Archive for Tuesday, April 18, 2006

With religion, high-pressure sales pitch may turn off your teens

April 18, 2006


Dear Dr. Wes and Marissa: I'm in foster care. Why is it that foster parents feel they need to push God or Jesus on us? I'm not a Christian.

- Teenage Boy

Dr. Wes: You've opened up a big can of worms here -one that can't be easily addressed in our short column. There are really two issues that overlap. The first is how much any parent should pressure their children to adopt their religious beliefs. I was raised in a religious home and valued the experiences and insights that it offered. In fact, my dad was a minister. However, I don't recall my parents ever pressuring me to adopt their beliefs. Instead they made the invitation of faith, and I liked how it fit into their lives, so it became part of mine. I have tended to lean that same direction in my own parenting, inviting my children to learn and incorporate my values by leading, not pushing.

To some this might seem like a lot of liberal, fluffy talk, and I acknowledge there are other points of view. However, I see my perspective as very pragmatic and a far greater tool in conveying cherished values than the idea of "pushing God or Jesus." In fact, I was actually a youth group leader way back when, and I don't recall much value in a high-pressure sales pitch. As with all matters, when children are younger they require greater guidance, and mandating involvement in religious activities and studies is more appropriate. As they hit the mid- to late teens, parents need to make these experiences more interesting and personally relevant, not dreary and forced.

The second issue your letter raises is whether the same standard should apply to the unusual world of foster care. Many readers know I wrote a book on foster care, so I've studied these concerns closely. The above suggestions apply doubly for foster parents. In most foster homes, the arrangement is temporary. Except in rare circumstances, foster parents are not supposed to replace biological parents, only shelter and guide young people for a few months of their lives. To be inclusive, foster parents should make the offer to join them in a place of worship. If the child already is a church member, they should get them to their own congregation for services.

However, foster parents never should use their position to create a captive audience for salvation. Since foster care is paid for entirely by the state, you can make a case that foster parents should not be forcing any religious belief system on you - especially if you are not of their faith. On the other hand, if the family is simply making an offer, perhaps you shouldn't knock it 'til you've tried it. If you give it a shot and still find that their faith is not for you, or if your beliefs are already well-formed and strongly held about religion, then you should talk with your court-appointed special advocate (CASA) or social worker about the problem. Just be aware that I've seen more than one placement disrupted for issues like this. Choose your battles wisely.

Marissa: Religion is a personal and controversial issue with most people no matter where you live. I think that your foster parents are well-meaning in their intentions, but they are probably going about it the wrong way, especially if you're feeling uncomfortable or pressured. I believe that trying to force a religion on someone is a surefire way to guarantee that they'll reject it and feel spiteful about it. No one will do anything willingly if the issue is pushed too hard, and that's even more true for teenagers.

I know a lot of people who have parents who are active in a church and find it hard to agree with the morals and principles of that faith. I also know students whose parents are agnostic or atheist, and they have the same trouble when it comes to trying to justify their own religious exploration when their parents find it pointless. I think that biological parents or guardians rightfully have more say in their child's faith than a foster parent, though they might not always see it that way.

I would try to approach the subject respectfully and kindly. If you're not willing to sit in on a few sermons and see how you feel about your foster parents' religion, then try to find a courteous and inoffensive way to say "no thanks" to their offer. If you disrespectfully reject their beliefs, they will be just as insulted by it as you are by their persistence on the matter. Maintaining a firm and mature stance on the subject is your best bet to keep peace with your foster parents. If it is not something that can be resolved or smoothed over, then pursuing your options for another placement is the next best choice.

Next week: A reader asks if Adderall abuse is a problem among teens and young adults.

Contest: The contest deadline for replacing Marissa as the Double Take columnist is May 1. We will accept essays until that date. Check out the challenge question at by clicking on the Double Take link.

- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Marissa Ballard is a Lawrence High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to All correspondence is strictly confidential.


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