Should we bring the Buddhadharma to children?
Is it religious indoctrination?
Should we be reluctant to do it?
I direct and teach a Buddhist Sunday school program at a non-sectarian Buddhist Center in Kansas City. I have been doing it for several years now. My oldest child, my daughter Nissa, has been going with me and she really enjoys it. My son James, after he became old enough, started going with me too. He really enjoys it as well.
I was worried when I started; I had a passing interest in Buddhism that started to really grow after my first child was born.
Buddhism had become a big part of my life and my daughter—who was three at the time—started becoming curious. She wondered about the Buddha statues, prayer flags and incense sticks that I had around the house.
She had a lot of questions and I was unsure how to answer them.
I was nervous about answering.
I was raised in Christianity, as most people in America are, and when I walked away from it as a teenager, I thought that indoctrinating children was probably a bad thing. Kids raised with religion, in my view, didn’t really have a chance to choose that religion. They were in it before they could make a decision.
So when my daughter started asking questions about Buddhism, I was nervous that I would be indoctrinating her in the same way.
But, Buddhism is different than most religions—it’s non-dogmatic. The precepts are more of a list of suggestions than a list of commandments.
I took her with me to the Buddhist Center that I attended and I started volunteering in the Dharma School, the children’s program that happens at the same time as the adult services.
After a few years, the people in charge were gone and I had replaced them. I didn’t try to replace them. I wasn’t ambitious. I was just called to do it.
I don’t think of it as teaching religion. The idea of teaching religion seems a little uncomfortable to me, as I said.
I eventually became the director of the Dharma school—in charge of the religious education of several children. This terrified me and I set about thinking of ways to do it that would feel more acceptable to my sensibility.
When designing lessons, I started thinking about it in a different way. I don’t think of it as teaching religion anymore, I think of it as teaching the virtues of mindfulness, wisdom and compassion. These are very important virtues in Buddhism. Everything I teach the children is informed by this.
We live in a culture where these three virtues aren’t as emphasized as they should be. No one is trying to teach children to be focused on greed, aggression and other negative feelings; but they can, at times, learn it from our culture anyway.
This is not to say that our culture is always poisonous, but there are a lot of bad things children can learn out there.
There are some random rituals too, like setting up a shrine, but I try not to make those out to be too important.
So, in the Dharma school, I have the opportunity to reinforce these important values. At the same time, of course, the parents of the children have an opportunity to practice with a group—and that’s important too.
We teach with stories, lessons, and activities and it works pretty well. But, the best way to bring the Dharma to children is to remember that we, as parents, need to practice it ourselves.
So should we, as parents, bring the Dharma to children?
I think so.
It’s working out pretty well for my family. We’re getting the opportunity to meet other like-minded families. And my hope is that my children, thanks to what I’m teaching them, will be a little more well-equipped to handle the suffering that the world has to offer.
But, if they ever decided they didn’t want to go to Dharma school, I would never make them. I think that’s important. It’s their choice, not mine and that’s the way it should be.
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Ed: Sara Crolick