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Thoughts on Children's Attraction to Cults

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How and why does a person become attracted to a cult? Articles written about the 39 members of the "Heaven's Gate" cult state that many had come from loving and caring homes. Several of these cult members were thought to be extremely intelligent. We know cults are successful because of "peer pressure." Why do some individuals readily succumb to this?

The work of Foster Cline M.D. and Jim Fay suggests the dominant voice in each child's head begins during toddler hood. Many of us unwittingly train our children to listen to their peers by listening to a very strong voice outside their head - OURS. We not only tell our children what to do, but when to do it, and often how to do it. We remove the child's feelings of competence and control by being controlling. "I know what is best for you" is the message given to children when we become their "drill sergeants."

As Cline has observed a profound change takes place when children move into adolescence. The child might say: "I can think for myself. I don't have to listen to that strong voice outside." Do they then begin to think for themselves? According to Cline, they don't. They have been conditioned to listen to voices outside of their own. Adolescence means they are no longer going to listen to us and they can't listen to a voice inside their heads because there isn't any. We have done all the thinking for them. The only voice that registers is that of their peers.... The child hasn't changed as we may think. He has simply substituted another voice coming from outside his head.

Worried parents want to know what to do? Adoptive parents are sometimes described as being "over protective" with their children. Perhaps it is no surprise school psychologists see adoptees as not being as mature as their peers. "We are so thrilled to be adoptive parents we tend to be "stretcher bearers rather than guides."

Cline and Fay suggest the first step in preparing children to cope with eventual peer pressure is to start them early listening to that small voice within. This means giving simple choices. Examples might include two choices of clothing when dressing or choosing between two foods. This became awkward for me (more than once) when my three-year-old daughter not only chose an odd combination of clothing one day (a too small dress she wore as a blouse with tights), but water wings on her legs to pre-school. (When the water wings felt hot and uncomfortable, she finally removed them. Another child then wore them for a time followed by two more children.)

Rather than mainly telling children what to do, we want to be letting them make simple decisions. The hard part for us is letting them make mistakes in order to learn. Sometimes it's because we don't like the messes they make, we are tired, or can be because we are in a hurry.

Cline describes a "helicopter parent" as one who "protects and hovers over the child." "Drill Sergeant" parents also love their children, but bark commands wanting order and control. "Consultant Parents" allow their children to make mistakes which will not seriously injure the child. They discipline with EMPATHY. Active listening abounds in this kind of family.

Many pre-schools (such as Montessori) have programs which foster inner voice development in children. I remember visiting a pre-school in which the teacher said very little when the children were "working." She said nothing to take away from the child's ability to problem solve or concentrate.

The large classroom was filled with plants, pets, and all kinds of simple items on trays. I was told the children were at an ideal age to do many kinds of problem solving. They each had choices as to what they wanted to do. There was no television to lull the mind of these young children into unconsciousness. All were very busy and focused on something. The schoolroom was organized and children easily seemed able to put items away they used. I was fascinated by what I was seeing.

We have heard that "Heaven's Gate" provided a loving nurturing atmosphere to its members. Children thrive in homes that are loving and nurturing. Working and contributing to the group was important. Experts in child development tell us of the importance of having children contribute to the home by doing assigned tasks. "Heaven's Gate" had strong boundaries within and was highly structured. Even in death, orderliness prevailed. Again, we know that children feel a sense of security in a home atmosphere which has routine and structure as well as orderliness. Children need predictability.

Did the Heaven's Gate cult followers have well developed inner voices? Written accounts tell us that many had been searching for something. Was that something a strong "outer voice" such as Marshall Applewhite's, the cult's charismatic leader? As an independent thinker, can you imagine leaving your home, family, and job after spending an evening or two listening to someone like Applewhite?

Yad Vashem in Israel has completed studies on the altruistic holocaust rescuers. They were independent thinkers with strong moral convictions. Without exception, all could easily articulate their family values. Although they were from a variety of countries, religious backgrounds, life styles, and incomes all possessed an unmistakable well developed "inner voice."

Think about talking less and using your children's mistakes as their opportunities to learn to think for themselves by using their inner voice.

Credits: Ellen A. Roseman

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