How Much Power Do Parents Have (Religious Beliefs)?

This question actually came up some time back, when I was in a bookstore (yes, at one time stores actually sold books :wink: ). Anyways I was reading this book about being a teenage Wiccan. It had some clever arguments that you can use, should your parents protest.

Clearly we are not living in the same country we once were 60, 50 or even 40 years ago. Religion has lost its power. Sorry, but it’s true. And most parents are pretty open-minded.

But what if your parents aren’t open-minded? Take the following hypothetical example. Say that your parents are atheists. And they brought you up as an atheist. Then suddenly (use your imagination) the child finds themself in a fundamentalist Christian household. How much power does the new family have to change the child’s beliefs? And what reasonable measures can they use? ‘Go to your room! You’re grounded until you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior!’

Would that work? And what if it doesn’t work? What if it can’t?

And just now I was thinking. The situation can work in reverse. What if a Christian child suddenly finds himself thrust into an atheist household? You get the picture.

Thoughts? :slight_smile:

EDIT: And I was just going to add, the US Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to private conduct (‘Congress shall make no law…’). But I read in a good source (possibly a text book), that sometimes the government’s and the private sector’s interests can overlap. And of course private law does sometimes offer some (private sector) protections that the US Constitution doesn’t. :slight_smile:

I don’t really know what you are asking. Why do both of your scenarios involve the child being suddenly in a new home? Is this a science fiction story?

Could you rephrase your question in terms of a child who was brought up with certain beliefs, and now questions those beliefs because of various influences?

It’s too variable. It varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and child behavior and personality play a role.

In some states, noone checks on homeschoooling. So someone could be homeschooled religiously, or even not homeschooled (parents just say they are teaching the children) and so children could grow up uneducated.

In Ontario, parents have to sign off on what elective subjects children take in high school. I’m not religious but my mother is, and I had to convince her to let me take biology. Fortunately she was an education mama and realized that if I didn’t take biology I wasn’t going to be able to go to university, so she backed down, but if our personalities were different, maybe she would have “won” the battle.

This really isn’t a GQ question. Moved to Great Debates.

GQ Moderator

I was part of cult for 32 years (my 3rd change from the religion I was raised in). Met my husband there, raised my boys there. When oldest son hit 14-15 yrs of age, he decided he no longer wanted to participate. Husband wanted to force participation until I reminded him that he did not keep HIS parents religion. Both sons opted out. When I expressed my growing dissatisfaction with the cult, my husband said: “I will be very difficult to live with if you don’t remain in the cult”, I responded: “I’m leaving the cult and if you will be difficult to live with, I will leave you too.” ( And I did both). It can be a challenge to let go and let your children make their own choices. My mantra with my boys was: “Pick your battles”

Legal parents have a tremendous amount of legal and practical power to punish their children, if that’s what you’re asking. Even at levels that lots of people would probably think abusive, it would be difficult to get authorities to intervene if it were about religion. “You don’t get to do anything except go to school and church and do your homework and chores, and the only books you get to read are the Bible” is almost certainly not legally child abuse, even though it sounds horrifying to me.

Would it work? I bet it’d get most kids to say “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior” out loud in a convincing manner. Not sure how many hearts or minds would be changed.

Okay, I figured it out. It’s not a science-fiction story. Rather, the parents suddenly changed one way or another, and they want their child to change also. And you’re asking if the child can seek government protection from these changes in the home.

My guess is that - from the government’s perspective - it’s not much different than if the parents said something like, “No more broccoli in this house. You’ll eat spinach, and you’re gonna like it!”

The op scenario is not that ridiculous. Parents die sometimes, and sometimes they don’t have good, well thought out wills. So kids raised by agnostic parents end up with grandparents/aunt&uncle who are extremely devout, or vice versa.

I am not sure how much power a will or trust would have to either protect the children’s choice or enforce the dead parents wishes. Barring something like that, the legal guardians can certainly enforce observances. How far they can go beyond that, legally, would be much more open.

Parents can and do inculcate beliefs in the children they raise — indeed, they could hardly avoid doing so even if they wished to. Not just religious beliefs, of course; but beliefs of all kinds. But religious beliefs are no exception.

There comes a point where the growing child starts to form his own beliefs. This is a process rather than an event. It starts with the child scrutinising and evaluating the beliefs that have been inculcated in him by his parents, and comparing them with other beliefs that are offered to him by his peers or by his wider society. He either affirms the beliefs of his parents, or adapts or modifies them, or rejects them outright. Stereotypically, this can lead to tension between the child and the parent.

Parents who are upset by the beliefs their children are forming can seek to influence the child to adopt or retain a particular belief — sometimes with some degree of success but, I suspect, more often with little success. Given the authority structure and power relationship, they may have more success in enforcing apparent outward conformity. In general, as long as the child is a minor, as long as the parents agree between themselves on the course of action they will take, and as long as the course of action doesn not imperil the child’s health or welfare, this raises no legal issues. Parents are perfectly entitled to (attempt to) inculcate beliefs in their children, and their attempts to do so are not intrinsically unlawful. So “my parents want me to go to church, and I don’t want to go” is not in itself a dispute you can bring before a court.

Where disputes about this do come before courts, it is nearly always because the parents are separated/divorced, and are not in agreement about the beliefs to be inculcated, the practices to be observed or the measures to be adopted to enforce conformity. And that’s a dispute betweeen the parents, not a dispute between the parents on the one hand and the child on the other. (Which is not to say that, depending on the age of the child, the court won’t consult the child and take his or her views into account in making its ruling.)

The other occasion where this can come before the courts is where the parents’ measures to inculcate beleif or enforce practice are so extreme as to threaten the healh or welfare of the child, in which case this raises a child protection issue. But the issue there is usually not the particular beliefs that are sought to be inculcated but the severity of the measures adopted to inculcate them.

Just one more point I wanted to bring up. Where I live (Michigan), we literally have a law against child insubordination. (As I understand it, exceptions are made if the parent’s demands are illegal, immoral or would put the child at extreme risk.) But insubordination.

Would this include what I just brought up in this thread? And as you can see, this would put the state in a position of getting entangled in religious controversies (possibly?). So would the First Amendment come into play here?

(For those of you not of this country. Or for Americans who don’t know, the First Amendment says ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’.)


My parents (mormons) had a 4/5 indoctrination success rate. Generally speaking this did not require displays of force, though I was forced to at least attend services.

One week when I absolutely refused to go, they took an approach which could be considered abusive - they locked me in a bathroom until they got back, some three hours later. Everything not nailed down in there was removed to avoid giving me stuff to mess with. The idea was that if I wasn’t going to be at church, I wasn’t going to be lazing around the house having fun instead.

The wallpaper in there had a pattern, and I passed the time teaching myself to cross my eyes to make the wall appear closer to me via the same mechanics as a magic eye poster. I came out of there calm and untroubled, and when next week came around they refused to let me stay in the bathroom and made me go to church anyway.

That’s staggering. Where I grew up (PA) and my wife (NJ), biology were required subjects. And, believe me, evolution was on the curriculum.

But even in Quebec, where whatever isn’t forbidden is compulsory, parents do not have to sign off on what their kids take in HS.

Obviously I’m an adult now (and not that young) so I can’t be 100% sure if my recollection was correct, but I think that was the case.

More recently my niece (also in Ontario) had to do the same thing. Worse, it had to be done online. (Almost everyone has reliable internet access, but many poor people do not.) This would make it difficult for a child to bypass adult “authority” over courses they take. I went to public school and she went to Catholic school.

Evolution is taught in Ontario, which is why my mother was unhappy about it. One year of high school science was required so everyone got some basics. Funny how they managed to not teach evolution in introductory biology. It’s almost like there was a political motive behind that.

And of course that made you come to Jesus, literally. What a pair of dimbulbs.

Hey, exposure, repetition, and brainwashing worked on all their other kids, and on millions of other kids worldwide. It’s not exactly their fault that I didn’t go along with the script.

Bertrand Russell grew up in late 19th century England without any religion until his parents died and then he was raised by an uncle who insisted he attend church. Russell comments somewhere that had his parents specified he be raised as a Buddhist or Moslem, any court in the land would have insisted his parents’ wishes be respected. But if they wanted him raised without religion, no court would enforce that.

It is utterly illogical to imagine that a person can be forced to believe something they don’t believe.

This is a huge problem with Christianity and Islam in general - you get a lot of parents who think that a child who’s been forced to go along with the surface routine is the same as a child who is actually truly converted deep within.

Actually, maybe not, in a softer form.

Pretty much all parents raise their kids by encouraging/enforcing virtuous behaviour well before the time that, developmentally speaking, the kids are capable of virtue. (“Don’t bite your baby brother. You must share your toys!”) By inculcating and internalising virtuous habits in your kids you do, in fact, foster the development of the corresponding virtues, and the beliefs that support those virtues, when that becomes possible for your kids.

And, if you can foster particular ethical beliefs in this way, there’s no reason to think that you can’t foster any other kind of belief in a similar way. So, yeah, by raising your kids as religious you absolutely do increase the likelihood that they will be religious adults. This isn’t “brainwashing” any more than kids who are raised to be supportive, to be reflective, to value reading or art, or whatever, are “brainwashed” into those attitudes and values.

Where the system falls over, I think, is (a) where you try to enforce it in adolescence — it’s too late; and (b) where you treat religious observance (or any other behaviour) as an end in its own right, rather than as something that fosters values, attitudes, beliefs, etc that you want your child to share.

In short, encouraging or requiring your reluctant kids go to church is not going to do much to get them to accept and internalise the central beliefs of Christianity. But encouraging or requiring your kids to live in accordance with the central beliefs of Christianity, as though those beliefs were important and demand to be taken seriously, might have some benefit in that regard. But that’s only going to work if you’re living that way yourself too.

There are kids that become religious even if their parents aren’t (usually through friends). I don’t see why an atheist kid couldn’t become religious if exposed to religious parents. Not as likely as if they were raised that way from birth, but certainly possible. Kids are pretty suggestible.

I don’t disagree with you at all. It is certainly possible to indoctrinate a child into a belief, but if a teen-ager rejects the indoctrination, you can force religious observance, but not belief and I think it foolish to try.

That said, it certainly happens that teen-agers and even adults can fall into a cult. But not by being forced to pretend belief that is not sincerely held.

I was about 14 when I read L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics in Astounding and was briefly impressed. But not enough to join his church.