Why are religious kids and teens so well behaved and... chill?
September 30, 2016 7:49 AM   Subscribe

I notice a trend: kids I know from loving, religious families (Chabad Lubavitch and Christian in particular) are, even in the tricky teen years, lovely, kind, respectful. How does this happen? What are the parents doing right?

I know the plural of anecdote isn't data, but I've noticed that the kids I know who live in pretty strict religious families seem really... chill. They're sweet, kind, and respectful to guests and visitors. (I'm thinking of some of our family members' and friends' kids.)

In contrast, most of our friends and family members who are liberal and secular have kids/teens who are either shy or petulant with guests and parents' friends, and sometimes rude to their parents. Some, I hate to say, are a bit bratty and throw fits when they don't get their way. I've never seen this in the religious households.

What's going on here? Especially interested to hear from religious parents about their approach to child-rearing.
posted by enzymatic to Human Relations (55 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I've been a United Methodist pastor for twenty years, and in my experience, there are a couple of things to consider:

1. Churches tend to be multi-generational and it is possible that church kids may have more regular interactions with adults of various ages in than non-church kids.

2. The kids in the churches I have served have spent most of their lives serving others, especially those in need, and it my experience, that cultivates a sense of generosity and gratitude in them that gives them a broad perspective on life and priorities. I once had a preschooler ask her parents if for her birthday party, everyone could bring a canned good for our food pantry. Helping others just became a part of how she saw the world.

Again, just my obeservations.
posted by 4ster at 8:02 AM on September 30, 2016 [30 favorites]

There is a large movement in Christian parenting away from prescriptive, "no-based" parenting and toward actually focusing on and following Christ's teachings. I'm not ready to say it's dominating Christianity yet, but it's an encouraging trend.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 8:02 AM on September 30, 2016

I've been a United Methodist pastor for twenty years ...

Ok, I didn't want to brag in my previous post, but I do think Methodists are kind of leading the way here. :)
posted by DrAstroZoom at 8:04 AM on September 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

I grew up in a religious family and grew up ENORMOUSLY angry towards my parents and towards the religion they shoved down my throat. I mean I developed a real and palpable hatred towards it.

But everyone who met me thought of me as a nice and respectful child. This is because I was constantly taught what I "should" think and how I "should" feel when my real thoughts and feelings were constantly ignored and devalued. So I put up the mask they wanted. In reality I was seething inside. I grew up with intense hatred that wasn't allowed to be expressed in any way and so it blew up tremendously later on in life. And as soon as I was legally and financially able I left that house, that religion, that family and never looked back. I didn't even visit my grandparents as they were dying because I knew my parents would be there and I never wanted to lay eyes on my parents again. It's been over a decade since I've seen or spoken to either of them and I don't miss them one jot. I'm grateful every day that I'm living a secular life away from that family.

Of course that's just my experience and it's not scientific data. But strict religions create lots of structure and this structure can either give you great stability, make you feel terribly suffocated- or both. It really depends on the individual and what's expected of them. As usual with people don't judge what you see on the outside as the reality of things.
posted by manderin at 8:04 AM on September 30, 2016 [134 favorites]

I grew up in a very Catholic household. Mostly I was afraid to act up. Afraid God would punish me, or that my parents would hit me, or that they would scream at me, or tell me how stupid I was.

My atheist son is being brought up to speak his mind. Also, he's been able to grow up with a shred of self-esteem.
posted by bondcliff at 8:07 AM on September 30, 2016 [50 favorites]

Just to drop in as the father of two children who can be really lovely and cute in public: they can also be awful in private. Unless you've really gotten to know the religious families and see their kids e.g. once a fortnight or more, you might not be seen as 'part of the family' enough to have a real performance done in front of you?
posted by ianso at 8:08 AM on September 30, 2016 [19 favorites]

You say "kids I know from loving, religious families" and then compare it to "friends and family members who are liberal and secular".

Notice the difference? The part you left out? Are the liberal secular families also "loving" families?

You don't need religion, strictly followed or not, to love your children and family. And love is often what produces kids who are lovely (and kind, respectful, chill).
posted by jammy at 8:10 AM on September 30, 2016 [51 favorites]

Certainly there can be benefits to having regular interactions in multigenerational settings, such as churches.

Still, I'd challenge you to take a look at teens in their later years, when rebellion is more of an option (i.e., when they can get out of the house). Behaving well because you're dependent on the authorities is not the same as being kind because you care for others.

My experience was very similar to manderin's. I would not assume this is necessarily something parents are doing right.
posted by whoiam at 8:13 AM on September 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Jammy, good point. Not to threadsit- I meant "loving" to distinguish warm from fear-based religious families. But I take your point. All the families I'm referring to are loving, and the kids' behavior is very different.
posted by enzymatic at 8:14 AM on September 30, 2016

Sometimes it's the kids' fear, knowing they must put on a good show, sometimes it's genuine good behavior based on an open and loving approach to life.

That's the funny thing about Christian groups: some of them are very Christ-like, some of them are not. Same I'm sure applies to the variation in Muslim and Hindu and Jewish groups, but I don't know as much about their families and communities first-hand.

My belief is that if a kid really buys in to a religion, especially the warmer fuzzier types that don't mention fire and brimstone, it can be very comforting and affirming- -kid has nothing to really worry about, ever, because he knows it's all going to be ok. So there's no real reason to act out, which is often rooted in fear.

While we have acknowledged the fallacy of hasty generalization in regard to well-behaved churchy kids, let's make sure that is also acknowledged for the anecdotal secular helicopter parent/bratty spoiled child.

Finally, I know plenty of secular/non-theistic families that are more loving and Christ-like than some self-identified Christians.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:15 AM on September 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

IME I was raised secular and had several strictly observant friends. Mostly they were about 22 before they felt able to state their own opinions/thoughts. Prior to that they just reflected back what they'd been taught to think/say/feel/do. I remember once laughing in the street and my friend warning me that I would be arrested. She genuinely believed you got arrested for being inoffensively loud in the street in the middle of the afternoon. We were 17.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 8:15 AM on September 30, 2016 [32 favorites]

I was raised in a conservative religious household, and later left the church due to a difference of opinion with the (new-ish) pastor when I was 16 (along the lines of Gandhi and gay people going to hell). I grew up afraid of displeasing God (the church was conservative Baptist) and my authoritarian father, but I also was accustomed to having to listen patiently to others (children and adults), and being listened to patiently (by other children and adults), and being asked thoughtful questions (religious, moral, philosophical) and being made to feel that my ideas were worthwhile (at least until I started in on the "But Jesus said to love *everyone*" stuff as a teenager). I personally think that aspect of church community made me behave differently from my peers as a child (more aware of being kind, patient, thoughtful - or at least admiring those qualities as being important and having intrinsic value). Those kinds of conversations don't always happen naturally - I found that they either happened at church, because of what was discussed at church, or - later - while watching or discussing the news.

With all that said, I still whispered swears in public (away from any church or family members) until late college.
posted by pammeke at 8:18 AM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

My SIL is a warm, very religious person, and it's worth noting that all her kids have done multiple service projects by the time they're 18 - some of them even in other countries! They also have regularly scheduled family home evenings. Their kids are enormously sweet and kind - I say this as an insider, not a good-behavior outsider. The rebellions don't rise to the levels of unkindness I see elsewhere.

Another possibility - honestly my own daughter has been having some struggles lately, and it came when she started being able to consume media that I hadn't chosen for her, specifically about teenagers - essentially, when she started to learn what "society" expected of teens, rather than how her peers behaved. When she argues now, she says "teenagers are just like this!" despite being unable to name any actual teenagers who live like that.
posted by corb at 8:20 AM on September 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

And I want to stress - I don't think non religious households would be opposed to their kids doing service projects! But there's not really the same cultural support or infrastructure for it, and you have to be much wealthier to be able to do it solo, internationally.
posted by corb at 8:22 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

My husband and I have raised our two kids (nearly 20 and 16 1/2) in a very loving, VERY secular household. Practically atheist. Pretty much atheist, actually.

We get comments ALL THE TIME, from teachers, friends, other family members, and strangers, about how nice, respectful, fun, sweet, kind, considerate, and lovely our children are. They're like this all the time, with everybody. Whenever someone complains about "teens" and "kids these days" I seriously have no idea what to say because my kids are just not like that.

What we do: we respect their opinions and their personal lives. We encourage them to follow their interests and dreams. We include them in big family decisions. We actively seek out their company. We joke and play with them. We talk to them like they're actually people (because they are!). We provide a safe space for them to succeed AND fail. We call them out on unacceptable behavior immediately...really this hasn't been an issue since they were younger.

What we don't do: we don't talk down to them. We don't arbitrarily hand out rules (except when they were little; don't run in the parking lot kind of stuff) without explaining why. We don't project our own desires upon them. We don't expect them to fulfill OUR deepest desires. And because we've raised them without religion, we've never ever imposed the fear of "God is watching you so you better be good" upon them.

It's kind of a personal pet peeve of mine that people sort of expect kids who don't grow up with religion to be horrible, angsty, awful teenagers who have no moral compass. I really believe that if you treat your children like they're people and not robots who MUST obey and MUST be "good", they're going to turn out fine and they won't be assholes to you when they're teens.
posted by cooker girl at 8:26 AM on September 30, 2016 [92 favorites]

All the families I'm referring to are loving, and the kids' behavior is very different.

Knowing that you're being minutely observed as a representative of the minority [1] group you belong to can produce "good" behavior (in quotes because in their secret hearts, these kids may be crushingly resentful of that knowledge or, alternately, smugly superior and glad to be seen as good kids.) This doesn't necessarily matter to anyone not the child in question. But your observations of these kids are not lost on them.

many people from non-religious but otherwise weird households grow up with the feeling that their parents' philosophies and lifestyles will be judged on their, the kids', comportment and behavior, and discipline themselves accordingly. Knowing that acting badly will reflect on your parents and larger community is a shame-motivator that liberal secular kids don't have unless their families have other unusual qualities as well, or unless they're in liberal secular families surrounded by religious people.

[1] Even American Christians may either teach their kids to feel like a minority or actually be one, if they consider themselves as members of a specific church.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:30 AM on September 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've anecdotally observed this trend too.

My theory is that it's also partly due to genetics. Parents who see the love and order of organized religion tend to exhibit kind and caring behaviors anyway and their religion just supports them with that trait. It's no surprise that their kids may be hard wired (or at least more likely than average) to be the same way.
posted by samthemander at 8:37 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Testing boundaries and being bratty is part of the adolescent experience. And whether it's fear or love, religious beliefs can delay that. My uncle was famously that kid. And he didn't start pushing back until he was in his 40s, which looked like an extreme version of midlife crisis. He sold his house, spent a year in Asia, and has since been looking for something that both feels meaningful but also feels true to himself, which he feels he never was able to ask before.
posted by politikitty at 8:38 AM on September 30, 2016 [10 favorites]

My family was loving, religious and also pretty authoritarian and repressive. I was a very, very good child. I still am a wonderfully "good child" and it's made things extremely difficult in many areas of my life.

It is possible to be very loving and very strict and to end up with a child who has learned to not feel their feelings. It's easy to be pliable when you can't tell what you want. It's easy to serve others when you think that wanting things for yourself is a sign that you're a shitty person. It's easy to be polite to adults when you've been told explicitly all your life that only adults' feelings count, if you upset an adult it's because you're a very bad person and your feelings are not important.

You can love a child very much and also inculcate a destructive ideology, is what I'm saying.
posted by Frowner at 8:38 AM on September 30, 2016 [66 favorites]

People in those communities make a big point of teaching their kids a certain kind of deportment. How deep that goes, and how connected that is to real happiness, is hard to assess from the outside. There is probably also something to the idea that mixing with people of various ages can make you more sort of polished and mature in your manners and especially the way you act with adults from outside the family. This is all pretty anecdotal, but my cousin's kids are extremely poised and confident around people, which she attributes to their family living at the boarding school where they teach and getting a lot of attention from that community. And they practice no religion.
posted by BibiRose at 8:40 AM on September 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think a strong and bonded faith community with a dynamic leader, especially a neighborhood-driven congregation, plays a huge part in this. It certainly did with the now-grown 'hood kids I've known.
posted by jgirl at 8:40 AM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

secular people may also be more likely to actively value rebellion as an appropriate life stage for teenagers, who are young enough to still have enough energy for it, old enough to think of interesting things to do with it, but not old enough to get into terrible life-ruining trouble with it. I know I'm always disappointed in teenagers who haven't got the imagination to plot and sneak or the gumption to oppose their wills to their guardians', and if I had a teenager I expect she would at least pretend to rebel just to please me, if for no other reason.

Many secular parents have a very conscious desire not to inculcate sweetness and compliance in their children -- at least in their daughters. The reflex to make other people comfortable and happy before oneself is indeed a lovely one. lovely for those other people. but some think that the temporary ease it gives their parents is not worth the pain it causes those daughters later in life, when interacting with men who have not been taught this same code. So in at least some cases, you're seeing the same success rate in parenting, but the parents you're observing have different goals. I do not typically enjoy enduring the company of children with strong egos but I see the merit of the philosophy.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:42 AM on September 30, 2016 [46 favorites]

Obviously, religious upbringing often provides kids with a very clear and consistent set of rules and expectations for outward behaviour (as well as for internal thoughts and feelings), including all sorts of social interaction. A secular approach may leave more room for individual expression.

But a religious upbringing also provides the parents with a very clear set of rules and expectations for parenting. I'm sure it's easier to be consistent that way, when you're certain of what's wrong and what's right (and have a holy book to prove it), and inconsistency in parental response tends to be at the root of a lot of annoying behaviour by kids.

Teenage life is stressful even under the best of circumstances. Your mind and body are in turmoil, your social life is demanding, there's a lot of uncertainty and challenges to deal with, and limited freedom and resources to do so. A kid who's allowed, maybe even encouraged (at least by example) to explore a wider range of thoughts and behaviours may express some of the confusion and negativity, too. It's not always pretty, but it certainly is understandable.

Also, what corb said about access to the media. My own kid's clearly emulating some of the, err, cool-girl behaviour from shows like Pretty Little Liars that I'm sure would get nipped in the bud in a more conservative household (or maybe she wouldn't be allowed to watch the shows at all, Idk).
posted by sively at 8:42 AM on September 30, 2016 [8 favorites]

It's most likely exposure to lots of people that comes with going to a church regularly. If you are used to dealing with adults of many ages & personality quirks it's easier to be more confident around them.

I've found kids from large & close, but not particularly religious extended families often have the same sort of behaviour

Now a days families are often very small & only consist of parents & kids & they see extended family much less often so have less experience with adults as anything other than authority figures. Of course this would depend a lot on the church & I am assuming a more open less authoritarian type of church here, I imagine some of the more strict churches are down right terrifying for kids.
posted by wwax at 8:50 AM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

There are some religious families who are strict because "that's what we do here." But there are also religious families who actually believe what the religion teaches about how people should treat one another, and practice religion based around that. When your family life, and your school, and the church / synagogue / mosque / temple you attend weekly (or even daily) are all saying "here is how we are respectful, this is why it's important," then the kids who act disrespectfully toward grownups or each other are outliers. There are lots of ways to rebel or find yourself that don't involve being jerks or self-harming.

I don't think you meant this question to imply that religious parents have great kids and secular / nonreligious parents never do. And I don't think that dichotomy would hold any water. But I do think that what corb said is really true - kids model themselves on what they see. And right now, a lot of media is trending toward people being awful to one another. For kids it's mostly played for laughs - sitcoms and cartoons where kids talk back to their parents or the grownups are shown to be idiots who the kids rightly disrespect. In strict religious homes, kids aren't seeing those things at all. In my home, we're semi-strict, and we pay attention to what the kids are watching and set limits on what age they can view what media. And call out stuff that is inappropriate. Like, "that's a funny joke, but if you really said it to someone, it would hurt their feelings". That's not a religion thing so much as a world-view thing. Young kids don't get irony (heck, a lot of adults don't either), so it's not fair to expect them to watch media aimed at grownups or teenagers and just know what the actual social boundaries are that keep most people from turning into Trumps. Active parenting - not necessarily censoring or helicoptering, but being mindful - makes a difference there.

Also Nthing that there are kids who are fantastic out in public and nightmares at home (I have one!), and kids who are the opposite. If you're in a community where the consequences for acting out in public are higher, it's more likely to show up where the community at large can't see it.
posted by Mchelly at 8:57 AM on September 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

As a one-time troublemaking teen: LOL they were anything but what you experience. It's just that they are more of less literally given a list of expectations to fulfill to be seen as "good." They do that and all bets are off when th' lord ain't a-lookin.
posted by cmoj at 9:02 AM on September 30, 2016 [13 favorites]

wwax: It's most likely exposure to lots of people that comes with going to a church regularly. If you are used to dealing with adults of many ages & personality quirks it's easier to be more confident around them.

I've found kids from large & close, but not particularly religious extended families often have the same sort of behaviour

I think this is a good point. Some of the nicest kids I've known, and their families, attend Unitarian Universalist congregations. The UUs are liberal and welcome atheists and agnostics. They also emphasize service. I think that kids who are exposed to 1) a wide range of adults who are not just immediate family, professionals, or authority figures and 2) an ethic of service to others (which also brings them into contact with a wide range of people!) tend to be more well-adjusted on the whole. I don't think you need strict religion, just a social circle that isn't a limited bubble.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:02 AM on September 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

I grew up in a loving, authoritarian community, and know exactly what you are talking about. My observation is that my peers really were polite and well-behaved, but they were also extreme people-pleasers, and many had issues with conflict avoidance and setting boundaries.

I'm now living in NYC, and I send my kids to a secular, progressive school with kids of all different religions (including none). And by and large, the older kids are kind, respectful, and polite, because this school emphasizes community and encourages kids to express themselves in positive ways without shaming them for their negative emotions and impulses. It's worked amazing well.
posted by snickerdoodle at 9:03 AM on September 30, 2016 [12 favorites]

As a counterpoint, I grew up in a not-really religious family in an otherwise deeply religious (Southern Baptist / Primitive Baptist / Christian Science / Pentecostal) extended family and region in the rural, agricultural American south. I'd say that the churchgoing families had children who knew how to behave well under public scrutiny, especially around adults (all that practice in church, I suppose) and teachers. But they were absolute shits to people in their peer group and younger, especially when perceived differences were apparent. These were the first kids I knew to make a spectacle of making fun of gay kids, red heads, nerds, etc. As my cohort got older, the religious-family kids were also the first ones to take up drinking and eventually drugs. The first people my age I knew who died were 17-20 year old good ol' boys in this group (car crashes while drunk became a common thing, then the methaphetamine wave hit).

I'm describing the late 1990s, but on return visits I get the same impression.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:10 AM on September 30, 2016 [10 favorites]

I could fill an entire book with examples of how my family would put 1000x more energy into making sure they appeared loving and kind to everyone else in the world, than they would into actually being this way.

When I was a teen, my maternal grandfather became very ill and made it known that he wanted to be buried in his home country under a simple tombstone with his parents. His children had a problem with this because it would mean they couldn't show off to everyone in town what loving and religious people they were. They wanted to bury him in town under a huge tombstone and make a huge ceremony out of it. He insisted so to make him happy they finally said yes. I was happy for him.... So imagine my surprise when he dies and I find out it was all a lie. They just said they would grant his dying wish in order to shut the poor man up. As soon as he was dead they went ahead and buried him in this country... right in the same town, under a huge tombstone and made a huge ceremony out of it that was all outdoors and sure to be seen by the neighbors and all. Everything that he made clear he did not want. As usual I watched my aunts feign modesty as we were approached by strangers and people in town who remarked on what a wonderful, respectful, loving family we were and how lucky my grandfather was to have people who loved him so much they went and did all this for his burial, etc, etc. And of course I knew the real truth. That my sick and twisted family ignored the last wish of a dying man, lied to him to give him the hope that it would come true... all so that they could once again portray the image of a wonderful, nice respectful family to people in our town. And they still continue to have this reputation in town to this day. The second to last time I visited my aunts, they were reluctant to help an injured family member go back to their apartment... until a neighbor had to come over. Suddenly they were practically fighting over who got to be the "good" soul that would take them home. Religious families - even those who do try to put more emphasis on being genuine rather than on appearing so- are often under pressure by the religion and the community to give off a certain image and this often affects the results. I don't care how close you think you are to a family. Unless you're actually IN the family you don't really know what the truth underneath is.
posted by manderin at 9:46 AM on September 30, 2016 [21 favorites]

Since we're talking anecdata, my sons, now 20 and 23, are routinely seen as remarkably talented, mature, articulate, ethical, and kind. Like cookergirl's family, we were profoundly humanist but with a sort of "comparative religious" philosophy thrown in, in a sort-of Joseph Campbell, archetypes and mythos, way.

We had very little acted-out rebellion, rudeness, or apathy at any age. Again, like cookergirl's family, we tried to instill an atmosphere of mutual respect and kindness. I read and used Barbara Coloroso's Kids Are Worth It. We did/do not believe in punishment but in accepting responsibility. Interestingly, one son became a baptized Christian in a progressive, liberal, and social-justice oriented church, initially attracted because the liturgical music was so well-performed. The other son is decidedly atheist. We brought them up to respect legitimate authority, but to speak and act against abusive authority.

I'm not sure that we had much to do with their development other than to provide the genetic mix. We are deeply grateful for the way the DNA lottery turned out for us. We did, however, always see them as inordinately precious, and that our job as parents was to nurture them, and in general, keep out of the way and try to not to screw them up too badly. And we intentionally did it outside a faith community.
posted by angiep at 9:47 AM on September 30, 2016 [8 favorites]

Everyone here is making good points about raising great secular kids. And especially about appearances of some religious folk masking the reality. But I do know what you mean.

I think the responses invoking exposure to adults, service, and generally being around people A LOT, where there are clear expectations of behavior, have the best points.

I also see this as a generational thing-- when I was in HS you would NEVER say your mom was your best friend, whereas now, religious and secular kids say that all the time and it's more acceptable, even expected, that you hang around adults and it's a good time for all.

It also seemed to me that kids were less scheduled in my day thus had less exposure to formal situations where certain behavioral standards were expected, but of course, that's anecdotal.
posted by kapers at 9:50 AM on September 30, 2016 [10 favorites]

We are raising our kids (11 & 5) in a secular environment. But we're involved in a community organization that emphasizes some social graces and provides exposure to a wide range of people. I get lots of feedback are polite and kind, and I am awed at the little people they are.

However, I have to say that while kindness and courtesy are goals of ours as a family, especially things like offering people drinks when they are over and other sort of host-role nuances, making our kids behave beautifully around adults in particular social situations is actually not one of our goals.

One of the skills we are trying to teach is the ability to do things like stand up to bullying, remove one's self from situations that don't feel quite right, etc. And one of our goals is to help our kids develop a moral and ethical centre that isn't dependent on just the code of the local community. And while of course hanging out with adult friends is something we want our kids to feel comfortable doing, we know they'll try different things at different times.

It may be that kids who move in religious circles are all doing what their religious friends are doing -- whether that's studying hard or whatever. (Whereas secular kids might be focusing on themselves and Instagram or whatever.) That's great!

But if they are actually just conforming to their peer group, they may not be actually making a considered decision to be respectful and kind, and later they may participate in really unkind or hateful things...like shaming activities directed towards GBLTQ community members or misogynistic shaming of divorcees.

In other words I think some of this has to do with their peer group -- meaning who they perceive as their peers, like equally religious friends -- and not that they have innately become kinder the way a kind and thoughtful adult may be. It may work out that way! Probably does in most cases whether they're surly as teens or not.

Parenting is a really long game.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:17 AM on September 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

I was a church-going kid through junior high (more so than my folks, in fact) and I toed every line drawn before me. But, I don't think my folks had all that much to do with my obedience. I was concerned about trying to please/not piss-off god (the possibility of eternal damnation is one hell of a motivator). The fact that this also made me a "good" kid to the adults in my life was a spin-off effect.

When I became a religion doubter in high school, I started questioning all kinds of things and I know my folks thought I had become a pain in the ass. Frankly, I think this is a healthier reaction to the absolute bullshit most teenagers deal with on a daily basis.
posted by she's not there at 10:31 AM on September 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

As a formerly religious (Protestant) teen:

1. Guilt. So much damn guilt. I wasn't even Catholic. But any time you get angry, want to snap at someone, or even sometimes want to justifiably defend yourself- you get that naggy little voice of Jesus in your ear "you're failing at my message of peace" blah blah blah. So you stop. Or your mom genuinely cries, so you stop. Guilt is more powerful than fear. It still works even if your parents aren't the Old Testament "you will obey" types. Unless you count it as fear of disappointing your sweet parents, which is a powerful motivator.

2. WWJD bracelets. I wore one at camp. Looking at that thing made me constantly behave like, well, basically a pushover all the time. (This had lovely aspects and not so great aspects.)

3. Religious teens have a built in clique. Not doing well in school? There's always church. Not popular with the cool kids? There's always Sunday school. Not beautiful or rich? Doesn't matter, Jesus loves you. At no point in life are these questions of popularity/rank/hierarchy/cliqueishness more desperately important and relevant to your overall mental health as teenagerhood. Jesus has a very soothing answer to all that nonsense.
posted by stockpuppet at 11:54 AM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah. I would venture a guess that you're just seeing their 'well behaved' face. Going to church a bunch ingrains the ability to code switch pretty masterfully in that regard. When your religious life depends on you being respectful (and quiet, obedient, well-behaved, etc) you learn to turn that on lightning fast. You also learn to hide your shit. When you're misbehaving as a religious kid, you're burying that shit, DEEP. My direct experience growing up is that religious kids were actually way, WAY worse than our secular counterparts. I knew plenty of kids at church who were into hard drugs in their teenage years. Lots of pregnancies. One instance of a fight club (that took place after youth group...awesome job church!). Our secular counterparts would drink a little, smoke some weed (maybe?).

I was raised in a conservative religious household. Outwardly, I was a fairly 'good' kid. This 'good' behavior was done out of complete, utter, paralyzing fear. However, I was naturally anxious, and the constant fear of going to hell, losing my family, being punished by God and his church was way too much for me to bear, and resulted in a diagnosable case of PTSD that I'm still working out into my 30's. So those kids you might see as outwardly 'good' kids, might be completely and totally fucked inwardly, for years and years to come.
posted by furnace.heart at 12:17 PM on September 30, 2016 [12 favorites]

There's an interesting theory that chronic sleep deprivation can make teens moody, disengaged, and oppositional. To quote Dr. Mary Carskadon: "[sleep deprivation] can negatively affect teenager’s mood, ability to think, to react, to regulate their emotions, to learn and to get along with adults."

Perhaps these snippy, sullen kids need some good shut-eye? I know how grouchy I am when I don't get a good night's sleep, and I'm not going through the developmental and hormonal turmoil that a teenager is.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:29 PM on September 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Media plays a role. The orthodox Jewish families I know, as well as the more observant Mormons, refrain from consuming a LOT of popular media and have no window into fictional bratty-teen or punk-ass-kid behavioral norms. They don't hang out with people who act that way and they don't see them in their entertainment.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:48 PM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nthing the lack of popular media for chabad kids, ESPECIALLY television. I limit my child's media but nonetheless littlezia gets exposed to crappy cartoons, especially ones with tween type interpersonal dynamics and then models it in pretend play with friends (yuck)
posted by zia at 2:17 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Although it's very annoying to deal with, adolescent rebellion is actually a very good sign of appropriate mental development (look it up). Do not discount it as lack of love or lack of religion. If anything, it takes quite a bit of love and patience on the parents side to deal with it instead of quashing it. It's a necessary and healthy phase of human mental health.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not a sign of good parenting nor Christian love to shut it down. Again, don't believe me? Look it up.
posted by Neekee at 3:33 PM on September 30, 2016 [11 favorites]

And just because a family is close & loving doesn't mean the kids aren't secretly terrified of upsetting their parents.
posted by Neekee at 3:35 PM on September 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

I like 4ster's observations. I will add this: my kids don't kick the seat in front of them in an airplane or theater. Why? Because they have grown up sitting in church every Sunday and learning from a very young age that it isn't appropriate to kick the seat in front of you.

I think religion - or at least the one I grew up a member of - teaches a set of behaviors and values that can definitely change the way kids see the world.
posted by tacodave at 4:28 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was very close friends with a religious person from age 15 to age 30 and we confided deeply in one another for 15+ years. She is outwardly very kind, well spoken, gentle, accepting, and chill; I am more blunt, moody, and peevish. I swear more than her and I was a moody teenager who occasionally refused to make nice. We would have definitely seemed like the angel and brat described in your questions.

Starting at age 14 and continuing to the present, she has secretly cheated on every single person she's ever dated, and she has had affairs with the partners of some close friends and several married people. I have never cheated on anyone I've ever dated, nor knowingly dated anyone I knew to be partnered elsewhere. On the outside, my relationships sometimes look grumpy but they are fundamentally respectful; her relationships are conflict free on the surface, but her cheating has been a consistent, rotten core.

Seeming nice isn't BEING nice.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:53 PM on September 30, 2016 [10 favorites]

I grew up on the periphery of an Orthodox Jewish community, and while the typical teen angst was there, you're right that there's less rebellion than in secular communities. I think it's a combination of less pop culture exposure and WAY less free unsupervised time. Lots and lots of family meals and community meals/rituals--you're never far from supervision. Also, when being a rebel is defined as "not praying with enough gusto during the religious service," that really moves the goalposts.
posted by Guinevere at 5:34 PM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

My parents were fairly nice, accepting, tolerant, and open people. Looking back, there was some religion, but it seemed mostly perfunctory and maybe 'expected of the family' somehow, but mostly a social activity that fit their values. Any bigotry/intolerance of others would have been stomped on pretty hard.

There was also quite a bit of espousing of service mentality, helping the less fortunate, hard work and being thankful for what we have.

For the most part, there was very little forcing of beliefs on people. They did, however, monitor my media until I was ~13, and I think that was both the right decision, and payed off in the long run.
posted by Jacen at 6:17 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I want to take a slightly different tack. Of course, a lot of people have rightly talked about strictness and repression being the flip side of civility in religiously authoritarian homes. And others have rightly pointed our that it's possible to raise perfectly lovely children in an entirely secular environment.

First, I want to call out a difference between obedience out of fear/repression and the sort of basic kindness and cooperative that grows out of a secure upbringing. Dealing only with non-pathological families, which I sense is what you are thinking about, I think the answer is a two-parter. To raise great kids, you need (a) a values system that is clearly communicated to and with kids, and lived by as much as possible in the home, and (b) some form of wider community that supports and reflects that value system. That can be a faith group (Methodists, Jewish, UU, evangelical, Muslim, whatever), a social group, a summer camp, the military, a progressive school, an awesome family,a volunteer community, an arts group - it hardly matters, just so long as what the kids are having reinforced outside of home mirrors what they are hearing inside of home.

it really is about values. There are a lot of people, I have to say, who don't dwell much on values. There really are. Or, alternatively, they have values, but those values aren't pro-social or at least in balance with pro-social values. Like, valuing independence and self-directedness is great, but only in balance with other pro-social values; otherwise you get little Trumps. And I think the lack of attention to values shows in their families. Churches and faith groups, in history, had kind of a lock on values education. That's no longer the case - values education can now be found much more widely, across the spectrum of human activity. But, as parents, you have to know values are important, you have to think about them, you have to talk about them, you have to make conscious choices about exposing yourselves to them and living them, in order to give your kids a good values orientation. Churches provide a massive shortcut to this - an entire infrastructure and community that assumes this is what they're here for.

Methodists have a history of doing this well because there is a strong values structure but not a strong emphasis on separatism from the rest of society and not a ton of illiberal repressiveness, though their stance on homosexuality is not respectful, so certainly they do continue to repress expression. But in general, faith communities deliver a lot more ready-made values expression, education, and reinforcement than many other social institutions. So that's probably what you're noticing. It's definitely not impossible to get this in secular life, but you have to be more resourceful and more intentional to do so, and it might be harder to find and connect with the like-minded.
posted by Miko at 7:45 PM on September 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

Your question had me thinking of Elizabeth Smart, who strikes me as a woman of incredible poise and grace.

I want to add to Miko's comment about values - maybe the loving religious families emphasize community harmony / respect your elders whereas the loving secular families emphasize critical thinking and debate, which can lend itself to being more sullen at least in the early years.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:25 PM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

As someone who lives on the periphery of a very Orthodox Jewish community, let me be the first to tell you that not all of those kids are angels. My dad taught at a yeshiva and oh, the stories he can tell. Those boys were *terrible*.

I tend to think that you just know families who are especially good at the whole child-rearing thing / only seeing the good moments because I've met too many heinously misbehaved frum kids to be convinced otherwise. (And I've worked with kids for most of the last twenty years. If these kids were in my class... yeah.)
posted by youcancallmeal at 9:14 PM on September 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

This is what I observe in homeschooled teens (secular families, involved in follow-the-kid's-interests homeschooling and not curriculum-based 'school at home'); the best answer I have been able to come up with is that the kids have spent a life dealing with multiple ages. The thing that seems to make a lot of kids act like little shits is that they are schooled from early on to think of younger people as "babies," and older people as people who will mock them and not interact with them.

HSing circles involve a lot of group activities and the older kids help the younger ones, and the younger ones quickly learn to articulately and politely request help, and interact well with older people. I was blown away when we first started interacting with other HSing families -- they have pre-teens and teens I would've met maybe twice before who would come up and talk to me pretty much exactly as an adult would. It was jarring at first. My kid sometimes has a bad time with her public school pals because they are mean to little kids, oblivious to/embarrassed around older people. Her "Who cares if she's 7? I remember when you were 7! We were all 7! I was friends with you when you were 7!" goes ignored: if you are not in grade X you are a baby and associating with babies is bad. But one of her closest (homeschooled) friends, going on five years now, is a full four years older than her. (The same kid has another dear friend who is several years older than she is...)

(And then they switch back with ease into age-appropriate stuff for hanging with their own age group, and helping the little kids, and so on.)

So if there's anything to this, my vote is 'more experience with different generations.'

However, many of the religious kids I knew in HS were kinda nuts. They were often nice to adults, but they were also bizarrely sheltered -- which see the "She genuinely believed you got arrested for being inoffensively loud in the street in the middle of the afternoon. We were 17" comment -- or had learned the art of behaving well in front of adults, and raising hell when out of sight, because of course sweet, kind, obedient young so-and-so is really at a sleepover and not puking and screwing and toking at a bush party. When "religious" kids went off the rails, they really went off the rails; the whole sweetness-and-light with parents and teachers was a ruse. Well, they may have loved their parents just fine and genuinely wanted to be well-behaved, but they were certainly aware of the value of a "good" reputation there.

I disagree with the 'it's the media exposure' argument -- to a point. The 'together' teens I know, mostly homeschooled, are mostly allowed to set their own limits on media exposure. My kid has a fair amount of freedom with it. The critical part is that while they may watch stuff that is garbage and/or "too old" for them, there is a parent nearby, and there is discussion about it. My kid watches some total crap here and there, but she is very media-savvy; watching crap means having to talk to mum about crap and think about crap. 'TV as babysitter,' bad; 'TV as jumping-off point for discussion and sociological analysis,' good. Thinking about this, I'm remembering the huge difference between the bad, lazy, slow-witted teachers we had who would roll in the A/V equipment and sit us in front of a boring 'educational' program and leave it at that, and the genius teachers we had who would show us far-out stuff, sometimes probably 'age inappropriate,' and use that as a thing to instigate discussion. We had no respect for the former, but learned loads from the latter and were heavily influenced by them.
posted by kmennie at 1:04 AM on October 1, 2016 [9 favorites]

I spent most of my childhood around kids raised by deeply religious families, and I can promise you that a lot of them are fucking monsters to other children, when the adults can't see. There's a lot of mask wearing going on there. Sweetness and light to the adults, and hell on legs to the kids.
posted by Jilder at 6:41 AM on October 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

My experience growing up was that they have been well-trained to appear that way and very practiced in knowing when they need to. Two-faced shmoozes doesn't begin to describe it.

Christian night at Disney is known for being the staff's nightmare. I think we had a mefi post on it once, but I could be misremembering.
posted by ctmf at 4:47 PM on October 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Echoing a lot of the above in case you need more data: I was raised Catholic, and I was well-behaved because I was scared all the time. I was either scared of dad hitting me because he perceived I had done something wrong or if I had actually done something bratty, or I was scared of going to hell because Jesus or Mary didn't approve of something I was thinking or whatever. So I just stayed quiet and stupid and nodded a lot and said "yes, mum/dad/Mr./Mrs.".

So, I guess some religious kids are well-behaved because they genuinely love Jesus, and I was well-behaved because I feared Jesus. That's basically being scared of the Boogeyman.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:41 PM on October 4, 2016

I might note that it's possible to be both frightened/repressed and a really nice person with lots of good values who had a lot of positive contributions to their development. In other words, it may be different mechanisms that produce similar behaviors, but the presence of one doesn't nullify the presence of the other.
posted by Miko at 7:53 AM on October 5, 2016

Another thing that occurred to me reading my Facebook feed - my religious parent friends all do a lot of giving themselves, and openly talk about how hard but important it is to do the right thing. So there's a lot of modeling going on in their community that is helpful - whereas atheist parents are often giving, they just don't have that community to reinforce it.
posted by corb at 8:00 AM on October 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have one set of devoutly religious friends who are raising their children in a specifically Christian household.

They spank early and often, and explicitly for disrespecting authority or failing to use polite behavior at all times. For example spankings for not saying please, not calling an adult sir or ma'am, etc.

I'm fairly sure that these kids have their fair share of bad days, just like any other kids. But they know that not displaying polite behavior comes with physical consequences.

Even if your friends don't use physical discipline, there's a strong chance that they are explicitly teaching their kids that being polite and respecting authority is the most important measure of what it means to "be good".
posted by Sara C. at 12:00 AM on October 6, 2016

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