liz, what a great, thought-provoking post! (If I had a nickel for every time I lamely type that here, but still mean it every time nonetheless.) Anyway, I often think about this very issue, and it’s one of the big problems I have with some organized religions (the heaven-hell reward system, that is). Once, while visiting my Southern Baptist half-siblings in Alabama (who only share DNA with me, really), my half-brother got all in my face: “Do you believe Jesus Christ died to save your soul?” Age 21 at the time, I hadn’t given much thought to the issue. I shrugged. “I guess so.” He nearly spat back, “Good! Because if you don’t, you’re going straight to hell!”Later I thought that if only people like him populated heaven, it didn’t seem like a really groovy place to end up anyway.

  6. Adam and I are both agnostic. We’re totally open to other religions, but what we’re not down with is preaching- to us or Hugo. We believe in doing good things, not because you think it gets you somewhere or because it makes YOU feel good, but for respect. If you are not a good person, you do not respect yourself or anyone around you.As for threatening the safety of a child’s eternity due to a behaviorial issue, well, I wish that all of us were so perfect as to avoid the firey hell that awaits us for pinching our sibling. Eeek!

  7. Even if the parent totally believes the Christian heaven/hell extremes, I think it cheapens the meaning of goodness to threaten your kids with God’s punishments for squabbling. Doesn’t God have more important things to referee? There are millions of hungry people that could use some help.

  8. hmmmm interesting theory. I think I agree with what you thought your sigOth was gonna say to the child about heaven being a fabrication of man, created as part of a master plan from corrupt religious institutions to usurp power from the masses…bla bla bla….however……my motto so far as a parent is “Whatever Works!” So ya never know what I might use to stop a 2 year old from doing something naughty! LOL I mean hey, we say that they should be good or Santa isn’t going to come, and he’s not real….so why not!!

  9. This is why I’m a Catholic and could never be a fundamentalist (of any religion)…the “unless you are born-again you’re going to hell” talk is really ridiculous to me. I guess generations of my family will be waiting for us in a hell of the born-again’s making.Anyways, just a little correction – Catholics don’t believe that merely saying “I’m sorry” (by that I guess you meant confession) sins are forgiven. The point is to acknowledge that you have done something wrong and make a real change. You know, be a good person. Yes, there is a ritual, and that is what people see in the movies, but you can say all the Hail Marys you want and it means nothing unless you reflect and make an effort to change. On a lighter note, I feel your pain. We were thrown at the children’s table for the first time this year at our friend’t Thanksgiving, and it was hell.He he.

  10. I’ll tell you, my parents were both force fed a lot of religion and decided not to do it to us. Which was easy for them, since it was two completly different religions which wouldn’t have worked together and well they didn’t believe in any of it anyway. So I wasn’t forced to believe in any of it and I was never told that I would go to heaven if I was good. But I was taught to be kind and respectful and that every man has a purpose in this world, even the assholes. I grew up to be a pretty normal person, you know except for my killing kittens policy. So I guess in answer to your question, you can teach kids to be good, just to be good, without the threats of a supposed heaven. Oh and just so you know, I had a cousin who at 5 years old told me I was going to hell because I hadn’t been baptised. Well at 14 I was shocked that she’d say that, but I decided I didn’t care so I let it go. Now she’s 18 and she’s not so religious anymore. And her parents still are, so I guess what I’m saying is you can teach your kids whatever you want, it doesn’t mean they’ll believe you past the age of 10.

  11. Certainly I’m probably not the right person to voice my opinion here, as I have been an atheist since the 8th grade, but I actually think it’s abominable to use Heaven and Hell as a parenting tool even if you ARE a Christian. I try to lead by example by being a good person, following basic rules of public decency and humanity. I try to be as generous as I can and I definitely follow the golden rule. (Although, can I just say that nobody ever does unto me as I do unto them? Probably because I’m a heathen.)Anyway, I agree. Be good because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re afraid of the afterlife. That’s a horrible way to live.And I try never to say “oh my God” in front of my kids if I can help it. We’re an “oh my goodness” kind of family. I’d prefer to keep the god discussion to later in their life if at all possible. Indiana is not the best place to grow up atheist.

  12. Talk about a good way to ruin your child psychologically for life. Think about all the sexual and practical dysfunctions that people suffer because of the messages about sin and hell that play in their heads!As far as I’m concerned, hell is a state of mind.

  13. As the product of 12 years of Catholic school, I was taught to fear God rather than love God (by the nuns that threatened me to eternal damnation daily). Now, I’d like to think of myself as a pretty moral person, albeit I indulge in drinking a little too much, but I think that is a direct result from this “fear of God” indoctrination as a child. And I don’t agree with this method, just telling the truth. I’m older now, so I do nice things because I want to be a nice person, but as a child, it was all about doing the right thing in God’s eyes. Not because it was just the right thing to do. Needless to say, I DON’T plan on sending my kids to Catholic school, because I plan to teach them on my own how to develop their moral compass by demonstration rather than intimidation.

  14. Neither me nor my partner consider ourselves to be religious. We are undecided on the whole God thing. This summer, when my father died, I sure wished we could resort to the idea of heaven in explaining it to our son. It’s a lot harder to give comfort while explaining the process of cremation or decomposition. That said, I do believe there are basic values that further humanity. We do our best to work on those. Kindness, respect, generosity, charity, etc. I don’t want to incite a riot here but I often think of that bumper sticker that says The Moral Majority is Neither. I don’t think those of us raising our children in a more secular fashion should cede the higher ground to those who are religious. You can be a moral person and not a religious person despite what mainstream America may think these days.

  15. Jesus does not really figure in our household. Again, not because we’re devout atheists, but neither of us feels comfortable with that side of things (and so cop out entirely by avoiding the issue all together). Lately, though, I’ve wished I had a heaven to fall back on. When I was his age, I at least had that. My son, Jack, is becoming quite obsessed with death, and specifically the finality of it. Having a heaven to conjure up as the lovely place where dead cats and relatives go would be very convenient. But for now he is stuck with the cold, stark facts of death being final. So far he does not seem to perturbed. We’ll see…Oh, and if Jack said something like that (and he’s uttered his share of awful things, believe me) religion or not, we’d have *words* about being rude (and what is ruder than condemning someone to eternal damnation?)

  16. Um. Don’t get me started. Teaching a child to fear life is to me the greates parenting fuck-up there is and I think bribing a child with “heaven” if they cross their legs and “stick to the laws and rules and NO SINNING” is sickening and binding.That being said, growing up in a family of reformed jews, christian scientists and athiests, I always thought heaven was a crock of shit and never understood why anyone wanted to go there at all. It seemed like such a boring place. You get to sit on a cloud with God for eternity and do nothing? Um, THAT’S HEAVEN? That’s what happens if people “are good”? Even as a little girl heaven was never something I “got”. Even all those summers at Christian Camp (my BF’s Dad was a pastor and FYI, I stopped going when he told me my Dad was going to hell for being a Jew. I also never stepped foot in a church again after that and have major issues with Christianity but that’s a whole ‘notha story.)And still, if I think about it running from devils sounds like more fun than sitting on a cloud in a white robe…. but that’s just me. The whole “you’re not going to heaven, Becca!” would have never worked for me. I’ve always looked better in black, anyway.

  17. I believe in God and in Heave and Hell, but it’s never occurred to me to threaten my child with going to hell or categorising people into sinners and non-sinners. Christianity is just a normal part of our lives, but we don’t pray in tongues at home… I will continue reading bible stories to my little one though and make sure he has an understanding of what we believe in so he can make up his mind about these things when he’s old enough.

  18. I’d rather her be kind and charitable because it’s the right thing to do, not to receive a reward.Plus, is it really a reward? All the interesting people are in hell.

  19. It’s worth keeping in my that children are natural dogmatists – you can do your best to inculcate a subtle, nuanced view, but that’s not going to stop a 5-year-old from seeing the appeal of sending her uncle to hell for bad behaviour. I remember when I was 11 or so I went on a real rampage about the evils of abortion, trying to get my mom on board with my crusade. I was taken aback by her lack of enthusiasm – didn’t she want to stop the evil killing of babies? She didn’t talk me out of my position, but she also made it clear that she didn’t share my absolutist view – and that stayed with me for years, as I developed the capacity to recognize the complexity of the issue.All of which is to say that a child who talks about hell is not necessarily reproducing her parents’ teachings verbatim. Good vs. evil, reward vs. punishment – these are issues children perceive very starkly. They’re not really going to grasp the full theological implications of the doctrine of grace (which is not exactly the same as pie in the sky or cosmic karma) until they’re at least, oh, twelve or thirteen.

  20. EGADS. I have goosebumps from reading that. That kind of stuff makes me nuts because kids don’t know better– it’s all put in there by their parents. I can only picture Nate’s face as he silently flipped through responses in his head. A few months ago I had a similiar experience when my nephew whispered to me during dinner, “Aunt Karen, I don’t want you TO LIE to L-man about Santa.” I nearly fell off my chair, since we are all well aware of our sister-in-law’s all-out-war on the Santa tradition. The rest of the family applauded my calm and the response I somehow crafted out of the air, rather than what I wanted to say, which was, “And I don’t want my son to miss out on the magic of Christmas just because I don’t know how to deal with my OWN childhood baggage, but you’ll need talk to your mom about that.”I think Queen Haline hit the nail on the head with “hell is a state of mind.” As a semi-practicing Catholic, I’m still trying to figure out how I balance what I REALLY believe with what is taught to us by the church. Very different ideals, indeed.

  21. Do you think my daughter and myself are both going to hell because every chance she gets she blurts out “Jesus Kwyst”? Oh boy. I think we may be in big trouble.It’s interesting you should mention the reward/punishment philosophy. Although I don’t claim to be an expert in Montessorism (I just made that one up!)I just read that they don’t advocate it in their teaching.Instead, this article states, “Authentic motivation (to be good, to behave, to learn, to achieve)comes from within each person and is not determinded by outside rewards or penalties.” I would most certainly hope that we can raise our children to WANT to be their best selves because it feels good to do so (for Goodness Sake indeed). Now, I’m debating whether to mention that the header on the Montessori Mag is, “What Would Maria Do?”. Hmmm. Could there be another debate here?

  22. I have no deep insight here because the profound lack of religion in our household would never prevent our seven year old from saying something like, “If you’re a Christian, you’re going to hell for that.”

  23. I’m a bit of a screw up. I’m a lapsed Catholic, who I suppose is mostly agnostic, but also has profound respect for people who actually have faith (rather than exhibit it on their sleeve).I was listing to a segment about this pentacostal minister on NPR, and it gives me hope that eventually, maybe not in my lifetime or my kids’ but eventually, people will realize there’s more to faith than what it can get them in the next life. It’s about what it can free people of while we’re here.http://www.newdimensions.us/content.cfm?id=2010The guy was called a heretic because, as a pentacostal minister, he suddenly lost his belief in hell as it was interepreted by his peers and ancestors. He realized the interpretation was all wrong and he began preaching that hell is on Earth, and in continuing to preach hell fire and brimstone for the unsaved, he was in essence comparing GOD to someone infinately worse that the Nazis: Someone who would subject innocent people to the same and worse tortures for all of eternity.But no one comes to church, apparently, if there aren’t afraid not to. … sad really.

  24. It’s always the progressive, enlightened ones who are supposed to forgive and to embrace all ways of thinking. I’m glad that you recognize that that’s what’s gotten us into so much trouble in this country lately. “Live and let live” is not longer the mantra for our times. Instead, it’s “live the way I tell you to live.” Or else. Region-as-political dogma has split us into factions, and it’s gonna take a heap of courage to get us out of this one. I’m so proud to read this post. You done good, girl, not simply because it’s the right thing to do; but because you expect the same from others.

  25. I imagine heaven and hell are hard things to explain to kids, so perhaps it’s just the easiest most unintellectual answer.You know — if you’re bad, that’s where you go.Except, like Metro Mama said, all the cool people are there — and I look fairly good with a tan and in red.Seriously though, it’s totally f’d up logic — use Santa — Santa will bring you no presents. Now that’s good parenting.

  26. I firmly believe in the old Fear of God parenting style. It worked for me as a child and it worked for my husband as well. So what if we’re a bit emotionally stunted and we twitch whenever we see lightning?

  27. I think you can have the best of both worlds. The teaching of morals at a religious school and balancing that with kindness for the sake of kindness. However I cannot imagine saying that if they are not good they are going to Hell … or that Santa is not coming….When would they be good enough then? Behaviour is to be corrected not the child.

  28. I once read a quote that went something like this; A man can spend his whole life studying faith. It’s fascinating to think that over the course of human history, people have always insisted on believing in something greater than themselves. Why is that?It has always stuck with me.

  29. What a rude child to speak like that to an adult. I would have probably replied back “At least all my friends will be there”. Actually I probably would have had a temper tantrum at the very suggestion of sitting at the kids table.

  30. This is an old problem for students of philosophy – can we be good without God?I was raised Catholic, but my parents, recalcitrant Catholics that they were, refused to support the idea that anyone who was good at heart would go to hell. And because they insisted that almost everybody – believers and non-believers – was good at heart, I grew with the very unCatholic idea that very, very few souls go to hell. Attached to that idea was the idea that it was, simply, being ‘good’ that mattered – not the character of one’s faith, or whether one went to Church or whatever, but whether one was kind and honest. And kindness and honesty didn’t require any special lessons.That idea has sorta stuck with me, even through all of the philosophical study and spiritual ambivalence and existential yada yada. Be nice to others. Be considerate, have respect, be as honest as kindness and respect permit. Pretty straightforward.

  31. I think being good so that you play with kitties all day isn’t really being good….I don’t want to instill that notion in the monkey. I want her to be good for goodness’s sake, and for the sake of making other’s happy. That’s heaven to me, anyway. 🙂 Great post.

  32. Great post. And I LOVE all these comments. My take on it is as much as a mixed bag as my background, heritage, Jewish and Christian families, all of it. But I especially love what Her Bad Mother said, what Bub and Pie said, what Hippie Mama said, and what Amy, who’s been an atheist since the 8th grade, said…and I too actually think it’s abominable to use Heaven and Hell as a parenting tool even if you ARE a Christian. And I’m a Christian. Jew. Christian. Whatever.

  33. I grew up LDS and am still LDS and am planning on raising my children in that faith. I was never threatened with the whole be nice to your sister or you will go to hell as a form of discipline. I really think that just setting rules in general for a child is soo important. They need to know that there are rules out there and they will be enforced. Knowing that rules are rules and there are consequences for breaking them helps them become productive adults.

  34. I think religion is a complete and total waste of time….living it and especially discussing it. But with that said, I have one small comment. So many things are done in the name of religion or for the love of God, Jesus, or Mohammad, like a few thousand years of war for instance. As a result of attending a private Christian college I got fed up with the do’s and don’ts with the consequences of heaven and hell hanging over my head, none of it made any sense. The actions of the people around me, hardly ever matched up with what was being taught. So for me, I have never felt such overwhelming freedom as when I decided to be rid of anything religious in my life. So with that said I think it is a mean trick to brainwash children and not give them the proper tools to make good choices for themselves as they grow.

  35. Well, I was raised a good atheist child, so I was never taught that there were any consequences in any other world than this one for good or bad behavior. I was taught that we should be good because it is the right thing to do, and because it was expected of us, and there were consequences right here on Earth for good and bad behavior. I was often good, sometimes bad, but I suspect no more than the next person.My boss, the smoking drinking gambling topless dancer watching Catholic (I drink, by the way, and have been known to gamble a roll of quarters or two, but we’re talking a WHOLE ‘NOTHER BALL GAME HERE, FOLKS) told me he couldn’t figure out how people teach their kids morals without religion. I kinda thought, it doesn’t seem to be doing you any big favors, bub.The more I learn about religion, though…the more I’m glad I was raised without it. I would like the comfort of knowing my Grandpa is safe and watching over me, but it’s a fantasy that’s not worth the baggage that comes with it, for me.

  36. I plan on showing Juniper Gustav Dore’s engravings illustrating Dante’s Inferno as soon as she’s old enough to start demanding that I read her books about princesses. “See Juniper, this is what happens to little girls who want to grow up to be princesses. THEY ROAST IN ETERNAL DAMNATION WITH THE SON OF THE MORNING STAR!

  37. This reminds me of an incident in a college religion class, with a Southern Baptist girl being utterly befuddled at the idea that there is no real “hell” concept in Judaism. “But what incentive do you have to be good, then?” she asked. I think kids tend to think in absolutes, so a pure heaven = good/hell = bad dichotomy appeals to them. Some grow out of it, some don’t!

  38. Hoo boy. Well, I was raised with a heaping helping of Jewish mother-instilled guilt that could either make life on earth heaven or hell. That worked great. I will probably use some of those techniques in moderation and with sensitivity etc.. Lisa

  39. I’ve thought about this some with respect to my own reasons for being good. I’m not motivated by a desire to be elevated after death, so why be good? For me it is just about doing right because it makes things better or happier for people around me. This comes from my family, but it does seem harder to instill without that outside carrot (or stick). Once again, more work for the infidels. (oh, and my Mormon aunt/uncle-in-laws seem to like me MORE for being Jewish. Something about them being a lost tribe…)

  40. Well I know religion is not race or perhaps a part of ones culture but growing up in a Mexican-American family the fear that “el cucuy” was going to get me in the middle of the night if I didn’t go to sleep didn’t damage me too much. I also grew up with the fear of getting “ojo” from someone. Which meant if someone admired you from afar and didn’t touch your face you would get “ojo” , as if you have control over what others think and do. Then my grama would have to cure us. I know it sounds crazy but doesn’t it make the fear of hell over heaven seem like a walk in the park in a 5 year olds eyes?This has given me food for thought on a good post…heck I oculd write a book on these Mexican-American wives tales.

  41. I had to correct my spelling for “could” since it was linked to my writing a book and all. Aren’t there people who check for that stuff?yeah…it’s called spell check!

  42. Well, I have the benefit in that you know my children, although, because of that Cozy Coupe-carjacking experience, I’m not sure if they are going to be the best examples for this! But, anyway, I’ve tried to be VERY very conscious of this whole subject. Santa comes for all kids; everyone goes to heaven; our homeschool will not have grades; mommy and daddy love you no matter what. (have you ever read Alfie Kohn? he’ll make your head spin on this subject, but I do like his way of thinking). So, what drives them to ‘be good’? They really aren’t always, but they are pretty good kids. They care about each other; they tend to do what is ‘right’ even if it takes a few steps to get there. And, I for sure am not a perfect mommy, so I’m not sure what drives them. But as long as I can get them to scratch my back from time to time, I’m not going to worry about it.

  43. I have two trains of thought. First, based on the timing of the child’s comment, I can tell you that the topic of the readings the prior Sunday was heaven. So it could be that her parents are using heaven/hell as a poor parenting tool. Or it could be that the kid took her own lesson out of mass as children are wont to do. Second, as a Cathlic, I don’t believe that I should be a good person in order to get into heaven. I should be a good person because that is what is right – that is what God has designed us to be. Heaven is dessert. But this, this life right here and the good that I can do, well, that’s the meal. But children are children and they like the dessert. It’s difficult to impress the deliciousness of roast, peas, and spuds on a child when (s)he is eyeballing the cake on the sideboard, no?Anyway, as a parent, I have learned that rewards and threats of any kind aren’t necessarily the most effective means of raising moral children. My kids are young, though, and maybe I’ve got some more to learn.

  44. My mom, the incredibly devout charismatic, evangelist, pentecostal Christian raised me with her faith. As a child, I was told that doing wrong made Jesus cry, and apparently making Jesus cry was a bad thing. Heaven and hell were a given. Of course they existed. But ye must be born again, and all that rot. I’ve seen so many people accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior over and over again after they switch back from Jack Daniels (or whatever other hell on earth they’ve created for themselves) the whole being born-again process lost a bit of its validity. We’re raising our son to be respectful of religious beliefs, and to be spiritually in tune with his environment and the people around him, but we’re not going with the whole organized religion deal.

  45. My husband and I are both agnostic, which literally means, “without knowledge.” As we’ve explained to our kids, there’s no way to *know* whether there’s a god or not, so they can choose to believe (or not) as they wish. We’ve taught them to respect others’ belief systems, and I’ve recommended that they become familiar with the Christian bible from a literary perspective because it’s referenced a lot in Western literature and culture, but we’ve never considered endorsing any particular religion with them.I don’t think children, particularly young children, have enough of a grasp of “the future” for the threat of hell or promise of heaven to be much use as a bargaining tool anyway; there’s too much time between the act and the reward/punishment. A five-year-old can understand, “Stop that or you’ll be sent to your room,” but “Stop that or in 75 years you’ll be sorry,” is a little too abstract.I do think it’s a good idea to let kids explore the concept of spirituality, though, lest they get suckered in by one of the proselytizing religions who promise eternal bliss. The more they understand how diverse beliefs can be, the less likely they are to believe that there’s only One True Path, which might help make them more tolerant (not to mention less metaphysically gullible).

  46. Hmmm. Interesting post, and interesting comments. I have to (have to have to have to – yes I AM trying to resist!!!) point out that gingajoy’s comment about her son’s current obsession with death, and that she rather wishes she had something to offer him besides “the cold, stark facts of death being final” is, in itself, also a belief. In case she hadn’t noticed. 🙂 Just like everyone else who believes in Heaven, Hell, God, reincarnation (me), or anything else after death, gingajoy has no evidence for her statement. So we’ll all have to wait and see, won’t we? or not see, as the case may be.That said, I agree with everyone who said (more or less) how sad that the child of the post is being trained up in such a judgemental way. And kudos to Nate for holding his tongue! Although it would certainly have been a livelier Thanksgiving had he said what you were anticipating, or anything like it, haha!

  47. I prefer “You know. Santa is watching you and making lists right now, so you better be good.”But sometimes, Hell would sure come in handy…

  48. Good post. We don’t use an “eternal reward and punishment” on the kids. However, the hubster and I frequently note when we do things that are going to send us to hell, because, well, it’s fun. I am not religious. But I do think I am a good person and have a good idea of right and wrong (and might be right, might be wrong, might be OK, etc). I believe you can rely on an inner moral compass and instill goodness that way. When I think about how I want to raise my children and instill “right” and “wrong” in them – I want them to consider the impact of their actions and words on others. I want them to have empathy. I want them to be able to put themselves in another shoes. So instead of telling them they’re going to hell for hitting their friend or that they will go to heaven if they are nice to people, we talk about why it hurts someone’s feelings to do such and such or how good it would make someone feel if we did such and such.But I have stooped low enough to bribe with chocolate from time to time. Oh, and we use “Santa” at this time of year too. Sometimes the inner moral compass thing doesn’t work with tantrums in the restaurant or store.

  49. I am forever telling my kids that they need to do the right thing simply because it IS the right thing! No cookie, no sticker, no prize. Knowing that you have enough character and backbone to do the right thing when it’s easier to do wrong is the only reward there is. It’ll last you a lifetime.Thanks for another great post!

  50. We try to focus on the love of God rather than the wrath of God. S/he wants us to treat people well because it is the right thing to do and that we must do our best to be Christ-like even though we are only human. My DH and I were raised Catholic, but are attending an Episcopal church with our boys. We find the whole atmosphere to be more forgiving, less fearsome. Although we have discussed heaven with our 5yo because he has lost a dog and a great-grandmother (yes, pets get into heaven in our house), but we have not talked about hell and (having doubts about the whole thing), we don’t intend to start.

  51. That is exactly the driving philosophy that my father used with us: be good for being good’s sake. A lapsed Catholic, he preached that we ought to do the right thing not out of fear of eternal damnation but out of a firm knowledge of what is right and wrong.I’d like to think it worked a charm on us, we all seem to be pretty “Do unto others” types. And it drives me nuts when some fundy on a plane or a poolside or wherever tries to tell me that the problem with abandoning Christian teachings in the classroom is that children will have no idea of right and wrong. Reaaallllly? There’s only one narrow way to teach that?Your little tablemate’s comment was about right for a rules-loving 5 year old but I shudder to think how easily that becomes simplistic, damning judgementalism a little further out. Hopefully her parents step in now and again to massage that impulse out, hopefully they don’t actually encourage her to think so simplisticallyAs though G-d has time to fret about an idle comment over Thanksgiving dinner…

  52. I was raised with the good old “fear o’ god” in me and it really didn’t do much for me. A belief in a higher (or even lower) authority, I do not have. Some atheist once said that teaching religion to children is a form of child abuse. While that’s extreme in every sense of the word, I’m gonna let my little one figure out on her own if she believes in any god. Because having it introduced early on didn’t work for me and hasn’t seemed to help the world all that much, either.

  53. I really have no deep insight because I’m not religious and religion isn’t really a big thing in our household. My husband’s family is Catholic, and while not all of them are practising, it’s important to them, so I try hard not to say “Jesus H. Christ!” when I get mad in front of them. I’ve also really tried to watch myself around my children…apparently I say that more than I say the F-word. *sigh* I’m battin’ a thousand over here.

  54. i could write for hours on this…i was raised under such religous oppression – all things god were right, everything else was bad. i was everything else all the time. i heaped so much guilt into my 8, 9, 10, 12, 15, 17 year old body that i am surprised i still stand upright.YES. good because good is good, not because you burn in hell otherwise.

  55. Nice thought provoking post. My family and I are going through a non-organized religion phase right now. We tried the only Jewish Temple within a 30 mile radius, I am Jewish, my husband not, and found we didn’t have anything in commom with any other members. I agree with crankmama, Santa is a good way to threaten your children into behaving. Not that it works.

  56. We are a be good because you reap what you sow type of family. Being ‘bad’ carries with it no mortal fear for eternal damnation, just tjh immediate consequences of my dissaproval (and I am a marshmallow so….). My biggirl went thru a God and Jesus phase that left us scrambling for any info we could find (we are ignorant as the day we were born). She used to always tell me not to use the lords name in vain, and while she went thru this phase, i tried to respect it.

  57. I have to preface my comment by saying I believe on the eighth day man created God. Now, my atheism aside, I think it’s very sad when people who are insecure in their own faiths use their children as pawns to try and demonstrate the family piety.And regarding the moral compass, do we not all hold in higher regard the person who does good deeds out of the kindness of his heart as opposed to the person who does the deed because he’s going to earn more heaven points? In that case, is the deed even good any more?I don’t mean to get all John Lennon or Rodney King on y’all’s asses but what would the world be like if no one had a concept of heaven? Could it be that we might actually all get along?I wouldn’t go so far as to say teaching a child religion is achild abuse, but I would say that threatening a child with <>Now, now, that makes the Baby Jesus Cry <> or <> God doesn’t like that<> is God abuse.

  58. I was not allowed to say “oh my God”. I also once got a spanking for saying “Jesus!” Even though I tried to explain to my parents that I wasn’t saying “Jesus” but, rather “Geezus”. (I didn’t know it was “Jesus!” I swear!) The phrase “you’ll go to hell for that” was thrown around all of the time and to this day, I believe that unless I repent of my sins, I am going to burn in hell. And yet, I do not repent, so do I really, truly believe it? Because would I continue to “live in sin” if I believed it?(and by “live in sin” I mean “drink Devil Water and celebrate halloween!) My parents tell me that I’m harming my children by not taking them to church because they have no “moral compass.” Is the life and lessons that we teach our children NOT a moral compass? Is teaching children to be responsible, kind, loving, respectful human beings not good enough?Oh my God, what was the question again? I get so worked up when it comes to this issue, that I lose all ability to think clearly and focus. ACK!

  59. Oh Liz, I know we won’t agree on this because I’m one of those “evil” Republican, conservative, Catholics. My religion is important to me. I don’t use it as a weapon against my husband or children or friends or acquaintances by instructing them to believe they are going to hell for doing something wrong.I’m one of the few in this day and age who believes in God. I raise my son as Catholic. I go to church every Sunday. I am a catechist. I enjoy all of it.While you say that you are uncomfortable with “extreme” religious beliefs, I’d like to know what you define as extreme?If it offends you to witness another’s belief or testimony of their faith, and you consider it extreme, imagine how much it offends that person to see your lack of belief or judgment against it. They may find you just as extreme.

  60. Kevin! I wasn’t going to comment unti l saw yours. Not that I wasn’t inspired, just that it’s pretty much all here.>all John Lennon or Rodney King on ya’ll asses, but…<, and then the 'God abuse,' comment. Dude, love itMommy 101: do not, i repeat, do NOT move to area code 45255!

  61. WOW such great comments!Bub and Pie: I think you nailed it. “Children are natural dogmatists” – awesome.Bernal Girl: That’s exactly what bothered me – whether the black and white, heaven/hell thing becomes condemnation in a few year’s time. Dana: Your question is fair enough. My definition of extremes could be a post unto itself, but I’ll just say I always believed that faith is a private thing. Something between you and your God. Therefore prostelytizing, preaching, evanglism in any form freaks me out. Certainly judgment, including someone telling me I’m going to hell for any reason. I’m not even comfortable with people wearing religious symbols on chains around their necks, to be honest. I certainly don’t like to be approached by the JHs in my neighborhood, nor the Hassidim on the subway who ask about my faith. It’s an imposition and no one’s business. Now do I have an issue with joining a family for dinner who says grace? Of course not. I respect the rights of the devout. But when people start quoting biblical verses at me as some sort of established fact or truth- that’s when I get all squirmy.I never said however that I have a lack of belief in God (in some form or another). Just a lack of belief on imposing it on others. Which is why you may notice, whenever I write about religion I am not trying to convince anyone of anything. I’m generally asking questions. I will impose my musical tastes on others any chance I get, however. Swing by my place sometime – I have a great 80s mix that’s dying to be heard.

  62. Like most ideas, schools of thought, faiths, whatever, there are thoughtful applications and there are simplicistic applications. You know the types: those who cannot articulate their feelings and thoughts tend to bully. Dogma is great for that. But for those who really are contemplative and are looking for meaning, I think religion fills that need. I don’t think believing in something makes you nice or smart or deep. Those qualities need to come from somewhere else, first. So, yeah, I believe we need to be good for goodness sake.

  63. Cheese and crackers and omgg (that’s “Oh my goodness gracious”), it’s all crap (said with the Scottish accent Mike Meyers used to use on SNL – with a rolling rrrr).People are big fat self-righteous hypocrites (except me – I’m perfect). I wish they’d leave h-e-double hockey sticks out of it, for chrissakes!

  64. I agree with you, that teaching children to be good for goodness’ sake is its own reward, and that heaven and hell aren’t a punishment for good behavior to be meted out by people who judge us to be worthy or not. If you believe in that sort of thing, then it’s up to no mortal being to judge us in the first place. If you don’t believe in that sort of thing, then it makes no sense that another person could make that kind of pronouncement. Who are we to know what your chosen deity has up his/her sleeve? How presumptuous of us!In short, it makes no sense no matter what you believe. But, if you are religious then it is especially wrong to wield heaven and hell as if you know what God – or your chosen deity – would decide to do with another person. That is their business, anyway, which religion is supposed to be, i.e. a private, personal matter.Amen.

  65. When I was in the first grade (I’m a preacher’s kid) I told another little girl who cut inline in front of me that my daddy was going to send her to hell. There is no one here but I am still blushing furiously! I was in first grade and I didn’t know what I was tlaking about- I was just really angry- but what I remember very clearly was the look on the girls face. She didn’t say anything but her face was completely horrified. That’s not the right word, but I don’t know if I can describe it well enough to do it justice. Suffice it to say that I am blushing- even at 27 when she did not tell on me and I did not recieve any punishment. As an adult I recognize that I learned a really important lesson at a very young age: hell isn’t something you should threaten with. The religious beliefs of children are very tender and innocent and while the concept of death is somewhat unimaginable, eternal torture is (maybe) not as abstract. I might have used it to lash out, but I (more or less) believed what I was saying at the time and she knew I did. I actually have a friend who uses this same line. I love him to death, but I think he’s seriously warping his kid’s view of religion and of themselves. Sorry, but the Bible never says: “Thou shalt not lose thy temper or thou wilt go directly to Hell (do not pass go, do not colect $100)!

  66. Been there, done that. Having been raised in a fundamentalist church, I speak from experience when I say that stuff is too abstract for kids to really get at that age and using scare tactics i.e. the reward or punishment of heaven or hell on an older child doesn’t work either. I think it’s just lazy parenting to use religious tenants to try to get kids to behave and obviously if a five year old is doling out “no heaven for you” punishments, she’s heard the same thing a time or two. That just doesn’t seem right to me, but perhaps my agnostic ass isn’t going to heaven either ;o)

  67. That part where you say that extreme views on religion make you uncomfortable — even if its a 5-year-old and she’s spewing bible verses. YES! Thanks for saying that.We aren’t religious people, but the hubs and I try to impart on our son that one should strive to be a “good” person and live a life of compassion, tolerance, gratitude and goodwill just because. If there’s a heaven, well then bonus!

  68. Shocking, but my two girls and I go to ‘church.’ (But not my agnostic husband, who is going to hell.)I put church in quotes because, while Christian based, really strives to be inter-faith. Once a month a rabbi from a neighboring synagogue gives the sermon, and among the congregation are several of Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist faiths.I don’t consider myself a religious person, although I was raised going to Sunday school (okay, mostly on holidays, when there was a good chance of getting a chocolate of some kind – Santa, Easter bunny) Unlike a lot of people I have good memories of it. I wanted to give something to my kids to help them build the basis of a spiritual life, which is important to me. Not necessarily religious, but spiritual.I chose this church because its lack of fire-and-brimstone, conservative style. My kids do community service projects there, like making cards for orphanages in Russia and participating in a community kitchen. My girls know that they are free to choose to believe or not, and every mention of God, Buddha or any religious deity in our household is followed by, “…which SOME people believe in.” But there is no ‘Be good or you won’t go to heaven’ teaching, and I would never think to use it, although I’m thinking it would be nice to have something to fall back on when my empty threats don’t work. ‘Be good or no more Nintendo’ just doesn’t have that dire ring to it.(Oh my – was that the longest freakin comment ever or what? I guess that’s what reading blogs on a lazy Saturday afternoon will do. Sorry.)

  69. Interesting post. I am kinda sorta Catholic, but I would never tell anybody (certainly not my own kids!) that they won’t go to heaven. I’m sure you could care less, but it is Catholic teaching actually that NO ONE ever has the ability to judge who will or won’t go to heaven. We can’t even say with certainty that serial killers, suicide bombers, etc. are not in heaven, so surely we can’t say people who tease small children aren’t!Anyway, all that aside, my husband is similar in thinking on this to Nate and when I insisted that I wanted to baptize our kids, he said, “I don’t understand why we can’t just teach them to be good people without using a bunch of fairy tales…”And of course, we can. He’s a very good and moral person (MUCH better than me, in fact!!!) and grew up in an atheist home. I grew up in a non-religious though not really atheist (I don’t think my parents give a rip one way or the other…) and my family are good people…Anyway, did not answer your question in any way shape or form, but yes, I do think you’re right. Whether people are religious or not it’s just good policy to refrain from using the phrase, “you’ll go to hell…”Unless we’re talking about George Bush maybe! 😉

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