My one-year-old son, Elliott, eyes the chickpea-filled bowl suspiciously. He tentatively pokes a stubby finger into the bowl and starts stirring the legumes around. I’m pretty sure it isn’t my imagination when, seconds later, his hazel eyes light up, and his little pink lips curl ever-so-slightly upwards.
His thumb joins his pointer finger in the bowl, pincer grasp at the ready. Triumphantly, he pulls out a small stick of carrot and, for the rest of his lunch, somehow successfully manages to avoid the chickpeas, even though they are hiding—and burying—the pasta and vegetables.
I pick up one of the many neglected chickpeas and wave it in front of his face. He opens his mouth and closes it after I place the chickpea in. The mental me does a victory dance, pausing with one leg in the air when, within seconds, the same chickpea shoots out of his mouth. Undeterred, I try again, but this time, I’m met with pursed lips that seem to be cemented shut.
Chickpeas are an important source of protein for my child, who I am raising vegetarian, so I’m not giving up easily. I hover near his mouth with a chickpea at the ready. Like a contestant at the fair’s “laughing clown” game, I wait for him to open his mouth to feed himself a piece of rotini, and I throw in a chickpea. He chews—and spits out the slightly squashed offending legume. This mom is going to have to figure out a different protein source.
train up a child
Like many parents before us, my husband and I have found transitioning our child to solid food interesting but challenging—discovering what he likes and what he doesn’t. As diligent first-time parents, we attended workshops to learn more about what to feed him outside of his monotonous diet of milk. The seminars and flyers were helpful, except for one flaw: they assumed Elliott would not be a vegetarian.
To be clear, my husband is not a vegetarian, and I am the only plant-eater in my extended family. And should Elliott sometime in the future decide he is going to follow in his father’s footsteps and kill poor Henny Penny or Daisy Cow for food (I jest. Someone else will probably do the butchering for him.), I wouldn’t object—too much.
However, my husband and I agree on the health benefits of a vegetarian diet and have decided that, as a foundation, we are going to raise Elliott on plant-based foods. Perhaps we have a healthy dose of optimism, but we believe the Bible’s promise and advice to “start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
Allow me to extend that train of thought from what we choose to eat to whom we choose to worship. What if we were (and we are) starting off our children “on the way” to Christianity? Elliott probably doesn’t understand why just yet, but he loves joining hands at mealtime to say a family prayer of thanks to God for His provision because it’s what we’ve done with him since he started solid food. Occasionally, he even joins in, piping up at the end with a cute little “Ma-men!”
Together with such popular children’s stories as Mem Fox’s Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, we also read Baby’s First Bible Stories before bedtime. My husband and I are doing our best to ensure that Elliott will be brought up to love and obey the Lord, seeing Jesus as a tender and caring Guide who wants him to be part of His family.
indoctrination is unavoidable
The question, however, is this: Are we—to quote outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins—indoctrinating our opinions “into the vulnerable minds” of our children? After all, as he argues “there really is an important difference between including your children in harmless traditions, and forcing on them un-evidenced opinions about the nature of life or the cosmos.”1
The reality is that parents are always imprinting their opinions on the minds of their children, be that a belief in God, in Santa Claus, or that eating with your elbows on the dinner table is bad manners. These opinions or beliefs may change as the child grows older, but consciously or unconsciously, as parents, we are undeniably impressing specific ways of thinking into impressionable young minds.
So perhaps I am indoctrinating Elliott with my opinions about vegetarianism and religion, imprinting them in Elliott’s vulnerable mind. And perhaps one day, he will grow up to question (or even choose to abandon) the kind of upbringing I am giving him. But, as parents, we only want the best for our child, and as an imperfect and limited human being, I can only teach and model for him what I believe is the best way to live a healthy life and a life that is somewhat worry-free because he knows he can always turn to God for help, wisdom, strength, and peace.
Practically speaking, how does this apply to my everyday life? The Bible says to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). But how do you do that when your life has been turned upside-down by parenthood and it seems you don’t even have time for adequate sleep, much less the time to know God better so you can teach your child about Him?
learn with your child
I believe the answer lies in baby steps (pun intended). Just as Elliott is learning about everything, I am learning how to be a mother, and we’re both learning about God in the context of who we are and the titles we hold. I may have the benefit of having had a relationship with God for 17 years longer than Elliott, but I’ve never had a relationship with God as a mother.
So together, we pray at mealtimes, before bed, and at any other time I can remember, starting with me saying the words and then him helping end the prayer with an “Amen.” Eventually, I hope our roles will be reversed. Together we will read Bible stories, first in the form of board books, and gradually move on to books with flimsier pages, longer paragraphs, and fewer illustrations. We’ll go to church together, even if, at the moment, the main thing I do when the pastor speaks is entertain him with a little plastic Noah’s ark set.
Together with my husband and my son, I will journey and learn what it means to believe in God as a family. We’ll thank God for the ups, we’ll seek God’s strength and understanding for the downs, and we’ll never sweep the difficult questions under the carpet. Together, we will do what we can to reflect God’s loving, tender, and caring character so that when Elliott someday asks us what God is like, he can use our lives as a reference. My actions aren’t about raising a child who blindly follows but one who questions, learns, and chooses to believe.
And if you happen to be wondering, Elliott happily eats chickpeas most days now, even though I haven’t done anything differently. Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain him. I only gave birth to him!
Melody Tan is the project manager of Mums at the Table. She lives in Sydney, Australia, with her husband and their son.