Opinion: Raising kids as Witnesses

June 6th, 2009

I can speak from experience: being raised in a Jehovah’s Witness family can be tough for many children and downright disastrous for others.Normal kids playing ball at the park

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a JW family in the 1950s when many of the Watchtower’s restrictive rules had not yet been fine-tuned nor enforced the way they are today. I also had the good fortune to have a father who loved sports and wanted my brother and me to participate in organized athletics such as Little League and high school teams. Dad would often want to play catch and even join us when we’d play in pickup games with our neighborhood friends.

My father was an exception to the JW rule by letting us play on Little League and other sports teams. Even back in the 1950s and 1960s, most of the other JW kids were not allowed by their parents to participate in team sports or to join in on other school activities. JW children were supposed to be spending their spare time at home studying the Watchtower or out “in the field service,” knocking on doors trying to “place” the Watchtower Society’s magazines and books.

I have to admit that some of my JW friends were far more talented and athletic than I. Occasionally when JW families would get together for a picnic or other Witness gathering, some of us would bring a football or basketball along and play in a JW pickup game. Some JW kids were really good with a lot of natural talent. Their parents, however, would never allow them to use or develop those talents, thinking it would take their time away from doing “Jehovah’s work.”

Richard E. Kelly tells his personal story in his book Growing Up in Mama’s Club, a Childhood Perspective of Jehovah’s Witnesses. After his family moved to “where the need was greater” in a small town in central Nebraska, his high school’s football coach saw Dick playing quarterback during a physical education class practice football game. The coach was amazed as the young teenager kept throwing very long and extremely accurate passes. As a young teenager, Kelly was tall, rangy, strong and clearly a natural athlete. [See Sidebar]

Over the next few weeks, the coach continued to watch him play. He finally took Dick aside and told him that he had one of the strongest throwing arms that he had ever seen. If he tried out for the school’s varsity football team and did well during the season, the coach told Dick that the odds were great that he could earn a college scholarship at the University of Nebraska or for some other major college.

Dick was excited about the possibilities that his coach had shared with him. He saw this as his opportunity to not only play football, which he loved, but also to get an excellent education. As it turned out, in spite of his pleas, his mother would not allow it, insisting that he spend his spare time in field service and going to meetings at the Kingdom Hall. Her position was that Dick’s going to college was out of the question; he should plan on spending additional time in door to door witnessing and when he graduated he could go to work as a volunteer at the Watchtower headquarters in Brooklyn, become a member of the “Bethel family” and work in the printing plants.

No one will ever know if Dick Kelly would have gone on to a great college athletic career. He honored his mother and gave in to her wishes, leaving behind  his hope of an advanced education. He actually did go on to serve at Bethel for a short time after graduation.

Eventually, Kelly left Bethel after he began to doubt the teachings of the Watchtower. Later, after he married and moved to Michigan, he went on to have a very successful business career.  He did get his college education and degree as many others have done by paying for it himself and attending classes during his off-work hours. Kelly is now retired and spends most of his time traveling and writing about his life experiences. In spite of his successes, Dick often wonders what his life might have been like if he had not been raised in such a restrictive family situation.

Raising your children as Jehovah’s Witnesses will often result in their growing up with a lack of good communication skills and without a broad understanding of world history and current events.  When their primary reading materials are Watchtower and Awake! magazines along with a few of the current Watchtower books (which are generally just rehashed versions of older publications), your children don’t have much of a chance to grow intellectually.

In most Witness families TV and movies are allowed in only very restricted amounts. That’s not to say that some JWs won’t sneak a look at almost anything when other family members are not at home, but for the most part Witnesses are warned against letting their children watch anything having to do with politics, religious debate, general history, and professional sports.

As a child, my parents did allow us to watch sports such as baseball and football games. My father and I would also watch Wednesday and Friday night boxing matches with athletes like Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano. I saw some of the more famous fights of Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali). Most other JW families would not allow their kids to watch such sports events – considering them to be “violent, and too competitive” and a waste of time.

There are some notable exceptions to these general guidelines. Venus and Serena Williams were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses and are both considered to be among the top ten of world class female tennis champions of all time. The Wayans family members continue to have successful careers in movies and TV. There are a few notable musicians that grew up in Witness families.

Jehovah’s Witness children often suffer from mental stress, depression, and inferior personality complexes because of the way they are raised. They are not allowed to participate in most extracurricular activities at school, including sports and clubs. They are discouraged from going to college, so many students will avoid taking advanced high school courses in science, mathematics, and languages. All they want and get is a very basic education as required by local laws.

For many young Jehovah’s Witnesses “travel” means spending vacations going to Watchtower summer conventions. During the 1950s many young JWs traveled with their parents by car to New York to attend one or more of the International Conventions held at Yankee Stadium and in 1958, also at the Polo Grounds.

Divine Will International Convention - New York, 1958

Because my family’s vacation time and money were very limited, in 1953 and 1958 we were forced drive straight through from California to New York. We had no time or money to take side trips or to stop along the way to check out historical sites or scenic vistas. Our goal was to get to the convention, spend eight days sitting in the hot sun listening to dozens of speakers drone on, covering the same subjects we’ve heard again and again back at the local Kingdom Hall, and then turn around and get back home so that my father could get back to work.

These conventions spanned across eight consecutive days, with morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. Many families never got to really see New York City at all while they were there, even though they were right in the middle of one of the world’s largest and most exciting cities. There was no time to go to Times Square or to any of the city’s many amazing museums. If there was a family field trip planned, it was most often a short trip to Brooklyn to visit the Watchtower’s Bethel Headquarters.

My parents did take time to drive through Manhattan so that we kids could see some of the tall buildings. We were staying north of the city in Mt. Vernon, so we missed most of the best sites – with the exception of the bridges and tunnels – and of course the famous ballparks where the conventions were being held.

I eventually left the Witnesses and went on to get an education and to work as a manager for a major utility company. My brother took his stand and went against our parent’s wishes, earning his college scholarship by playing high school tennis. After he graduated from the University of Nebraska (where Dick Kelly could have gone) with an MBA, my brother went on to have a successful career in both the real estate and financial industries.

Is this going to be your child's future?

Is this going to be your child's future?

Everyone else that we knew that stayed within the Watchtower organization ended up spending their lives in honest, but menial, occupations. It seems that the favored occupations for Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to be in the construction and janitorial service trades.  The few that have had successful careers in the professions or have become famous entertainers or athletes are either worshipped by some Witnesses or called “weak and self-important” by others.

The facts are clear: Witness kids, especially now with the recent increased pressure on them not to go to college or to develop a career, grow up to be adults without goals. Most will admit privately that they do not really believe in what the Watchtower teaches, but in order to stay close to their families they have to go with the flow and follow the Watchtower’s mindless teachings and demands for more and more time spent in field service.

Bottom Line: If you want your kids to grow up working toward a broad education and a successful career with a minimum of psychological problems, do not raise them as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On the other hand, if you want them to end up barely able to write a readable sentence, have little or no knowledge or understanding of history or current events, and doomed to spend their lives cleaning the rest rooms or polishing floors at the local Wal-Mart, then by all means force them to become slaves of the Watchtower Society.

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Comments Feed23 Comments

  1. Luke

    RIch, how do you feel about being married to a JW? looking back on the whole thing (i know that the kids are most likely great and a huge part of your life that you would not take back) but putting that aside. If you did it all over again would you marry a JW again, or would you let that one go?

  2. Anomys

    Child abuse at it’s best. These poor children are taught to contirbute nothing to society, hang out in starbucks and be nothings. What a sad story, all in the name of 8 idiots who think their interpetitation is correct. Smh….sad!

  3. Cindy

    I am 60 years old and raised as a JW. I Listened to doomsday talks 3 times a week. I was frightened about demons and nervous to spend a night alone until I was over 30. I spent my formative years looking at pictures of death and destruction in the society’s literature. I was the only kid in my class that didn’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays or get to go out trick or treating. I was discouraged from critical thinking and getting an education. I had good parents but even good parents don’t make up for missing out on the childhood my school pals had. I don’t think growing up in a doomsday culture is an appropriate childhood for bringing out the best in anyone.

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