Well, first of all, do you know why you are a Buddhist, and does your husband know why he is a Catholic? Why do you call yourselves so? Surely, you must choose to be Buddhist or Catholic, no? If you merely inherit your religion from others, what meaning does it have? In order to choose, however, you must first have a choice, which means that you must know something about other religions, otherwise how can you choose intelligently? Do you know why you are not a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew, or a Ba’hai, etc.? If you know nothing of other ways, you are not in a position to dismiss them by saying things such as "They are no good" or "My religion is the best"; to say so would only be to display ignorance and bigotry.
And so, if you do not know why you, yourselves, are Buddhists or Catholics, how can you even think of raising your children accordingly? Do you want to twist them into shape, like bonsai trees, or pour them into the jelly moulds of your beliefs? Do you not love your children and wish them to be better than your opportunities allowed you to be? Are you not willing to sacrifice yourselves for their benefit? They are individuals—or have the capacity to become so. Although they come through you—the parents—like water comes through the tap, they no more belong to you in reality, than the water belongs to the tap. But even so, you have a responsibility to raise and guide them, so they may grow into decent people, instead of becoming liabilities to society. Is this why you are concerned about raising them according to a certain religion?
Have you ever heard people say: "I was born Buddhist [Hindu/Christian], and will remain so until I die"? This is not true. A baby is born a baby, nothing more; just as it comes naked into the world, it also comes without a religious brand name. Its parents and other people stick labels on it, and the child grows up with and accepts them, without question, not realizing he/she has been categorized and boxed thereby. Do you see what a limitation this is?
There are many religions in the world, each claiming to be ‘the only true religion’. How can we verify which—if any—is true? Not merely by their claims, obviously. Many religions are very narrow and concerned only with groups, dividing people into arbitrary categories like ‘the saved and the damned’, ‘the faithful and the infidels’, ‘God’s chosen and the heathen’, etc. Is there a better way to look at humanity, a way that views life as a whole, instead of cutting it up into parts? There is, and many people, concerned about the environment—which embraces us all, regardless of race, caste or creed—are moving towards it. It is heart warming, and has my full support, in the hope that it will help people see the fallacy of these divisive religious labels. Organized religion has caused more harm than good, and cannot help people find Truth, because it has tried to institutionalize and monopolize it, which is as silly and futile as trying to imprison a butterfly in an elephant’s cage!
Do children need religious labels to grow up straight and be able to relate to others in the world? Is it not enough for them to be human? Ah, but what does it mean to be human? It is not easy, as we’ve been taught to be so many other things first, like English, Chinese, German, Christian, Buddhist, Jew, etc., all of which cover and conceal our basic humanness, to which we must eventually return if we want to find ourselves.
To raise children according to a particular religion is a form of brainwashing against which they have no defense; how can they possibly verify what is put into their young minds? Children should be allowed to grow up without religious bias; you need not worry that they will go astray without religious training if you teach them responsibly, yourselves, thus helping them to discriminate between right and wrong, what is acceptable behavior and what is not. It is important not to be over protective of your children, but to allow them to feel and understand pain when it comes to them as the results of their own wrong-doing—just as when they get burned from contact with fire—and learn, therefrom, to be careful in the future; we cannot blame the fire for burning, can we? Children must know the results of stealing and lying, for example, and their parents should not shelter them when they have done wrong, for that would not be helping them in the long run. It is better to learn, while young, the effects of such, so that they might know how to avoid them again, when there is no-one around to protect, shelter or cover up for them.
At times, it is necessary to punish children, but it should be done as a corrective measure and not vengefully. To punish children really hurts loving parents more than it hurts the children, and is done regretfully. Later on, maybe, the children will look back on it and understand why they were punished.
Together with this goes advising children to be thoughtful towards others, and never to make fun of those who are less fortunate than they. A lady I know always instructed her children never to laugh at other kids who were not as well-off as they, or who were different, poor, or ugly in any way; she also told them to befriend the friendless and offer them a helping hand. This is because, when she was in school, she experienced unkindness at the hands of other children, and it hurt, and remained in her mind, so that, many years later, she was able to turn her painful memories around, and transmute them into compassion, and teach others not to do things that she found painful long ago. Her pain led her to learn a lesson that was valuable both to her and her children.
School life is a happy time for some, and ends too soon, but for others, it is utterly miserable, made so by teachers who care not enough about their young charges, by school bullies, and others who pick on those who are different in some way and defenseless against their attacks; most teachers ignore this, and so are indirectly responsible for the continued victimization, but still expect the victims to learn. Worldwide, there has been an alarming rise in the juvenile suicide rate because of this very thing; it is so sad, as many suicides could be prevented if teachers and parents showed more concern about what is happening. Must we always turn away and pretend not to see, saying, "It’s not my business"?
Have you ever watched small children with candies? If they have caring parents, they will share them with others who don’t have; otherwise, they might refuse to share, and eat them all themselves. Stinginess is very strong in some kids—seemingly by nature—but this is all the more reason why efforts should be made to counteract it by stressing the need to share with others, just as they like others to share with them. No child likes to be left out.
Many parents indulge their children by giving them all kinds of nice things, but often, far from satisfying them, it only spoils them and makes them more discontented and greedy. It deprives them of the need to create their own entertainment and increases the likelihood of boredom. Children should not be given everything they want but made to wait, in order to increase patience, and to work, in order to earn for themselves. Moreover, they should be shown how to be thrifty and not waste things, qualities that will be of great use to them in times of hardship and shortage.
Parents are the first and foremost teachers of their children; they have many treasures to share with them; and they do it out of love, unlike many school teachers, who teach only in order to earn a living. Education is not simply a matter of sending children to school and entrusting them into the hands of the teachers; today’s education systems deliver, at most, only a partial education, inducing children to be competitive, ambitious and uncaring about others, which is very destructive. There is an overwhelming tendency among kids to think it ‘wimpish’ to be well mannered and considerate; many kids, intimidated by peer group pressure, would not dare to be polite in front of their friends, for whom they must act ‘cool’; it would be almost anathema! Well, this is something else that children should be encouraged in: Not to be afraid of doing what is right in the face of opposition. If they always allow their conduct to be dictated by their peers, when they are older and look back, they will probably have much to regret and be ashamed of. Politeness and courtesy in children is so rare these days—especially in the West—that it is remarkable when encountered.
During my years in S.E. Asia, I saw the beauty of the respect shown by younger to elder—something that has largely disappeared from Western society, where people relate to each other on a first name basis, regardless of age difference or degree of familiarity; it has become too casual.
It would take a child psychologist to write exhaustively on this subject, and I am not one, but have tried to address the question in some measure. So, last but not least in my suggestions, I think parents should try to inspire in their children a sense of awe at the wonders of life within and around them. Through anatomy and biology, and beginning with their own bodies, children can be shown the miracles of life, and this will help them become appreciative and creative, instead of just accepting things dully, or giving way to thoughtless or destructive tendencies.
Later, when your children are old enough to think and reason for themselves, take them along to your local library and show them the section on religion and philosophy; tell them to select whichever books they like, if they are interested (they may not be). Let them decide which religion they prefer—if any; it is not your place to choose something so personal as religion for them; they must do that themselves. Perhaps they will try various forms before they finally decide which one suits them best; or maybe they will decide that none of the major religions is what they want, but, having researched and investigated, might combine things from different sources, and put them together in a combination that is suitable for them at a particular stage of their life, adding things and discarding others as they go along. It is your place, as parents, to observe all this, to guide and offer suggestions if and when necessary, but never to force. You have your lives to live, and your children have theirs; you cannot live their lives for them.
If your love for your children will permit you to be open minded about their spiritual growth, you will not try to restrict them to your point of view, but seek to help them blossom; and in doing this, you will, yourselves, share in the joys and pains of discovery. After all, you have not reached the end of your journey yet, have you?