Should Children Decide For Themselves About God?

Question: Should a child be allowed to "decide for himself" on matters related to his concept of God?  Aren't we forcing our religion down his throat when we tell him what he must believe?

Answer: Let me answer the question with an illustration from nature.  A little gosling (baby goose) has a peculiar characteristic that is relevant at this point.  Shortly after he hatches from his shell he will become attached, or "imprinted," to the first thing that he sees moving near him.  From that time forward, he will follow that particular object when it moves in his vicinity.  Ordinarily, he becomes imprinted to the mother goose who was on hand to hatch the new generation.  If she is removed, however, the gosling will settle for any mobile substitute, whether alive or not.  In fact, a gosling will become most easily attached to a blue football bladder, dragged by on a string.  A week later, he'll fall in line behind the bladder as it scoots by him.  Time is the critical factor in this process.  The gosling is vulnerable to imprinting for only a few seconds after he hatches from the shell; if that opportunity is lost, it cannot be regained later.  In other words, there is a critical, brief period in the life of a gosling when this instinctual learning is possible.

There is also a critical period when certain kinds of instruction are possible in the life of the child.  Although humans have no instincts (only drives, reflexes, urges, etc.), there is a brief period during childhood when youngsters are vulnerable to religious training.  Their concepts of right and wrong, which Freud called the superego, are formulated during this time, and their view of God begins to solidify.  As in the case of the gosling, the opportunity of that period must be seized when it is available.  Leaders of the Catholic church have been widely quoted as saying, "Give us a child until he is seven years old and we'll have him for life"; their affirmation is usually correct, because permanent attitudes can be instilled during these seven vulnerable years.  Unfortunately, however, the opposite is also true.  The absence or misapplication of instruction through the prime-time period may place a severe limitation on the depth of the child's later devotion to God.  When parents say they are going to withhold indoctrination from their small child, allowing him to "decide for himself," they are almost guaranteeing that he will "decide" in the negative.  If a parent wants his child to have a meaningful faith, he must give up any misguided attempts at objectivity.  The child listens closely to discover just how much his parent believes what he is preaching; any indecision or ethical confusion from the parent is likely to be magnified in the child.

Dr. Dobson Answers Your Questions

By Dr. James Dobson

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