Religious Parenting vs. Secular Parenting

by: hawkgrrrl

July 15, 2014

Are you a religious-minded parent or are you secular-minded?  How do you know?

I just finished reading American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam and David Campbell.  The book compares religious and secular trends in American society by looking at results of a series of surveys done over the last few decades.  One key shift in generations is that younger generations are far more tolerant of anti-religious expression than are older generations.  One key finding relates to parenting values and being authority-minded:

Religious people, it is sometimes said, have a respect for authority that makes them readier to shun dissent–what Kenneth Wald, Stephen Mockabee, and others have called “‘authority-mindedness’–an ideological commitment that values authoritativeness and obedience.”  Mockabee observed, “child-rearing questions do a good job of identifying the extent to which individuals are authority-minded.  So we asked our respondents one simple question about child-rearing:  “Which is more important for a child to be taught:  obedience or self-reliance?” . . . .the striking results–religious people emphasize obedience, secular people emphasize self-reliance.”

This question was asked in relation to the claims by religious people that secular people (“the world”) are intolerant and selfish, and the equal claim by secular people that religious people are.  According to this study, “one reason that religious people are readier to suppress dissent seems to be that they are particularly concerned to safeguard authority.”  Again, the studies show this to be the case.  For people who came of age between 1900 and 1945, only between 30 and 40% of them would allow a library to have an anti-religious book or a school to hire an openly atheist teacher.  But for those who came of age between 1986 and 2010, at least 65% consistently report that they would allow the anti-religious library book or teacher, even if they objected to its content on a personal level.

Studies aside, the observation about parenting puts me firmly in the secular camp.  Perhaps that’s no surprise to folks here, but I also note that the majority of folks in the bloggernacle are probably more secular by this simple measure.  In fact, in some ways, so is the church, and yet the recent trend has been consistently toward obedience.  There are certainly biblical quotes to support the idea that children should obey first and foremost, and the Old Testament in particular states that we should obey or be punished in nasty ways.  But our post-restoration scriptures are a little more divided on this topic.  We’ve added to that knowledge with the observation that the glory of God is intelligence, and that as God is, man can become.  If godhood doesn’t require self-reliance, what does?  But doesn’t obedience lead to self-reliance?  No, it leads to reliance on the one making the rules, reliance on authority.  Obedience is similar to working out with a personal trainer.  We gain strength but not necessarily discipline.

 And yet, religious leaders, according to studies, consistently focus on obedience.  As a parent, the reasons I prefer my kids’ self-reliance over obedience are pretty simple:

  • If we dug a basement in Arizona for all my adult children to come home to, the scorpions would just take over.  It’s impractical.
  • Some battles aren’t worth a fight.  Generally speaking, what my kids choose to wear is a dumb argument to have.  It’s a simple way they can express themselves.  So many attempts to control our children are along these lines.
  • I am not living vicariously through my children.  I have my own separate identity from them, and while I care deeply about them, I don’t see them as an extension of myself.  They are partly my influence and partly their dad’s and partly their own creation.
  • I may be wrong if I’m the one setting the rules.  Believe it or not, sometimes my kids do know better.  I can learn from them as well as teach them.
  • Eventually, they have to live their own lives.  Ideally, I’m not going to choose their spouses, name their children, tell them what to do for a living, or co-sign on a house for them.  I already did all that crap for myself.  If I do it for them, they won’t feel responsible for their choices.  They will only be acting to appease me or win my approval.
  • Parental control is an illusion.  Sometimes children share that illusion, but they are simply abdicating their rights in doing so.
  • I see my role as parent to be raising adults, not raising children.

Much as we talk about obedience in the church, God seems to have given us a lot of latitude.  We can do pretty much whatever we like on earth short of defying the laws of physics.  We make our choices, for better or worse, and we live with and learn from the consequences.  If God’s a benign absentee parent, why should I hover?

How about you?  Should children be taught to obey or to rely on themselves?  As a parent, how do you move from obedience to self-reliance?  How would you answer that question and why?  How did your parents raise you:  to obey or to be self-reliant?  How do you gauge that?


25 Responses to Religious Parenting vs. Secular Parenting

  1. SilverRain on July 15, 2014 at 5:42 AM

    I think approaching obedience and self reliance as an either/or is already missing the point.

    Maturity trachea is that they harmonize. Both are necessary. Each supports and informs the other.

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  2. SilverRain on July 15, 2014 at 5:43 AM

    Trachea is = teaches us

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  3. greedy reader on July 15, 2014 at 6:33 AM

    Like SilverRain, I don’t think it has to be either/or.

    I’m reminded of one of my high school English teachers who drilled us on grammar. When students pushed back, we were told to learn the rules first. Once we’d mastered them, we were free to break them as needed.

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  4. Jeninator on July 15, 2014 at 7:20 AM

    Fascinating writing Hawkgirl. Thank you! Still digesting…..

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  5. New Iconoclast on July 15, 2014 at 7:24 AM

    I’ve always been a leaner toward the self-reliance side. In addition, one of the things that pushed me out of the Catholic religion of my youth, and kept me out of the various flavors of Protestantism of my friends, was their emphasis on obedience in the absence of understanding. Those faiths didn’t make sense, and my parish priest’s explanation that some things were meant to be holy mysteries that we wouldn’t ever understand didn’t sit well with me. They looked more like mysteries that someone had made up at some point to cover lack of knowledge or sloppy thinking. I have no objection to obedience in a good cause.

    So along comes Joseph Smith, and tells me that I can understand all things, and shows me how they work, and for the most part things make sense. Early in my Church life I had excellent mentors who helped me see the “Whys” to the commandments, and helped me learn how to find my own answers. I’ve tried to raise my kids the same way, and I find that aside from an occasional lapse into father-fascist mode, usually when I am tired and I have simply had enough, my parenting style would be very similar to Angela’s. I encourage my kids to question, and I spend a lot of time trying to teach them the reasons and teaching them how to think. And they have taught me a lot as well.

    I’ve always been a respecter of agency, and becoming LDS has only reinforced this. Nothing irks me more than seeing the opposite traits exhibited by members of the Church, who should (IMNSHO) know better. Demanding blind obedience to Church leaders, especially local leaders (whom I sustain in their callings but refuse to offer that giggly fanboi worship which I see in some people), rather than depending on our own spiritual gifts, study, and the Gift of the Holy Ghost to determine the right way to act just sets my teeth on edge. It ranks right up there with voting for political parties who will ram all kinds of things down people’s throats “for their own good,” as if you actually get any virtue points for that.

    And so I try not to parent that way. Mostly I think I’ve been successful, sometimes not so much; exerting effort to teach, not coerce; intervening to prevent harm, not to force silence; and demonstrating process, not directing outcome.

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  6. Howard on July 15, 2014 at 9:24 AM

    Obedience is an important *beginning* lesson for children to learn so they don’t grow up too rebellious or rogue. Boundaries are very important for children to feel secure. It’s a parent’s job to set boundaries and it’s a kids job to exceed them, the dance is a healthy interplay when you’re not too uptight about it. Beyond that beginning self-reliance is one of the greatest gifts we can instill in our children in preparation for their adulthood.

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  7. hawkgrrrl on July 15, 2014 at 10:28 AM

    I am often surprised by LDS people’s personal stories of ongoing “power struggles” with their parents well into adulthood, things they assume are the norm such as parents being intimately involved in what I consider to be adult decisions, and continually seeking either parental approval or at least to hide from parental disapproval. To me, these are symptoms of parents who believe far too much in the obedience model. And yet, church leaders often exemplify this parental model as well, making rules about earrings and tattoos, skirt lengths, and so on. As someone has put it elsewhere, a panel of 80 year old men are picking out our underwear. Now that’s parental control.

    When I was recently teaching gospel doctrine on the lesson about Saul being selected and then rejected as Israel’s first king, a class member astutely observed that Samuel was very controlling and seemed to be in a power struggle with Saul. If Saul didn’t act like his puppet, Samuel got very angry with him. Obedience focused parenting works this way, and often fails this way, too.

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  8. Jeff G on July 15, 2014 at 10:35 AM

    ““When we reject the counsel which comes from God, we do not choose to be independent of outside influence. We choose another influence… Rather than the right to choose to be free of influence, it is the inalienable right to submit ourselves to whichever of those powers we choose.” (Henry B. Eyring, Ensign, May 1997, p. 25)”

    Obedience is not something we do or don’t do. It’s a particular way of framing the choices we make. Under that frame we are always obeying someone or another, the only question is who? Thus, religious people aren’t teaching their children to not be self-reliant. They are teaching them the importance of framing our choices in terms of who we obey and follow.

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  9. Howard on July 15, 2014 at 11:10 AM

    ….a panel of 80 year old men are picking out our underwear. Now that’s parental control.

    Actually it’s pretty sick, isn’t it?

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  10. Hedgehog on July 15, 2014 at 1:25 PM

    I think some of it can depend on the personality of the child. Some need encouraging to be independent, whilst others regard any instruction as a challenge. I have one of each type. The first wants to know what the right thing to do is, so we have to sit down and encourage thought about & discuss the issues, and provide encouragement to reach their own conclusion (teach principles govern self); whilst the second is very oppositional, and we have always had to sit down and reason, even going so far as to demonstrate (at under 2 years old) falling bookshelves, as a reason not to climb them…
    Now they are older the first appreciates differing perspectives, and the second, whilst still possessing a temper, is actually easier to deal with as a teen than as an under 10, and will oppose only when actually in disagreement rather than as an automatic response. And both are happy to come and discuss pretty much anything.

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  11. IDIAT on July 15, 2014 at 2:32 PM

    If you are obedient (at least to the counsels of modern day prophets) you would be self reliant. On the other hand, a secular emphasis to be self reliant, with no morale reasoning or rationale, excludes others, and often devolves into a “me first and me only” stance. In other words, like Jeff G., I thing obedience to the right sort of authority (in this case church leaders) frames the choices. (No need to harp on blind obedience. That dog don’t hunt.)

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  12. Kullervo on July 15, 2014 at 3:11 PM

    Isn’t a spiritual ethos of self-reliance at odds with the need to trust in Jesus Christ completely for your salvation? And the constant theme in the Old Testament of relying completely on the Lord?

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  13. Nate on July 15, 2014 at 5:15 PM

    Jeff G: “Obedience is not something we do or don’t do. It’s a particular way of framing the choices we make. Under that frame we are always obeying someone or another, the only question is who?”

    Sort of like Bob Dylan’s song, “you gotta serve somebody.” But I disagree that we are always servants of something. God also wants us to learn to be masters of our fates. He does not command in all things. In fact, if you think about the myriad of choices we make each day, only a small percentage of them are subject to specific commandments. Most of what we do, think, and say is not obedience to a commandment.

    Obedience is important in certain contexts. Obedience to a certain ritual order allows us to exercise faith. If we pay our tithing, it strengthens our faith in God’s power to bless us, because we’ve been told that He will, once we pay tithing. But the real purpose of tithing is not obedience, or blessings, but that we learn to exercise faith. It’s similar to a doctor giving a placebo, which is supposed to help you if you take it twice a day. Taking it twice a day will help you exercise faith in the doctor’s promise that the medicine will work, even if it turns out to be just a placebo.

    Obedience is also important as a shortcut, or protection. “Don’t touch the hot stove!” a mother demands. But this lesson could just as well be learned the hard way. “Don’t have sex before you are married” is this sort of obedience as protection. This kind of obedience is about efficiency, and it facilitates personal growth.

    But the highest kind of obedience is about submission and subservience. He who is the greatest shall be the servant of all. This obedience comes not out of compulsion or fear, but from love and devotion. This kind of obedience helps a person transcend their individuality and self-centerdness and recognize that life is not just about individuals, but about relationships, hierarchies, and ideals which are higher than ourselves, or that our highest expression of being happens within collective, symbiotic relationships, where individual members obey agreed upon directions.

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  14. New Iconoclast on July 15, 2014 at 7:03 PM

    Kullervo asks, Isn’t a spiritual ethos of self-reliance at odds with the need to trust in Jesus Christ completely for your salvation? And the constant theme in the Old Testament of relying completely on the Lord?

    Although I know Kullervo understands this fairly well and is only baiting us, the answer is obviously “no.”

    First, being self-reliant in your approach to knowing and understanding the things of God vs. depending on the word of some other human for your spiritual direction is a completely separate question from trusting in Christ for salvation (and exaltation).

    Second, in fact, the self-discipline necessary to develop one’s own gospel knowledge and testimony will lead one inescapably to the conclusion that one depends on Christ and not on the arm of flesh, and encourage one to choose to develop one’s reliance on the Saviour rather than on earthly institutions like churches for one’s salvation. The Church may be necessary, but it is not what exalts us.

    Complete reliance on the Lord is something each of us can only learn through self-reliance and the judicious exercise of agency, not through mindless obedience to half-understood rules and mores that may or may not bear any relation to eternal laws.

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  15. Jeff G on July 15, 2014 at 8:24 PM


    Who said that we have to be commanded before we obey something? Just because we are not commanded in all things, doesn’t mean that we aren’t to obey Him in all things. Indeed, in all things we are either obeying God or we are obeying the devil which is exactly why we need to use our agency and choose.

    The ideology under which we weigh various reasons before we make our “own” decision is simply a way of masking where all those reasons came from. Under this view, we are all individuals who have equal access to a universal realm of reasons and positions which allow of each to make decisions on our own rather than consult an earthly authority. This subversion of earthly authority was actually the primary purpose behind the ideology.

    But the only way the ideology accomplishes this is by construing these reasons as existing totally independent of the people who revealed them to the world. Thus, if we follow the scriptures in construing our acceptance of various doctrines, positions and reasons as following the person who first revealed them, the question of “what are we obeying as free individuals?” becomes “who are we obeying as free individuals?” The revelators of these ideas can pretend that we are only accepting ideas, but what is the difference between that and “following a person’s teachings”?

    Long story short – intellectuals have pretended that agency is the opposite of obedience so as to trick them into obeying them and their teachings rather than those of religious authorities. But it’s a lie – there is discipleship and obedience in both cases.

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  16. Sue on July 15, 2014 at 9:08 PM

    I grew up with the “fear” of God in me. If I didn’t live up to a commandment, I was the first to “shame” myself. Then when i failed again, I gave myself a good whipping for disobedience that I was sure God had coming for me. This same model came into my adult life. I was “good” if I obeyed the commandments. I was “bad” when I felt short. My to-do list was long and tiring. My parents did the best they could, but my dad is %100 obedience model. They both came from very dysfunctional backgrounds. I believe it came from his farming/pioneer culture of hard work and obey even if a person is suffering inside or compelled (i.e cows had to be milked, it didn’t matter how you felt about doing it). I was the one that got married in the temple, beat myself up for not being obedient enough (with no major sins in tow), and married a husband that had a mess of sins (didn’t know). The rest of my siblings fell away for a while and most have returned except one.
    Then I learned about the secular notion of the “drama triangle”. I learned that rescuing, persecuting, or being a victim are very childlike behaviors. My victim mentality and my rescuing mentality were very exhausting. I then learned that my obedience model was very incorrect. Obedience is important but is a very “child-like” principle. I can teach my children a commandment like “thou shalt not steal”, but I think God’s law is the opposite of that. Sharing, service, etc. I went through a faith crisis of learning the secular and balancing my faith with the culture I was taught vs what I learned later as truth.
    I learned to see God through new eyes. I learned that next to God, I need to love myself (hence “love…thyself” is the second commandment, “thy neighbor” is third).
    As I started on a path of no judgement or shame for myself, my cloud began to lift and I could see my children in a new light. I could let them make mistakes, fall, and learn because they only need a model of how to “grow-up”. They needed love, to feel safe, to be taught, and modeled grown-up behavior. They want to please those they love and love them (not always as children). Just as I know that God loves me and because of His love for me, I WANT to follow Him and do/seek His will.
    Then when I do veer away from the “commands” there is no shame because I only have to remember to come back, no judgment of self needed. It is all about LOVE. Commands were “law of Moses” plans. All ordinances and covenants are more to help us remember Him. Satan somehow crept in the “shame mingled with gospel plan” into my life and even into my children’s lives, modeled well my parents and passed to the next generation. This is a much better way to live but we need to teach and model how to move away from obedience mentality in healthy ways. .
    I hesitate to use the word “self-reliance” because for me it makes me think of “self-control”. The word control is something I work real hard to get away from. “Control” is not real. I worked real hard to “control” my life. It is exhausting work (trust me I know). The greatest “control” we have is to just learn to be with what “IS” at this moment, and with faith move forward with hope. Always trusting in a power greater than ourselves is working for good in our lives and we usually manifest what we are thinking into our lives regardless of our faith. I can have faith in Jesus Christ, but Fear the world. Fear marring someone like “my dad”, and end up marrying someone similar because I was not healthy enough to see “unhealthy”. I never didn’t have faith in Jesus Christ.
    I think secular education is needed in the “right brain”. Our education model is very “left brain” centered. We need our brains healthier. I thought “religion” would help that department but “spirituality” can’t help us see what is wrong in our belief system. Pray more. Read more scriptures. Go to temple more. I tried that and we need more.I saw miracles from more of this but is not all.
    We need education in communication, brain function and development, brain training, empathy, mental health, thinking patterns that are not healthy, etc. This will allow us to have greater faith to grow spiritually because we are not so stuck by our poor brain functioning. When the fog lifted, I finally had room to grow spiritually. That is what the gospel is about for me. A foundation for my building. All pieces of the puzzle need to be in place to create a whole. FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real, no need for fear tactics in the lives of our children.

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  17. hawkgrrrl on July 15, 2014 at 10:40 PM

    Let’s not conflate the ideas of religious obedience with the information in the study. The study is asking about parenting styles specifically, not about whether agency or obedience indicates that one is religious or whether those who favor self-reliance are intellectuals or whatever other argument one is trying to make.

    The correlation is between parents who believe children should be taught to obey and those who believe children should be taught self-reliance. Obviously, all parents would believe in some mix of the two, but according to the study, when forced to choose just one, religious parents chose obedience over self-reliance (or perhaps as some have suggested see obedience as the best path to self-reliance).

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  18. Nate on July 16, 2014 at 3:02 AM

    Hawkgrrrl, sorry if your comment was addressed to me because I was taking obedience out of context and trying to analyze it generally. Maybe I’ll do a post about that seperately.

    It might be interesting for the study to look at Asian cultures as well. My impression is that the emphasis on obedience in Japanese culture for example, would put the most god-fearing religious mother here to shame. I think this was the same in Roman culture and others that had a strong sense of the superiority of the culture to the individual. Religions suffer from this a bit, because we think religion is so important that it often trumps individual autonomy. But there is enough humanist influence in Mormon religion that we don’t even come close to the obedience commanded from some of the more severe earthly cultures.

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  19. Nate on July 16, 2014 at 4:06 AM

    I did want to respond to Jeff G’s notion that all choices constitute either obedience or disobedience to God, and I hope Hawkgrrrl won’t mind. I gather that Jeff G is seeking to define our ideal life as a preset series of righteous choices tailored by God for us, and that all choices that vary from this can be interpreted as obeying Satan. (Correct me if I am wrong)

    But I really think that obedience to a particular divine will is only a small part of the story. We are to become like God, which means we are to become creators, to look at the blank canvas of the universe and create worlds ourselves, to beautify and give variety, of which there are infinite numbers of manifestations. Elder Oaks said there are “good, better, and best” choices, which is slightly more nuanced than the “good and evil, right and wrong binaries” but it is still hopelessly simplified. The reality is that there are millions of goods, betters, and bests, that we can choose at any given time, and constantly seeing our life in terms of obedience to a very particular divine will, which is “best” is an unhealthy way of embracing the abundance of potential our Father and Heaven wants us to embrace.

    In Hermann Hesse’s Stepenwolf, the protaganist sees himself as an individual constantly fighting between the man and the wolf inside himself. But he learns that this is far from the case.

    “…Every ego so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities. It appears to be as necessity an imperative as eating and breathing for everyone to be forced to regard this chaos as a unity and to speak of his ego as though is was a one-fold and clearly detached and fixed phenomenon. Even the best of us shares this delusion.”

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  20. Kullervo on July 16, 2014 at 8:23 AM

    Remember that correlation does not equal causation.

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  21. hawkgrrrl on July 16, 2014 at 9:16 AM

    Jeff G: “intellectuals have pretended that agency is the opposite of obedience so as to trick them into obeying them and their teachings rather than those of religious authorities. But it’s a lie – there is discipleship and obedience in both cases.” No, authoritarian governments trick citizens into obeying their edicts by restricting choices. That’s not true discipleship. True discipleship is ideological alignment. Those who are taught to obey before understanding (self-reliance) are not capable of true discipleship. Are intellectuals capable of behaving this way also? Sure.

    But all this is a ruse anyway. The heart of the question from the survey is about parenting, and the reason that’s significant is because it goes to the center of the matter: how individuals view children. Do we see our children as inherently good or inherently bad? Do we see their instincts as worthwhile or in need of being limited and controlled? By this measure, different members of the Q12 would answer this question differently. There are some of our leaders whose talks reveal that they view man as naturally good, the offspring of God, with a spark of divinity within. Others view man as naturally disposed to do evil, needing to be controlled and monitored closely, an enemy to God. Obviously, humans have the capacity for both good and evil within us. Those who want to control human tendencies believe we are more weak than we are strong (whether they are in authority or are intellectuals).

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  22. Kullervo on July 16, 2014 at 9:44 AM

    Others view man as naturally disposed to do evil, needing to be controlled and monitored closely, an enemy to God.

    The need to control and monitor closely does not necessarily follow from man’s natural disposition to do evil. There are more premises packed in there.

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  23. Jeff G on July 16, 2014 at 2:00 PM

    Hawkgrrrl in 17,

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear about the relevance which I saw my comment having to the post. I was trying to suggest a genealogy of sorts for the difference mentioned in the post. What I see those studies as measuring is how different sets of parents teach their children to construe their actions and choices in life.

    In our modern democratic societies in which (religious) authority is held with such suspicion we can expect secular authorities to construe the choices we make in terms of alternatives which we autonomously choose. This way of seeing people as answering to positions and principles rather than the other way around, is labeled “self-sufficiency”. Religious people, on the other hand, tend to embrace a more pre-modern mentality in which authority isn’t necessarily bad – it just depends on which authority. Thus, they will construe their choices in terms of who they obey since total self-sufficiency is an illusion.

    Thus, I would follow both groups in teaching my kids both ways of seeing the world, but if push comes to shove I would have to go with obedience.

    (I hope that explains rather than compounds the perceived thread-jack.)

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  24. Jeff G on July 16, 2014 at 2:20 PM


    What I’m saying is that from a gospel perspective there really aren’t any ideas which come ex nihilo. They always come from some person. Maybe we read them in a book or heard them in a talk or it was the still small voice whispering to us, etc. We try to make it sound like our behaviors, beliefs and choices are ones that we made for ourselves, but this is a fraud. By choosing a who, we inevitably choose a what and by choosing a what we inevitably choose a who. Thus, we freely choose whether to frame the world in terms of the whos (obedience) or the whats (self-sufficiency, so-called). We also choose which way we will teach our children to frame the world – and it comes as no surprise at all that those are taught that following Jesus or His servants would prefere the who-frame over the what-frame.


    “True discipleship is ideological alignment.”

    Says who? – See what I did there? ;-) – The clearest examples we have of discipleship (the 12 Apostles) were by no means paragons of understanding.

    “Those who want to control human tendencies”

    But this includes everybody! Just because one side represses the persons behind the positions does not mean that their sides isn’t controlling human tendencies. Indeed, that just was morality is – controlling people tendencies.

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  25. hawkgrrrl on July 16, 2014 at 4:37 PM

    Jeff G: ” The clearest examples we have of discipleship (the 12 Apostles) were by no means paragons of understanding.” No kidding! Valid point. Maybe I should have said a belief that we are ideologically aligned.

    “I would follow both groups in teaching my kids both ways of seeing the world, but if push comes to shove I would have to go with obedience.” Which is, I suspect, why the results showed as they did. I would assume you would (by the other measures) also show as “religious” vs. “secular” minded.

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