Can America raise kids on 'Religion Lite' values? Nurturing children in God-free zones makes the source of morality a 'lifestyle option.'

THE ARGUMENT

July 19, 1998|By Brenda Becker | Brenda Becker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Are baby boomer parents raising a generation of moral idiots? This fear would seem to be widespread, to judge from one booming tributary in the seemingly endless river of parenting books: how to raise a moral, virtuous, or even spiritual child. The real challenge, to judge from this crop of books, is raising young paragons of virtue with no embarrassing dependence on God or at least on any "formal" or "organized" religion, with its dread "preaching" and "moralizing." Whether this earnest move toward Religion Lite will nourish the tots remains to be seen.

Panic over the morals of the upcoming generation has been rising steadily since classical antiquity, of course. But in light of the recent spate of schoolyard shooters and teen parents with a penchant for dumpstering their newborns, it's hardly surprising that America has awakened in a cold sweat to the notion of teaching "values."

The behavior of the boomer cohort, from the White House on down, does little to reassure us that we've even got The Right Stuff to pass on. Or, as Christopher Buckley (a Catholic-turned-agnostic) quipped in "Wry Martinis" (Harper Perennial, 294 pages, $14), when his 6-year-old daughter asked, "What's God?" and "What happens after you die?": "Clearly, it was time to get cracking on the spiritual side of things."

To his credit, Buckley throws his own "personal value system" straight to hell and stammeringly assures his daughter that, yes, she will go straight to heaven when she dies. The authors of the new tomes on ethical formation offer a tougher challenge.

They're not to be faulted for separating morality from religion; these are indeed distinct entities, and the practitioners of one don't necessarily embrace the other. But this feast of philosophizing on virtue and character, studiously uncoupled from religious underpinnings, starts to sound stilted and hollow after a while. Even those disaffected from old-fashioned religion must surely miss a whiff of brimstone now and then, especially when it comes time to convince your son or daughter to avoid the road perils of adolescent self-destruction.

All the books have one painfully good trait in common: an uncompromising insistence that parents are their children's first and most important moral teachers. Painfully good, because it's awful that this truth should not be self-evident. (If one reminds oneself that an American parent these days is more likely to be Homer Simpson than Atticus Finch, the need for these books becomes a bit clearer.) But what morals, and how do you teach them? Or, as most of these authors would prefer, what values, and how do you share them?

The answer, for mass trade book consumption, would seem to be "religious core teachings: the basic values of human existence" like respect, honesty, fairness, and compassion, as Wayne Dosick advises in "Golden Rules: The Ten Ethical Values Parents Need to Teach Their Children" (Harper San Francisco, ++ 221 pages, $12, paperback). The very first words of "Spiritual Parenting" by Hugh and Gayle Prather (Three Rivers Press, 292 pages, $13, paperback) are, "To benefit from this book, you need no faith in religious doctrine." According to Linda and Richard Eyre in "Teaching Your Children Values" (Fireside, 256 pages, $11, paperback), the important thing "is that parents consciously develop their own set of family values and work at teaching those values to their children."

This is indeed a big step up from the crackpot Sixties notion of letting your kids "choose what they believe in" when they come of age (what the Eyres call a "values vacuum"). All the authors concur that parents shouldn't be wimps, shouldn't be afraid to set limits, even if it does make them sound like (most dread fate!) their own parents.

Indeed, this whole wave of parenting anxiety seems like a direct outgrowth of counterculture concussion. One especially dumbed-down entry in the sweepstakes has, at least, the most honest title: "Getting Your Kids to Say No in the '90s When You Said Yes in the '60s" (Victor Strasburger, M.D., Fireside, 286 pages, $11).

What the books fail to do is offer a convincing argument that virtue and ethics are more compelling served up dry, without the sauce of dogma and the seasoning of guilt. They don't inveigh against religion; in fact, it gets endorsed as a nice source of spiritual uplift and family traditions, like watching sunsets and eating dinner together. Yes, God in the '90s: just one of many options for nurturing ethical development and personal growth.

In a way, it's reassuring that agnostic moms and dads, or simply those who can't take organized religion seriously, now have a font of feel-good and (mostly) sensible resources to draw on when the time comes to get cracking, spiritual-side-wise. Even the multi-culti stuff is pleasant; who could object to inspiring Native American myths and Hindu aphorisms?

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