Sunday 23 May 2010

Children's loss of play: The need of families for a God-centred ethic of work and rest?

In his excellent book 'The Busy Christian's Guide to Busyness' Tim Chester challenges Christians to examine the way we live our lives and to unmask the many self-deceptions that drive us to lead lives that at times seem out of control.

The Bible teaches that work and rest are both good, but in western countries like Australia, there is a constant playing out of two competing ethics, a ‘work-centred’ ethic and a ‘leisure-centred’ ethic. How can we achieve balance between work and rest? Chester points out that even the way we 'play' is driven by purposes other than the ultimate purpose of this important human activity. He comments:
"Even our time off can be hard work. Our secular age tends to give material answers to spiritual problems. So leisure has become a thing you 'do' or 'buy'....we no longer 'stroll' or 'ramble'; now we 'hike' with walking poles...leisure is no longer rest; leisure is consumption."
With Chester's comments about adults and play and with my own struggles maintaining a right view of work and rest as a backdrop, I want to suggest that the problems adults have working out a right view of rest (and work) might have many unintended consequences for our children. Our children learn from us through the words we teach them, the lives we live before them and the relationship between both of these and our faith. Children can grow up to imitate us or at times reject that which we have taught and demonstrated. The latter might have positive consequences or simply lead them to other equally wrong and confused notions of work and rest.  New research on the loss of childhood play might be relevant in understanding the importance of play (as a form of rest) to our children. While I don't want to suggest that rest = play for the child (or the adult), changes in the nature of play and the amount of time that adults and their children devote to play is I think relevant to our understanding of rest.

The varied consequences of diminishing play time for children

Psychologists, educators and paediatricians see children’s play as so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child   [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Convention on the Rights of the Child].
But in a clinical report to the American Academy of Paediatrics, Kenneth R. Ginsburg concluded, "Many of these children are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play."
Major child rearing agencies, early childhood associations, paediatric groups and government agencies with responsibility for children and families have been raising serious questions about declining spare time, and in particular unstructured playtime for young children. For example, a UK report from 300 teachers, psychologists and children's authors claimed that the erosion of "unstructured, loosely supervised" playtime is dangerously affecting young people's health.

Ginsburg concludes that:

• Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
• Play is important to healthy brain development.
• Through play children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.
• Play allows children to create and explore a world where they can achieve a sense of mastery.
• They can also conquer their fears while practising adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers.
• As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence.
• Undirected play allows children to learn how to work and create with others, to share, to negotiate, and to resolve conflicts.
• When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover their own areas of interest.
• Play is essential for the building of active healthy bodies.

How might the limitation of play in childhood limit understanding of work & rest as adults?

None of the research on play gives any consideration to the possible consequences of the loss of play to the spiritual well being of the child and its impact on later adult life. Neither does the Bible offer too much direct advice about the importance of play for children's health, development and general well-being. But we do know that God ordained work and rest for our good, and in doing both we imitate him. We also know that in modelling the Christian life for our children, that they observe our actions as well as listening to the things we teach them. Could the way we structure our children's lives teach children things about work and rest that we never intended? Could the work ethic we hold and our attitudes towards activities like school, study, chores and part-time work (for older children), indirectly teach ethics of work and play that aren't biblical? What are we teaching them about work and rest in and through our lives and the way we shape their lives?

What should be our response?

The answer to the observed problem of children's reduced time for rest and play is not simply a new timetable at home.  The answer to lives that are too busy and lack time for rest, is not simply less work or more rest, but a right attitude to both based on a clear understanding of God's grace.  This will start with parents examining their own lives first, then their children's. There is nothing wrong with being busy, in fact Paul teaches us in Philippians that we are to 'pour out' our lives in the service of God (Philippians 2:17); and we are to honour God and give him first place in our lives, as we "present our bodies as a living sacrifice" (Rom 12:1).

As Tim Chester wrote in an article for Case magazine last year, the Bible presents us with a "liberating God-centred ethic in which we work for the glory of God and we rest for the glory of God". Granted, the desire for our children to know and ultimately live out this understanding is rarely in the front of our minds when we play leggo with our 2 year-old, help our 7 year-old with homework or 'waste' time with them at the weekend; but maybe it should be, at least to a greater extent than I assume that it is for most Christian parents.  

We need a right attitude to work and play driven by motivations, goals and aspirations centred on knowing Christ better ourselves and making him known to others. Tim Chester reminds us that "...we can find rest in our busyness and joy in our labour." As parents we need to demonstrate and teach our children that a life dedicated to Christ is one which has a yoke that is easy, and one that will bring ultimate 'rest'. Jesus' teaching ultimately points to the fact that our lives need to acknowledge the perfect rest that we find in our relationship with him:

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

Other reading and resources

Robert K. Johnston (1983), 'The Christian at Play'

Tim Chester (2006). 'The Busy Christian's Guide to Busyness'

Robert Banks (1983). 'The Tyranny of Time'

Previous posts on 'Tyranny and Challenge of Time' and 'Time and the Family'

Tim Chester (2009). 'The Busy Christian's Introduction to Busyness' Case Magazine, No. 18. [Theme: City Life]

Kenneth R. Ginsburg (2007). 'The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds'. Pediatrics, Vol. 119, No. 1, pp 182-191.

Friday 14 May 2010

A right view of indoctrination?

"... no true education can escape the responsibility of communicating a view of life - that is, of 'indoctrinating.' The cult of the open mind is a way of camouflaging the poverty of an education which has no view of life to communicate. Indoctrination is not an educational crime; it is an educational necessity, in religion as in table manners. The crime is to indoctrinate in such a way as to destroy the freedom and responsibility of the pupil. It is by no means impossible - and the world's greatest teachers from Socrates onwards have proved it to be the very heart of teaching - to present a strongly held faith in such a way as to challenge the beholder to come to terms with it on his own personal responsibility. That there is no necessary opposition between doctrine and freedom is clear when personal freedom is at the very heart of the doctrine."
The above is a quote from a book written by M.V.C. Jeffreys who wrote most of his publications in the first half of the 20th century. He was a Professor of Education at the University of Birmingham. The quote is from his book 'Glaucon' and was first published in 1950.

Richard Dawkins is a big critic of parents holding a faith position and teaching it to their children. He claims that it is indoctrination and that it is a form of child abuse. Is this fair? I think not! Surely it is the right of all parents to teach to or share with their children the things they believe, or simply the things that they think are important. How different is it for a parent to passionately teach their children about Climate Change, the killing of endangered species, the dangers of atomic energy or the unparalleled merits of the New York Yankees (or the Rabbitohs in Sydney) and a parent who teaches their children about their faith?

It's easy to be accused of indoctrination. In September last year President Obama was accused of indoctrination (here) due to his national address to the nation's school children.  Jim Greer the chair of Florida's Republican Party stated, "I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology." In fact, there are accusations of this sort against the President all over the web. Personally, I think the claims are grossly unfair, but how do we make such judgements? How and why did Jim Greer reach his conclusion that it was indoctrination?

Is it just possible that some of the people who object to parents teaching their children about faith, labelling it as indoctrination, might 'indoctrinate' their own children, or even find it acceptable when others 'indoctrinate' children with ideas with which they agree? I read a blog recently in which the writer told how her 3 year old had chanted to her at dinner that night “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!”. She suggested that the learning of this chant to encourage recycling is "good indoctrination". Who decides when indoctrination of children is good, or bad? Given that indoctrination simply means to instruct or teach someone a "doctrine" - which in turn means a body of knowledge, sets of principles, a collection of teachings - then it is nonsense to assume that it is always wrong.

M.V.C. Jeffreys' view was that indoctrination rather than being wrong or immoral is appropriate and unavoidable. What he saw as wrong was indoctrination that can "destroy the freedom and responsibility of the pupil". In defence of Christians who are accused of indoctrination regularly, it is relevant to remind people that the very basis of Christian faith is freedom. Christianity isn't about simple adherance to a set of rules or even moral principles; although the Bible does suggest ways that we should live. Those who present the Christian faith in this way are teaching a false gospel. While we can teach a child about faith in Christ, we cannot make them believe. It is wrong for a parent or teacher to seek to coerce children into believing that which they believe themselves. It is also a quest that is doomed to failure. As Joshua reminded the Israelites as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, ultimately all of us must choose who we will serve. Joshua challenged the Israelites to consider if they were going to serve the gods of the Amorites or the God of their ancestors, Yahweh (Joshua 24:14-15). Likewise, Jesus called his disciples to choose to follow and to believe in him. And as Jesus taught the stakes are high:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Why shouldn't parents teach their children the doctrines that will allow them to make a choice as to the reality of God as taught in the Bible? Especially when they believe that there are eternal consequences.

The Bible teaches that the Christian faith is not about being enslaved to the views of others, whether as a child or as an adult, it is about being set free to live as God had intended.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  (Romans 8:1-4)

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Reason, Faith, and Revolution

I’ve just finished reading Terry Eagleton’s book ‘Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate’ (2009). Terry Eagleton,  is Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster and Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland in Galway.  He has written more than 40 books including ‘Literary Theory: An Introduction’ (1983), ‘The Ideology of the Aesthetic’ (1990) and the ‘The Illusions of Postmodernism’. He is a literary critic first and foremost and political activist second. He is also a well-known Marxist and agnostic. He does not claim to be a philosopher or theologian, although he draws on both in this entertaining (but hardly ground breaking) book.

In this new book Eagleton offers a withering critique of New Atheism and its major proponents Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (who he refers to collectively as ‘Ditchkins’). The major thesis of his book is that faith and reason are not exclusive categories as 'Ditchkins' argues. He suggests that religion (particularly in those forms that he sees as ‘true’ and unadulterated) is not simply a matter of blind mindless faith, but rather requires a combination of faith and reason. He is particularly critical of the tendency of New Atheists to blame all the evils of the world on religion while blindly celebrating science without questioning its benefits. This same science he reminds us that gave us penicillin, artificial limbs and enhanced agricultural productivity has also been used to create weapons of mass destruction, chemical warfare and environmental disasters.

Christians shouldn't read Eagleton expecting to find a generous assessment. He has plenty of negative things to say about Christianity today.  Some of the things he says have an element of truth, others are perhaps exaggerated (but that is his style), some are inaccurate or unfair. New Atheists will probably say the same. His general view is that the church has lost touch with Christ's example and teaching.  Of course, in saying this he has a particular view of Christ in mind which I suspect is an incomplete one. He suggests that “ is hard to think of a historical movement that has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins” (p. 55). As in some of his previous publications such strong views reflect a simplistic caricature in relation to Christianity. While he makes claims about some Christians throughout history being responsible for bigotry, injustice, cruelty, deception, hypocrisy and so on, it is just as easy to offer a list of the many examples of Christian contributions to society, including fighting injustice, the foundations of western government and the law, the establishment of most of the major aid agencies around the world, a record of care of the sick and homeless, being the catalyst for universal education, fighting for human rights etc.

Eagleton is just as critical of the rise of religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, which he calls ‘New Age religion’). He suggests that “It offers a refuge from the world, not a mission to transform it” (p.41). So, the Christian right gets a giant serve as do Islamic extremists who he sees as politically motivated rather than inspired by Islam. Liberalism also receives some strong treatment, the general thrust of which I find myself in agreement:
Liberalism he suggests has “..fostered an atomistic notion of the self, a bloodlessly contractual view of human relations, a meagerly utilitarian version of ethics, a crudely instrumental idea of reason, a doctrinal suspicion of doctrine, an impoverished sense of human communality, a self-satisfied faith in progress and civility, a purblindness to the more malign aspects of the human nature, and a witheringly negative view of power, the state, freedom, and tradition.” (p.94).
But Eagleton's major focus and motivation for writing this book has been to challenge the simplistic separation of faith and reason. Both New Atheists and liberal nationalists he claims have failed to understand this relationship. Dawkins he points out assumes that his own belief is reflective of reason, while he sees Christians being guilty of blind faith. Rather, he suggests New Atheists hold a faith position of their own. In fact, he argues that scientists are also motivated by faith, indeed “a great deal of what we believe we do not know firsthand; instead, we have faith in the knowledge of specialists.” Hence, in this area alone, we are dependent on faith in truths that we cannot personally assess and verify.
Eagleton concludes that faith and knowledge are not antithetical but in fact are interwoven. Reasoning of any kind he suggests " conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.”
Atheists won't like Eagleton’s assessment of them any more than Christians will like some of the things he says about their faith, but his arguments from his perspective as a Marxist are of interest. His command of language and his wide ranging discussion of so many worldviews, makes this book an interesting read.  As well, his rebuke of those who support a simplistic separation of reason from faith is timely.