There are two ways to raise your children: you either shut them down or you open them up. If you shut them down you raise them in a zero-sum world of winners and losers. You teach them that the world is a pie of fixed size, and that if they want more they must see that others have less or perhaps nothing at all. This is a fearful world of endless and often violent competition and retribution; a world of haves and have-nots; a world of us versus them where the ends (the success of us) justify the means.
If you open your children up you raise them in a nonzero-sum world where abundance is the norm, and while there will still be winners and losers—those who have more and those have less—it is not a world that allows some to have nothing. This is a world rooted in compassion rather than competition; a world of us and them rather than a world of us versus them.
Are you parenting opened hearts or closed hearts? One way to find out is to analyze the stories you share with your children. I’m not talking about the storybooks you read to your kids, though these too need to be looked at; I’m talking about the stories you teach them through your faith and your dealings with others.
The other day I was in a local Wal-Mart walking down the toy isle as two kids were eyeing the action figures. Both boys were with their moms, one of whom was dressed in a manner that identified her as a Muslim. The little Muslim boy picked up a toy and turned to show it to the other boy who moved closer to get a better look. As the boy moved closer his mom, who had been holding his hand, yanked him back, turned and walked to another isle. As she passed me I heard her say to her son, “We don’t talk to those people. They don’t believe in Jesus.”
Religion is often a means for closed-heartedness, and parallel stories can be found in any faith. Because religious stories are some of the most influential stories we humans tell, we must examine them to see what kind of children we are raising when we tell these stories.
A few months ago I met with a small gathering of Muslim and Christian clergy to draft a statement condemning religious violence. When I suggested we condemn the eternal torture of nonbelievers (who are really only differently believing believers) in the world to come, I found myself in a minority of one. If God wants to burn people for believing what they believe that is His business, I was told.
Of course religion isn’t the only source of heart-closing stories. Politics, nationalism, ethnicity, and race can all be used to this end. And what all these heart-closing stories have in common is that they demonize the other.
So what stories are you telling your children?
When you see a homeless person, is your story “There but for the grace of God go I,” or do you talk about the power of negative thinking, or do you talk about justice and injustice and our obligations to the poor?
If your story is “There but for the grace of God go I,” you are saying that God loves you more than God does the poor and homeless. If your story is one of negative thinking; the homeless person attracted poverty by “thinking poor” rather than “thinking rich,” you are saying that you think better than does this other person.
Both of these stories are heart-closing, but don’t imagine that telling the story of justice and injustice is automatically heart-opening. If your justice story demonizes the wealthy or makes saints of the poor you are still telling a tale that closes the heart. As long as you tell stories that pit an “us” against a “them,” you are perpetuating a world and a mindset that will force your child to live in a fearful world haunted by the specter of the other.
If you want to raise open-hearted kids tell them stories that speak of us and them rather than us versus them; stories that link success to personal integrity, creativity, compassion, and curiosity rather than selfishness, greed, conformity, and exploiting the weaknesses of others; stories that show a world rooted in love rather than fear. And if you take on this challenge, know that you will be doing so in the face of a culture that too often tells a very different story.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro, PhD teaches religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University and is the director of Wisdom House Center for Interfaith Studies in Nashville. He has written over two dozen books and a new series, Rabbi Rami Guides: Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler, available at Spirituality & Health Books and Amazon.com; see www.rabbirami.com.