Preparing our children for war

Abstract: Ever stopped to think how you may be emotionally and psychologically preparing your children to fight?…

Every day, without knowing it, we prepare our children for war. We do things and we say things that prepare them mentally and emotionally to fight. We do this calmly, even rationally; and we do it because we love them and because we think we’re doing the right thing.

Have you ever asked your 8-year old child what is his or her political affiliation? Are they an ANC supporter, or do they identify more with the centralist liberal ideology of the DA? Perhaps they consider the ANC sell-outs, and yearn more for the fiery rhetoric of the SACP? Of course, you’re not going to ask them because they’re far too young. How is an 8-year old supposed to understand the subtle and twisted shifts in politics? Besides, a person’s political affiliation is also a matter of personal choice.

But I’d bet your child has a religious affiliation. If you were to, say, fill in a school application form that asked what your child’s religion was, you’d be able to fill it in straight away, right? And yet religion is just as divisive as politics, possibly even more so.

From the moment they are born most children are tagged according to the religion of their parents. Without them knowing it, asking for it or understanding it a child becomes labelled a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or a believer in any one of the other myriad of established religions. As they grow they are fed the doctrines of the particular beliefs of their parents. They are taught to see the world through the eyes of their parents and, more worryingly, taught that the lens they use is the right one; the only one, and that other lenses are wrong, even bad.

Very few children are ever taught that that lens is simply one of many mutually incompatible belief systems; that just as they see another child who belongs to another religion as different, so that child is looking at them thinking the same thing. To encourage children to stand outside of a rigid belief system and see the world as it truly is would require the fostering of critical thought – anathema to many religions. Besides, allowing children to think critically would encourage them to question the authority of their parents; and we wouldn’t want that now, would we? As a result, children grow up compartmentalised according to the religion of their parents. They become vocal proponents of their parents’ religion and perpetuate its ingrained dogmas and superstitions.

This makes sense to a certain degree because religion influences our lifestyle, our ideologies, our opinions, even our language. So it would be almost impossible to bring up a child without them being immersed in this emotional and psychological morass. In a way, we’re almost expected to mould our children on ourselves, to make them like us but better. We also do this because our parents did it and their parents did it, and so on; so it seems only the right thing to do.

But is it? Given that religious intolerance has possibly caused more battles and wars over centuries of history than anything else, is it perhaps not better to bring children up to be more tolerant of other religions? If this was sufficiently widespread, surely, eventually we’d get to a stage where religious differences were recognised and respected, and wars would become increasingly infrequent? In order to do this, children would have to be encouraged to only adopt a point of view once they have examined other possibilities; to continually enquire until they find clarity on the issue and therefore draw closer to the real truth. Again, this is totally incongruent to religion, because any religion is a faith-based belief system rather than a fact-based belief system – it requires that you have unquestioning faith in those who are telling you what is right, rather than enquiring for yourself what really is. It’s a logical premise: facts are indisputable, and since there is a dispute between religions, they cannot be based on fact.

Critics of the point of view that children shouldn’t be told what religion they should be, would argue that a child also has no choice in the selection of their name and yet this doesn’t seem to be a problem. Possibly not; but then a child is generally not characterised by their name so it doesn’t become an issue (unless of course, you’ve named your son Hillary or your daughter Moonbeam). The reality is that a Jewish child in an overtly Christian school is viewed differently, just as Muslim children are taught to view Christian children in a certain light. They are encouraged to do so because they have been covertly, even blatantly, instructed to do so by their parents. This is an issue.

Surely instead of telling our children what to think, we should be telling them how to think for themselves? Should we not rather tell them to question everything and, where possible, demand to be offered a different opinion? Should we not instruct them how then to weigh up the arguments to form a more resonant and balanced opinion, but at all times respect the opinions of others? Sounds a bit like too much hard work, doesn’t it?

And that’s where part of the problem lies. To shake the muddle in our own heads from years of indoctrination from our parents and grandparents demands a dramatic shift in our mindset. It’s easier not to question things and to then blindly perpetuate the status quo.

Men and women who start and fight wars are simply the grown-up children of parents who gave them a reason to fight. Instead of teaching their children to reason and to see value in the opinions of others, they were told they were always right and that others were always wrong; and that they had the moral high ground, so that victory was therefore certain. Sad really, isn’t it?

So, will your child be going off to war?

Originally published in the Sunday Times, 5 August 2007