Why I am not forcing my kids to believe in God

FILE -- March 26, 2005: A cross is silhouetted against the sun in Pinellas Park, Fla.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

FILE -- March 26, 2005: A cross is silhouetted against the sun in Pinellas Park, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)  (AP)

It’s no surprise I take heat from passionate readers on occasion; it’s part of the gig. Although my columns are rarely controversial, they often touch on faith, and anything I publish on religion tends to lure the opinionated to the pulpit.

I get it.

I’m dedicated to what I believe and others are equally committed to their own belief systems. This volley of ideas back and forth, if respectful, builds bridges and pushes out the murky mist of misunderstanding. In fact, some of these regulars have become good friends.

But one recent email knocked me off balance, like a bully on a playground. It’s grammatical chest puffed out.

“Quit forcing your kids to believe in God.”

I had to read the line three times. Not just then, but even now as I remember the experience. I don’t force my kids to believe in God. I teach and invite them to believe.

The sender talked about indoctrination, free will and the real risk that my kids only believe in God because that’s what their mother and I are teaching them. The central argument was that all children at every age are entitled to form their own belief systems and choose for themselves whether to align with God, science or something in between.

Curious, I spent over an hour reading comments on my columns. (Want to be humbled? Read what thousands of anonymous strangers have to say about you, your family, your writing and your religion.)

A surprising theme emerged through all that noise. More than a few seemed to share my emailer’s opinion that I needed to, “Quit forcing (my) kids to believe in God.” They wrote that all children of all ages should choose whether they would learn Bible stories, attend church or develop a habit of prayer.

Why do I teach my children about God and his plan for me, for them, for our family?

Because that’s what my parents did for me.

Why do I teach my children that there’s a way home to live with him again?

Because that’s what my parents did for me.

All parents have a responsibility to teach what matters most.

I teach my kids not to touch the hot stove or play in the campfire. I teach them to look both ways before crossing the street. I teach them about proper use of guns, knives, the lethal dangers of pornography, balancing media intake and much more.

I teach them to shut the front door, say “please” and “thank you” and not to spray the whipped cream straight into their mouths. (I’m not so good on that last one.)

But isn’t that what parents are supposed to do? It’s up to us to send signals to our children about what’s important.

If we don’t, who will?

Of course I’m teaching my children about God, heaven and happiness. We have faith, and because it’s important to their mother and me, we want it to be important to them.

Perhaps when our children are older they will decide that they like to play with knives, watch inappropriate movies and cross the street willy-nilly without looking left, right, left. And sure, maybe they won’t eat their vegetables, get a good night’s rest and vote in every election.

Maybe they’ll decide they don’t want to go to church, pray with their families or open the scriptures. If that’s the case, I’ll love them just the same. Because as adults, they’ll find their own way, make mistakes and exercise fully the agency God gives to form opinions, habits and choose right from wrong.

But for now, we’re going to send a signal of what matters most.

Because that’s what our parents did for us.

I believe in God. I believe he lives, loves and knows us. I believe in his son, his sacrifice, his perfection and resurrection.

And I’m not forcing my kids to believe that. I’m inviting them to believe, just as I invite that friendly early-morning emailer.

And that goes for you, too.

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times bestselling author, columnist and speaker. His newest book is  “A Letter to Mary: The Savior's Loving Letter to His Mother” . Subscribe to his weekly columns.