I get asked a lot about how I approached the question of religion when my son was young. Did I insist that he follow my lack of belief?
No, I did not. That he has a vivid imagination but a rational and humanistic lifestance is attributable, I think, to making sure he knew how to think for himself.
One of the things we most urgently need to instill in our children is the to think critically about the world around us. Not just when it comes to religion, but when politics, ethics, and personal conflicts are in issue, having the skill to think rationally about things is crucial to a better life.
I taught my child to question everything. Lots of times, I taught him to do it by asking him questions. Yes, my son was raised by Socratic Method. We had rules, but we felt it was important for him to understand the reasoning behind the rules.
- I never said no to him without giving him a reason. “Because I said so” is not a reason. “Because I don’t feel like it” is.
- If he calmly and rationally rebutted me, I listened. If his argument was better than mine, I changed my position. That being said, if he was argumentative or rude, he automatically lost the argument and often got sent to his room to calm down. If only this process were observed in the political arena, we’d be in great shape!
- We explored his questions and his interests together. We did science experiments in the kitchen and back yard. And because Dinosaurs Are Awesome, we kept a notebook full of dinosaur information, and added newspaper and magazine clippings to it regularly. I still have that notebook.
- Bedtime stories were just as likely to be stories from history and science as they were from Narnia or Hogwarts. We told each other stories we made up, and we made up stories together.
- When he was preschool and elementary school age, we bought age-appropriate books of Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, and other mythology, which we read right along with the children’s Bible our son’s grandmother gave him.
- He played the video game “Age of Mythology,” which taught him about the capriciousness of deities. Later he graduated to “Age of Empires,” and when he told me William Wallace was his hero, I knew for sure that these games were okay.
- We played the “what if” game, to imagine how things might be different if one thing about the world was different, and we explored the best possible uses of a time machine.
- Magazines full of popular science were in every bathroom and on every tabletop. Discover. Archaeology. National Geographic. Smithsonian. We read those articles together, too. When he got older, he would pick up the magazines himself and read them.
- We watched science, nature and history shows together. Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin was at his pinnacle when Jack was growing up, and there was a lot of really good stuff on that show. We grieved his death. The Walking with Dinosaurs documentary series (not the new movie) was on the Discovery Channel – back when the Discovery Channel still was about science. Connections – that James Burke documentary series that combined science, history and technology in wonderful ways – was a favorite, too.
- I spent time in his elementary school classrooms, and talked not just to him but to his classmates about how to tell stories, all about fossils, dinosaurs, how the legal system works, how amber is formed, and more. I even organized a field trip to the local juvenile court where his classmates and my lawyer friends put some naughty dinosaurs on trial. After the trial, we visited a real juvenile detention facility.
- I took him to Sunday school. I felt like I needed to, because I wanted him to understand where his religious friends were coming from. He went to Bible School one summer, too. He was in about second grade. We only did this for about a year, because I’m atheist and it was on Sunday mornings, when civilized people lounge around the house in pajamas reading the New York Times and doing crossword puzzles. I wanted him to learn, but not be indoctrinated.
This is when I knew I had succeeded:
When he was about 11, I asked him whether I had to do the Easter Bunny schtick again that year. “What do you mean, ‘schtick’?” he asked.
“Your father never helps me and I have to stay up late and I really don’t want to,” I told him. (Yeah, I was kind of whiny about it, I admit.)
“You! What about the Easter Bunny?”
“Son, do you really think a bunny hops around the house after we go to bed hiding eggs and pooping jellybeans?”
“Well, no … but can I still have the basket? And all the candy?”
Fast forward to summer. He had lost a tooth and I forgot to put money under his pillow.
“Mom, the tooth fairy forgot last night.”
“I’m sure she was just busy and lagged behind. She’ll get to you tonight if you put it under there again.”
The next morning he reported that the tooth fairy had once again forgotten. “Just go get my purse. Get a dollar out of my wallet.”
“What? You’re the tooth fairy, too? First the Easter Bunny, now the tooth fairy – what’s next? Santa Claus?” I could tell he was annoyed, but I needed to get to work.
“Yes, son. And right after that comes God,” I said.
He looked at me in pure shock and horror for about three solid seconds, and I wondered what I would say next. Then he burst out laughing.
“I knew all along, Mom.”
Eventually, I sent my son to an Episcopal school. I did this because, after working in the juvenile justice system for a decade, I was terrified of gangs in our local public middle schools. There weren’t a lot of private school options, so I chose the least religious of the bunch, where I thought he would get a good education (that included evolution as real science, not as part of some non-existent controversy). He was inoculated against religion before he went, because critical thinking was automatic and habitual with him by the time he was enrolled there in 5th grade.
He had to take religion classes for one semester both in middle school and in high school. That was fine with me, because I doubted he’d read the Bible otherwise. Let’s face it: it’s a lousy, poorly-written book with plot holes big enough to fly 747s through, but knowing enough to be able to talk intelligently about it is pretty important in our culture.
In middle school, he pretty much kept his head down and just did his work. In high school, though, Father John wanted more out of him. The very first day of class, the priest threw out a question:
“Jack, What do you think prayer does?”
There were pockets of laughter around the classroom as Jack hesitated.
“Yeah, Jack! What do you think?” asked one of the students.
“What’s so funny?” asked Father John.
“You asked an atheist what he believes prayer does!” one of Jack’s classmates blurted. Jack was probably grinning, too. I hope he was.
He said, “I don’t think prayer does anything, but I can understand how it might be helpful for some people.”
I’m happy with his response. My son the critical thinker is also much more diplomatic than I am when it comes to this subject.
We need to give kids credit for being able to think for themselves – but we need to teach them to do it, too. It’s part of our jobs as parents, to give them the tools to understand and deal with the world, and to be able to determine for themselves what is credible.