The End of the World - What to Tell the Kids

There's something attractive about the Haddad parents' approach to parenting, described in the New York Times today.  The parents think Judgment Day is coming tomorrow, and the devout will be rapturized, but they haven't forced that belief on their kids, ages 14 and up.  They even let their son talk to a reporter during a trip to Manhattan for last minute evangelizing.
“People look at my family and think I’m like that,” said Joseph, their 14-year-old, as his parents walked through the street fair on Ninth Avenue, giving out Bibles. “I keep my friends as far away from them as possible.”
“I don’t really have any motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore,” he said, “because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.”
But then, the parents have caused the kids a lot of anxiety about the future.  The mom quit her job to free up time to spread the word.  Not good, says the son.
“I don’t really have any motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore,” he said, “because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.”
Fortunately, the kids see the humor in the situation too.  They've used the big day as an excuse not to clean their rooms and do they're homework.  But then they're old enough to think for themselves.

Younger kids are a lot more impressionable.  If Mom and Dad say the rapture's on Saturday, they're very likely to believe the rapture's on Saturday.  Which is ... what?  Altogether bad?

How much personal ideology should parents pass on to their kids?  It's tempting to make judgments based on one's own beliefs, instead of on principles that can be generalized.  I find it disturbing that people take their kids hunting, but not disturbing that parents restrict their children to vegetarian diets.  The imposition is the same, it's only the beliefs in question that differ.  So ... what principle should we follow, when deciding whether or not to inculcate some outlook or behavior in children?

Joel Feinberg postulated a "right to an open future" in a well known, much quoted article.  The idea is that kids should be raised in such a way that their ability to make their own choices, as adults, is preserved.  That argues against sealing them in insular communities, without access to outside ideas and ways of life.  The right to an open future is (you might argue) not honored by Hasidic and Amish parents, for example.

Ordinary religious education isn't so restrictive.  The typical American kid has religious education on Sundays and mixes with people who have other beliefs the rest of the week.  Whatever beliefs are inculcated can readily be shed later on.  Even the rapturists are presumably not denying their young kids an open future by telling them tomorrow is judgment day.  They'll be able to shed the belief later on, as long as they get to interact with the world at large.

Of course, there are other rights, besides the right to an open future.  There's the right not to be scared half to death, for no real reason, and I imagine a lot of little kids are pretty nervous about tomorrow.  There's also a right to prepare for next week and next year, and the rapturous parents aren't doing well in that area.  But the sheer fact that they're teaching their kids about the rapture doesn't seem to violate their basic right to an open future.

So -- what's going to happen when the rapturists find out tomorrow's just another day? How will the face their kids?  How will they recover from abandoning their jobs?  Will they somehow insist the prediction came true, in some esoteric sense?  This should be interesting!

Update 7:25 am, Dallas: Live-blogging the non-end of the world.  Still here.
Update 11:31 am, Dallas:  Things still look very normal.  


Adult Child said...

Don't the Amish have periods in early adolescence where the budding teenager can go out and experience the non-Amish world for some amount of time and then choose whether or not to stay within the Amish community? If so, would that not be one way in which the Amish do honour the concept of an 'open future' for their children?

Jean Kazez said...

Rumspringa. Yes, but there's a heavy cost if they decide to leave. They are permanently cut off by the whole community. I hate to criticize, because I find Amish culture appealing (I grew up near it). I once wrote a post about that--


s. wallerstein said...

It seems to me that the most dangerous way in which parents indoctrinate children is the inculcation of their often unspoken prejudices, their hypocrisies, their tacit codes which often have little to do with their spoken codes and generally are less benevolent, less socially responsible.

Parents need to be extremely self-aware, aware of their own prejudices, of their own inconsistencies, incoherences and hypocrisies to avoid transmitting them to their children, to avoid teaching them that preaching and practice have little to do with one another.

Unfortunately, precisely those parents whose tacit and spoken codes are most inconsistent are the least likely to attempt to
clarify these confusions for their children's benefit.

It is often hard to say whether the inconsistencies of others are conscious or unconscious.

Aeolus said...

Jean, the rapture people were right. (Praise the Lord!) The world has indeed ended. The illusion you are experiencing (that life goes on as normal) is only a kind of after-image akin to what happens in the movie Source Code. Why God is doing this to you, I don't know, but I can report that Heaven is even more wonderful than I imagined. They have rotary phones and flying cars. I'm going to a baseball game this afternoon with Bertrand Russell and Marilyn Monroe. The Brooklyn Dodgers are playing. Marilyn says she and Joe DiMaggio are back together.

s. wallerstein said...

One week with Jerry Coyne is sufficient to convince anyone who can be convinced that Science has proven religion to be in error, QED, so parents need not worry much about inculcating their children with their religious beliefs.

Jerry C. will uninculcate their errors rapidly and efficiently, with a smile.

However, teaching a child that one pays lip service to concern for others and practices egoism leaves traces that take decades to remove.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, Actually, Coyne doesn't convince me, but that's not because I was brainwashed by religious zealots as a kid. Quite the opposite--I grew up in a science oriented household, and with no religious education. I just find his position hyperbolic. Science has not "proven religion to be in error" (as you put it)--it has just driven out specific religious doctrines. But yes, I think someone could potentially be persuaded by him, despite going to Sunday school as a kid, as long as they were not locked in and isolated from other influences.

Aeolus, That's funny, things are looking very normal around here. Saturday chores, kids needing to be taken here and there, a bit 'o blogging. If I've unwittingly ascended, does that mean that heaven, for me, is an ordinary Saturday? Wow. That's deep!

s. wallerstein said...


There was a bit of irony in my statement. That's why I put "QED" there and capitalized

However, I do think that Coyne is fairly convincing about the intellectual weak points of religion, although he has not "proven" that Science disproves religion.

Someone coming from a fundamentalist religious background would find it hard to
refute Coyne on the drawbacks of conventional religion.

Jean Kazez said...

I think a kid's future is open just so long as they can read someone like Coyne when they reach adulthood and be at least receptive to his arguments. That doesn't mean they have to be convinceable. His arguments don't have the status of mathematical proof or anything!

s. wallerstein said...

For completely contingent reasons, I ended up receiving Coyne's posts by email and I've discovered that he's an excellent polemicist, with a sense of humor.

He may be a great biologist, but he's not a first-rate philosopher (nor am I).

However, as you suggest, it would be a good idea if most people, with a religious background, read
someone like Coyne (or Dawkins), before "making up their mind".

Jean Kazez said...

"However, as you suggest..."

Not to be fussy, but I didn't suggest that anyone should read Coyne or Dawkins. What I'm signing on for is the idea that a child has a right to an open future. They ought to be raised in such a way that, as adults, they're not unreceptive to folks like Coyne and Dawkins. That's much, much weaker than saying kids (or adults) ought to read these people. I'm not sure I'd go that far.

Interesting question (for another post, soon) -- should parents raise their kids so that, as adults, they are not completely closed to religion? Should they be kept open to both JCs...Coyne and Christ?

Jean Kazez said...

Speaking of Jerry Coyne, I'm amazed to read (today) that he worked on OJ Simpson's legal team.



s. wallerstein said...

Coyne's explanation of his work is quite convincing.

As for your previous question, yes, I think that everyone who reads (not everyone reads) should at least read the Gospels (as well as atheist thought). I've tried to read the whole New Testament and I confess that the Epistles are hard to take, but I've read all four Gospels as well as other Christian literature such as Paradise Lost and Dostoyevsky's
Grand Inquisitor.

Jean Kazez said...

Not convincing to me, actually. Everyone has a right to a defense, but you can't say everyone has a right to the best defense money can buy. OJ had that because of his wealth--it wasn't something he was entitled to. His legal team could have been half or a quarter the size, and there would have been no injustice to it. So people who were on the team just can't say they had to do it, because of the fundamental right defendants have to a legal defense.

s. wallerstein said...

Coyne says that everyone, rich or poor, has a right to DNA expertise and that he (Coyne) provides DNA expertise, free of charge to the rich and the poor.

That makes sense to me.

It would be different if Coyne had provided his expertise to Simpson for a fee and not to poor people unable to pay for it.

Jean Kazez said...

I would think this made sense only if Coyne were the only DNA expert in the US, or the only one willing to advise OJ's legal team. I'd be amazed if that were true. Obviously piles and piles of top people were happy to be part of OJ's team. As a result, he had a legal dream team that out-maneuvered the prosecution, which didn't have the same resources. That's not a recipe for justice. People can do something about disparities like that--they can decline to be part of the dream teams of transparently guilty celebrities.

s. wallerstein said...

If it were wrong for Coyne to form part of a dream team of experts who help a celebrity killer, then it would be wrong for any expert biologist to form part of that team and as a result, OJ Simpson would have no DNA expertise.

So given that OJ Simpson has a right to DNA expertise, why is it wrong for our friend Coyne to form part of that team and not wrong for biologist X to form part of that team?

Have said that, I admit that I would not have dirtied my hands forming part of that dream team, but someone has to dirty their hands lending DNA expertise.

I'm not sure that my refusal to dirty my hands is always a virtue.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't buy your reasoning. Suppose I'm the best lawyer on earth, and I know it. I think everyone has a right to a defense, but I think X is obviously guilty. I might reasonably let some lesser legal talent sign on, instead of giving the defendant the benefit of my expertise. By deciding I won't help, I'm not committing myself to the idea that nobody should. The same reasoning would apply in the case at hand.

s. wallerstein said...

Coyne isn't a lawyer.

A lawyer is in a special position regarding her client, and her duty is to present her client's case in the best possible light, whether or not her client is a great person or not. A lawyer's duty is to her client and not to Justice. If a lawyer is not willing to defend a client to the best of her abilities, independent of her opinion about the client, she should not accept the case.

Coyne's duty is not to the client (or to Justice), but to scientific truth about DNA.

Jean Kazez said...

Of course he's not a lawyer. That's why I said "the same reasoning could applying to the case at hand." I think it can, even though lawyers and DNA experts do different things.

Getting back to the main issue -- It just can't be such a simple matter for an expert to justify supporting a defense team. It's not a simple matter of telling the truth (so hurray!). What's at stake in a trial is justice, not just truth. Maybe the point is extra obvious if you make the issue whether to advise the prosecution in some criminal trial. If you don't think justice is going to be advanced (the DA's office is corrupt, the defense lawyer is crummy, the state has the death penalty), you're surely not going to say "ah, but the important thing is that the prosecution explains DNA evidence right." Explaining DNA evidence right may just snow the jury and distract them from other holes in the case. If an expert thinks his testimony is going to become part of a case that's flawed, on the whole, then that's surely relevant to the decision about whether to participate.

Really--I think it's outlandish to think that DNA experts should be neutral as far as ethical issues go, participating in any prosecution or defense, without considering the total picture, and whether their help is going to hinder or advance justice.

s. wallerstein said...

I talked to a lawyer friend last night, and in his opinion, a DNA expert should confine herself to the technical facts, no matter what she thinks about the case itself.

In Chile the system is a bit different: there is a number of certified experts who testify in any case they are asked to testify in for a set fee, which is determined by the court.

However, I think that you are right in one aspect, that an expert opposed to the death penalty should not testify in cases in which her opinions may lead to the death penalty.

As to corrupt DA's, I assume that the vast majority of DA's in the U.S. and in Chile are not corrupt (and if they are corrupt, they will soon be removed from office), but if that were the case, yes, it might be a reason to not testify as an expert.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, The issue is which teams a DNA expert should join, not what to testify about, once on the team. Obviously DNA experts just testify about DNA.

There are lots and lots of possible worries about joining a defense or prosecution team. There is the issue of the prosecution seeking the death penalty, but surely that's not the only issue of justice that an expert should take into account before signing on.

Take the defense team that's about to be hired by Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It will be huge and lavish and they will try every trick in the book. On the other side, you've got a govt paid prosecutor seeking justice for a woman who very likely was raped. The defense could bring in DNA witnesses for nefarious reasons--to snow the jury, to distract them, to confuse them, to sow seeds of pointless doubt. The outcome could easily be that a rapist gets away with his crime.

I would find it honestly just contemptible for a top DNA expert to lend his reputation and expertise to an effort like that, with the explanation that all he cared about was scientific truth. That's just not all that's at stake in a trial. The truth about who committed the crime is what's most importantly in question, and scientific truths can be deployed by defense lawyers to misrepresent what that most important truth actually is.

This is not to say that defendants shouldn't have defense teams at all--but there's nothing that says that they have to be huge and illustrious and they have to include the best scientists and lawyers in the land. The way top people joined OJ's defense team (Alan Dershowitz, for example) was gratuitous--it gave him more than a fair shake. These people could easily have said no without the man's basic right to a defense being compromised.

s. wallerstein said...

The problem is that if you convinced all the experts that they
should only testify in worthy cases, no experts would testify in non-worthy ones, except those who are only in it for the money. Some experts have to testify in non-worthy cases and so why not Coyne?

It is interesting that Coyne always insists (that's why he dislikes the so-called accomodationists so much) that in life one just tells the truth, without worrying about the consequences.

I agree with you that truth is only one good that must be weighed against other goods like justice, respect for others, freedom, etc.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm not saying that no experts should help an OJ or a DSK. I'm asking why the leading lights rush to the side of these celebrity criminals. They don't have to do that. OJ had to have a defense, but he didn't have to have a huge defense team composed of the leading lawyers and experts in the land. These leading lights decided to give him the best defense money can buy. I'm questioning why they did that, rather than just letting him have the kind of defense the average person can muster. I will wonder the same thing when the DSK trial gets under way. We'll probably see the same excess talent on the side of the defendant.

s. wallerstein said...

The fact that lots of talented people rush in to defend celebrity criminals is sad, but in the case of Coyne, according to his account, he gives expert testimony for everyone who asks for his help, rich or poor, famous or not.

If Coyne had only given evidence for Simpson and for no one else, that would tell against his character. That is, he did not rush in to help poor OJ Simpson; rather, in that case, he did exactly what he does in any case.

Jean Kazez said...

I just don't see consistency as any kind of a defense here. Some defenses and prosecutions ought to be helped, but some not. The fact that you help them all doesn't begin to address the ethical problem with helping bad defenses and bad prosecutions. Compare a scientist who offers expertise to all businesses, bad and good. How could that possibly make sense? Why would the indiscriminateness be positive, not negative?

I will only say this for Coyne--I think indigent clients, whether guilty or innocent, are entitled to a defense. I think it's admirable he helps these people, especially pro bono. Some of the OJ defense lawyers started doing that sort of stuff too after that trial--Barry Sheck and Peter Neufield do fantastic work on the Innocence Project. I don't think that's an excuse for helping OJ get acquitted, but it definitely has redeemed them in my eyes.

s. wallerstein said...

The important thing is that everyone gets a fair trial.

What happens sometimes in Chile (it did not happen in the OJ Simpson case, but it could have happened) is that a celebrity or rich defendent falls into the hands of a very aggressive public prosecutor, who ably using the media and community resentment against the rich and powerful, succeeds in turning public opinion against the defendent, prejudicing the court against him or her.

So, although generally rich or celebrity defendents have an easier time in court, it is not always the case.

In any case, there is no doubt that lawyers who work free for indigent clients are admirable people.