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Thursday, May 6, 2010: Jesus the Invisible

         I bit my tongue and maybe I shouldn't have.  A mother was telling a group of us about her ten-year-old's birthday party. She'd run herself ragged trying to throw a great party. Shortly after the guests had gone home, the birthday boy and his younger sister began fighting. Her son was playing with one of his new toys, refusing to let his sister play with it. The daughter ended up whining and crying.

             This was a toy the kid had had for less than half an hour. Before I even heard the rest of the story, I was on the side of the birthday boy. The mother figured the easiest way to stop the fighting was to have the older brother give up the toy, since he was the oldest and best able to delay gratification. Her son refused, the siblings arguing intensified, and the mother finally stepped in with what she assumed was the perfect comment, "What do you think Jesus would say if he could see how you're acting right now?" To the mother's horror, her son responded, "I think Jesus loves sinners, so he wouldn't mind." 

             Three cheers for the ten-year-old!  I thought the boy deserved kudos for standing up for his own rights. The mother, however, was mortified, muttering something about her fear she might be raising a selfish jerk. How could he not respond to Jesus?

             Instantly, I thought back to another Jesus story from my past. One of my co-workers' husbands was a pediatrician, and he had called her at work one day, moments after his patient had left the examining room. He was still laughing as he passed on the latest office incident: a mother had been reviewing medical history with him while her five-year-old son crawled around under the table and chairs.  Embarrassed, she scolded the boy and told him to "get up off the floor; there are all sorts of germs there."  The boy dutifully stood up but grumbled just loud enough for the pediatrician to overhear: "Germs and Jesus; that's all I ever hear about and I never see either one of them."

           The story cracked up everyone in the lab. We could all imagine a five-year-old getting tired of invisible threats. We all had a pretty good idea how this kid had been brought up thinking of Jesus. For some reason, today it bothers me -- the idea of people falling back on the convenient excuse (an unseen threat or higher religious authority), rather than take responsibility and just correct a child's behavior. I feel sorry for kids who must grow up with an invisible Jesus (Is this the Christian version of Big Brother?) watching over their every move. I'm not saying these specific parents set out to intimidate their children, and I'm not objecting to the WWJD movement.  Having a role model to refer back to is a great way to lend support when a child knows the right course of action but is beginning to falter in the face of peer pressure. I just question what happens when the child has to behave properly because "Jesus is out there, watching you, seeing how you act." 

           We weren't totally silent when the mother of the first story confessed her child-rearing problems.  I (who never can keep my mouth totally shut in cases like this) gently suggested to her that most kids would find it hard to share brand-new toys. The mother could have explained that to the daughter. In fact, I told her, I would've jumped at the occasion to acknowledge the son's feelings.  "Right now you want to play with your new toy and you don't feel like sharing. That's a pretty common feeling. Maybe when you grow tired of playing with this toy, you'll consider letting your sister borrow it for a while."     

             Everyone basically agreed, and other comments had been added before the group closed the subject, but our conversation didn't really address the underlying religious problem.  Maybe that was a mistake.

           I've been watching a number of very religious parents attempting to instill proper religious attitudes in their children. I know the parents' motives are sincere, but let's get real.  You can't just tell children never to be angry and expect they will grow up to be loving persons. You can't tell children they always have to share, to give up personal space and boundaries, to put everybody else's needs before their own, and then expect them to grow up with wide-open hearts.  It just won't happen -- not on the inside. 

         You can teach children to behave somewhat ethically by grounding them in a lot of rules and regulations that control how they act in specific situations.  Even when it comes about by suppressing all their inner nasty, wicked thoughts and resentments, children reared this way do end up functioning as responsible and socially moral adults. I just wish you could see the emotional junk buried beneath that outer shell of righteous goodness.

            It seems a lot more sane to acknowledge and accept honest feelings -- then take a look afterward at options, at acceptable ways in which the child can respond.  How wonderful if we could teach children to be personally responsible for their social interactions, and free them up so they could use religion as a source of comfort and inspiration.

Posted on Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 07:28AM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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