Are You Opening – or Closing – Your Children’s Hearts?

— by Rabbi Rami Shapiro

There are only 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 (whatever secures the failure of them).
  • 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.

More after the jump.
Are you parenting opened hearts or closed hearts?

One way to know 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 a toy isle. 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 could be found in any faith. Because religious stories are some of the most personality shaping stories we humans tell, we must examine them to see what kind of children we are raising when we tell them these stories.

A few months ago I met with a small gathering of Muslim and Christian clergy to draft a statement condemning religious violence. We had no problem doing this as long as the violence was this-worldly, but when I suggested we also 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. So yes, we should avoid telling our children that our God condones violence against those who believe differently than we do, but we should tell them that God will do just that when they die.

Of course religion isn’t the only source of heart-closing stories. Politics, nationalism, ethnicity, 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? None of these stories stops you from giving money to the poor and homeless, but each speaks to a worldview that is either heart-closing or heart-opening.

  • 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 to herself 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.

Telling heart-opening stories isn’t easy. It requires you to carefully examine your worldview and the stories you tell to reinforce it. It may force you to challenge cherished stories of your own: stories about being chosen and not chosen, or saved and damned. It may force you to change your story, and that may cause others who still cherish that story to reject you because you rejected it. Storytelling has real-life consequences, and because it does it is vital that you know what you telling.

If you want to raise open-hearted kids tell them heart-opening stories; 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, just 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’s Guide to God: Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Teacher. Rabbi Rami Shapiro is also a contributing author to Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning.