I’ve often heard Christians complain about parents who “allow other people to raise their kids”. They give examples such as daycare and public schools, where they worry about an institution indoctrinating their children with values different from their own.
What a lot of these Christians don’t seem to realize however, is that they themselves are also outsourcing their parenting.
I myself, and my peers from similar backgrounds, were all raised by the institution known as the church – often more so than by our own parents. Many of us who were raised in Christian home-schooling families spent almost as much time at church as other kids spend at school. At different points in my childhood, I was at church four to five days a week.
I could only attend events or have friends within a very specific and highly-controlled group of approved people, yet my parents didn’t have as much control over what I was learning as they thought they did.
My mom and dad are good people. Overall they gave me a wonderful childhood. They made some mistakes and held some harmful beliefs, but whose parents haven’t? To their credit, I’ve seen them try to stretch and expand their perspectives to make room for me as I’ve changed over the years. They love me.
What harmed me the most wasn’t directly from either of my parents, but the group actions of a strict and condemning institution – and being raised in a bubble where that institution was my only understanding of the world and reality.
My trauma came from events like summer camp where my mom and dad thought I was having fun. I developed PTSD from friends who spread vicious church gossip – friends whom my parents assumed loved me. I was scarred by Christian leaders who gave me opportunities my parents thought I would be excited about. I cried every day at my job with a high-profile Christian family whom my parents trusted to create a positive work environment.
I’ve noticed some Christians harshly judging parents who “send their kids away on the big yellow bus” – criticizing their supposed blind trust in the school system and public educators.
What those Christians don’t seem to realize is that they and many other Christian parents drop their kids off at the church nursery, Sunday School and Youth Group, without a second thought as to what lessons are being learned there. It never occurs to them to wonder what their kids are hearing from the Sunday School teachers, youth pastors and volunteers there.
I can speak from experience that often children raised in church are exposed to things their Christian parents would never dream of nor choose for them.
And this doesn’t pertain only to radicalized groups or extremist fringe cults. Most of us who were traumatized by our Christian childhood were raised in mainstream evangelical denominations – the neighborhood church on the corner. The church I grew up attending was the largest and most popular in the area and had a shining reputation in the community. It was a likely place for an average Christian to find themselves on a typical Sunday morning. It was the kind of place you could attend once or twice or even for a while without noticing anything was wrong. The damage wasn’t noticeable until you were immersed; fear now etched into your nervous system, danger tattooed on your brain.
I doubt my parents expected the church nursery volunteer to accuse 3-year-old me of taking a toy from another child and then not believing me when I insisted I hadn’t. I doubt they expected me to be yelled at and called a “very BAD girl!” or for that memory to be seared into my mind almost 30 years later. I doubt they knew that would be the start of a lifelong experience of being repeatedly accused and never believed by the church.
I doubt my parents would have wanted 5-year-old me being taught by Sunday School teachers that I was a garbage human being worthy of eternal torture. I doubt they would have told me in such harsh terms that I was completely and utterly evil to my core and the only reason God could love me, a little kid, was that God saw Jesus when looking at me instead of me.
I doubt my parents sent me off to church summer camp at 12 years old expecting me to be told that I was like a water balloon and anytime I kissed a boy or held his hand or said I love you (things far from my mind at the time), that a pin prick leaked a little water out of me until I was a deflated, damp piece of rubber.
I doubt my parents expected that at this camp I would be forced by my counselors to sign a document promising not to engage in a long list of sexual behaviors and non-sexual behaviors such as riding in a car alone with a boy. I was 12 years old. I had only known what sex even was for 2 years by that time and still didn’t have a fully accurate understanding of it. I was way too young to be making adult decisions about a part of me that I wasn’t acquainted with yet and rightly so. I was unprepared at 12 years old to make any choices, much less promises, on any grown-up activities whatsoever, and I doubt my parents thought I would have to.
I doubt my parents wanted my middle-school-aged girls Bible study to so deeply ingrain body shame in me that I wouldn’t wear leggings in public until I was 27 years old so I could attend a gym class. I doubt they would have wanted that shame to follow me 15 years into the future and make me cry on my way to the class– my cheeks flushed and breath shallow as I hurried across the street with a sweater tied tightly around my waist.
I doubt my parents expected my pastor to tell me as a teenager that young women who post selfies on the internet are vain attention-seekers who look like dogs.
I doubt my parents would have wanted all my Christian friends to abandon me when I was sexually assaulted at 19, because the news of my being alone with a guy would tarnish THEIR reputations for being associated with me.
I doubt my parents wanted their pastor to call me up and give me a 10 minute lecture over the phone about a woman’s place in the church when he heard I was leading ministry at my college.
I doubt my parents would have approved of church members stalking me on the internet and harassing me long into my twenties, years after I had left.
In fact, I think my parents would be horrified if they could understand all that had happened, and yet I still haven’t told them everything because the church’s influence in their lives makes it difficult for them to listen openly sometimes.
My parents are good people but in an effort to do what they thought was best for me, they outsourced their parenting to an abusive institution.
My parents never told me I was less valuable or farther from God because I was female – but the church they took me to did.
My parents never told me I was disgusting and dirty but the classes they sent me to did.
My parents never told me it was wrong to wear tank tops, pierced earrings, lacy hems, eye-liner, graphic tees, one-piece swimsuits, or shorts above the knee, but people my parents respected did.
My parents never told me the only dream I could have for my future was to be a wife and mother, but my youth pastor did.
My parents never told me I couldn’t be a leader, but everyone else at church did.
My parents never told me I couldn’t trust my emotions or intuition, but my girls’ group did.
My parents never taught me that menstruation and childbirth were God’s punishment on women, but books from the church library did.
My parents never told me I wouldn’t be a whole human being anymore if I had a sexual experience outside of marriage, but the materials they gave me to read did.
My parents would never have done any of these things but they put me in the church that did. They unintentionally outsourced their parenting to people and groups that would abuse me and damage my well-being long into adulthood.
For anyone raising their children in church or planning to, please be aware your children will be exposed to teachings and treatment you might not expect. Please be very careful about who you outsource your parenting to.