4 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Heading into a Confrontation

Confrontation Confrontation: (n.) a face-to-face meeting; the clashing of forces or ideas; a situation in which people fight, oppose,or challenge each other in an angry way.

Like most people, I have sort of a love-hate relationship with confrontation. I’m drawn to it and repelled by it in almost equal measure.

On the one hand, confrontation is a necessary byproduct of honesty, integrity and self-worth. To be capable and willing to confront that which we find offensive, unacceptable or harmful is the mark of a strong character, is it not? Those who shrink from confrontation may well be considered “nice,” but are just as likely to be considered “weak.” Plus, sometimes, confrontation is a great release; by holding back our feelings, opinions or fears, we are quite likely to become victims of our own spinelessness. (That, or maddeningly passive-aggressive.)

On the other hand, confrontation can be — and often is — a wholly obnoxious thing to behold. In the wrong hands, confrontation becomes selfish, foolish, reckless and hurtful. I know more than a few people whose confrontational demeanors are motivated not by any real passion or concern, but by their own low self-esteem and desire for attention. Confrontational people are as likely to be labeled “strong,” as they are to be labeled “overbearing.” Indeed, without forethought or reflection, confrontation is merely wasted energy that damages relationships and accomplishes nothing.

I suppose it’s obvious why I’m writing about this. In the Land of Confrontation, Religion is a frequent visitor. (Or is it the other way around?) In the last few years, as I’ve blogged my way through any number of religious issues, I’ve had to evaluate and reevaluate what I am willing to confront, and when, and how. It’s made me think a lot about confrontation in general, too.

In my 40 years on the planet, I haven't always gotten it right. I’ve said things I wish I hadn’t. I’ve made big deals out of nothing. I’ve intimidated people, hurt their feelings unintentionally, come away feeling guilty and remorseful. Likewise, I’ve chosen not to confront things that I should have. I’ve opted for status quo in order to avoid discomfort. My own fear of hurting peoples’ feelings or of getting an angry reaction have kept me from saying things that might have “freed” me of pain, fear or frustration; from understanding others’ perspectives; from strengthening bonds with those I love; or from making myself a better, more honest person.

These days, though, when it comes to confrontation, I seek a middle path. I try to confront others with deliberation, consideration and kindness, with an eye on what can be gained and what can be lost. It's been my experience that aiming for the center gets me closer to becoming the person I want to be — and the person I want my daughter to be. After all, how we confront our differences with other people, religious or otherwise, says an awful lot about who we are.

But what does a middle path look like? Every confrontation has the potential for failure or success, so how do we know who and what's worth confronting? How do we measure the risks versus the rewards? When should we go big, and when should we just go home?

Running through the following series of questions can help you get some clarity:

1. How important is this issue?

Whether you're on the giving or receiving end, confrontations can be emotionally exhausting. Confronting people over every problem or concern will quickly turn you into a high-maintenance drama queen. That said,  it's a mistake to believe that only "big issues" are worth confronting. Small issues often deserve our attention, too. If you find yourself thinking about a problem for an extended period, unable to "move on" in your mind, then it's probably an issue worth confronting. Will it go your way? Maybe, maybe not. But your feelings are important; treat them that way. Otherwise, you risk selling yourself, and your relationships, short.

2. How important is this person?

The closer you are to a person who has, say, offended or hurt you, the more likely it is that you’ll need to confront them head-on. It’s why we argue with our spouses and partners more than just about anyone else; those arguments may be painful, but they're usually worth it. That’s not necessarily the case when offensive comments or hurtful behavior come from those in your “outer circle" — distant relatives, occasional acquaintances, Internet friends. If people don’t matter to you in your day-to-day life, confronting them on much of anything will hold little long-term value. And it may send the message that they're more important to you than they really are.

3. Have I had time to reflect?

We all have triggers — subjects that take our stress levels from zero to 60 in under a second. When triggered, we are likely to react emotionally, rather than to respond rationally. If this is the case, take a giant step back. Breathe for a while. Your initial reaction may or may not be the right one. And, either way, giving yourself a day — hell, even an hour! — to recalibrate won't weaken your position and may very well strengthen it. With a cool head, you're likely be perceived as someone with a legitimate, thoughtful concern rather than dismissed as a hot head with anger-management issues.

4. What do I hope to accomplish? 

Every confrontation should have a stated purpose. Maybe you need to know something, for instance, or you need something to change.  Maybe you want to educate people, or be heard and understood. Maybe you need to admit something you did or will do or want to do. Whatever the reason for seeking out confrontation, try to do so appropriately and deliberately. If a confrontation holds the potential to hurt someone’s feelings, or make you sad, or damage your friendship, be doubly sure that your purpose is noble, necessary and worth the risk. That way, you'll have no regrets — even if things don't go your way.

Oh, and one more thing: Don't forget to accept confrontation graciously when it comes your way. When approached with kindness, confrontation is a gift. It signals your importance to the person doing the confronting, and your reaction will either encourage or discourage the person from sharing their feelings with you. Be a role model. That way, when the situation is reversed, you'll have laid the groundwork for a mature and compassionate meeting of the minds.

Happy New Year, everyone!

'Very Religious Parents' Trying to Indoctrinate Their Grandkid

I got a letter from a reader today. Raise your hand if you can relate.

Looking for some advice on how to deal with my very Christian parents and my daughter. She'll be 2 in January and is already saying "Amen" and "Yay God." I am not Christian and feel disrespected by this. They know that I have COMPLETELY different beliefs. Any advice on how to "respectfully" get them to stop?

baby-mother-grandmother

Pretty typical, right?

I started to write this mom a private response but, with her permission, decided to make it public. I'd be curious — and I'm sure she would be, as well — to hear advice from anyone else who has had some "success" in dealing with this particular problem. In the meantime, here's my two cents:

1. Be brief, be direct, and be nice. Brief because this is a can of worms that can get cray-cray pretty quickly. Direct because this is important and you need to make sure there are no misunderstandings. (No one wants to have to have this damn conversation more than once.) And nice because that’s what’s going to keep tensions from escalating.

2. Try to get your parents' buy-in. This is the goal. If your parents understand where you are coming from, and genuinely want to help you out, you won't have to worry that they will try to indoctrinate your kid behind your back.

3. Be ready to lay down the law. If, after stating your case, your parents refuse to cooperate, you need to let them know — as briefly, directly and nicely as possible — that there there will be consequences. Then you need to tell them what those consequences will be.

You might start out this way:

Mom and Dad, I’ve noticed you’ve been sharing your religious views with Jane and I’m glad to see that. Your Hinduism/Buddhism/Christianity is important to you, and I want you to feel comfortable talking to her, and me, about anything that is important to you. That said, because I don’t share all your beliefs, it’s really important to me that Jane gets to make up her own mind about what to believe. So when you’re talking about your faith, I would really appreciate it if you’d be clear with her that these are your beliefs, and not just straight facts. (You can do this really easily by just adding “I believe” or “we believe” onto statements about your religion.) Again, I’m not asking you to withhold your beliefs, but rather to put them into a context that allows for other belief systems to be respected, as well.

If you get an “Okay,” that’s a success. Done and done. Move on. If not:

The thing is, if you aren’t willing to temper your language, it puts pressure on me to use strong language, too. Every time you teach Jane something as though it's the only truth, I have to balance out — or even "undo" — what you’ve said. And that's not good for your relationship with Jane, or with me. I'll feel disrespected and even antagonized. But if you speak in a way that leaves room for Jane to make up her own mind, I'll feel more comfortable with the whole thing.”

Again, if you get an "Okay," great. If they still don't cooperate, you might ask: “Well, what would you be comfortable saying?” See if, after a little back and forth, you can agree on an approach.

If that fails, then your parents are being overbearing a-holes. Here's where those consequences figure in:

If you want to continue to have one-on-one time with Jane, you will have to agree to an approach that works for all of us. I’ll give you some time to think about it. Let me know what you come up with.

That ought to get their attention.

Also, a quick reminder: Richard Wade, the incredibly wise "Ask Richard" columnist over at the Friendly Atheist has some great advice for secularists dealing with religious family members. You might check out his archives sometime!

It's Not a Competition: 8 Tips for Interfaith Parents

In America at least, "mixed-religion” families are becoming a norm. And that's a great thing in many ways — great for couples, great for kids, and great for society. But it comes with a fair share of complications, too. And figuring out how to talk to children about these different beliefs is one of them. It can be hard, for instance, to field questions of faith when your answers collide with those of your partner's — "Mommy's going to heaven, and Daddy is — well, he's going to the ground." But these talks (not to mention these marriages) need not end badly — whether you're a Jew married to Muslim, a Hindu married to Buddhist, or a Catholic married to an atheist. The trick is to remember to love your partner the way you love your children: unconditionally. You fell in love with someone who sees the world a certain way; embrace her journey, even if you give no credence to her religious beliefs.

Here are eight tips:

1. Show shame the middle finger. Sharing your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, with your child is important — even if it means letting your child know that this is one area where you and Daddy don't agree. Remember, no matter what you believe — or don't — there is no shame in having your own thoughts about how the world works. And that's a lesson you want to teach your child, right? So model it. Don't hide what you are — even if certain other people think you're wrong or weird or downright evil. You know differently; be sure your child does, too.

2. Take 'hell' off the table. It's one thing to dangle heaven as a reward for a life well-lived; it's another to threaten hell as a punishment for faithlessness. If your partner, for instance, insists on telling your child that there is a fiery place where people go if they don't embrace a certain set of beliefs, your partner is suffering from some major cognitive dissonance and should be asked — as nicely as possible — to lay the fuck off.

3. Be respectful — even if you have to fake it. Agree in advance that you will not intentionally denigrate or disrespect each other's beliefs in any way. Make a deal that your children be allowed to embrace one belief over the other, but that both parents get to be honest about their beliefs (or, again, lack thereof). Promise not to put down your partner's views in any way, but rather encourage your children to seek honest answers for themselves.

4. Find stuff you agree on. There are a great many things that nonreligious and religious parents have in common. Many religious people believe, for instance, that the Bible is not literal, that the world is not 6,000 years old, and that there are no such things as ghosts. Many nonreligious people believe that the world was created by some supernatural force, which they may or may not call "God." As a couple, decide what you agree on, and what you don't, so you know exactly what areas need to be traversed sensitively.

5. Speak up! Allowing one partner to "take over" the religious upbringing of a child happens a lot — and it's not the worst thing in the world. But it's also a kind of sad when you think about it. The existence/nonexistence of God and what happens after we die figures so heavily in the Big Questions of the universe — the questions that each and every child will, at some point, want to explore. If you don't share your views, you can't share with your child all the wonderful philosophies and theories and wisdom about human nature that you've collected during your experience as a human being. And that's robbing your child of something special; it's robbing them of you.

6. Say 'I believe' a lot. You can avoid a lot of stress with your partner (and vice versa) simply by adding "I believe" in front of whatever you say. It's the concrete statements — "People who support abortion are disappointing God" — that make nonreligious parents bristle. But adding: "I believe..." or "My interpretation is…" to religious statements can go a long way toward taking the edge off. (So can whiskey, by the way. But that's probably not going to help your marriage. On the other hand, maybe it will.)

7. Perfect your shrug. Your child may not know what to make of having parents with different religions at first. It might spark more questions than usual, and that's just fine. Encourage these questions, and try to answer them as a couple as often as you can. But do let your child know that this stuff is super-confusing and neither parent has all the answers. You can say: "No one really knows for sure. That's what allows us to have different opinions about this stuff." This is one area where not having all the answers is not just okay — it's sort of required.

8. Acknowledge your lack of control, and embrace it. Think of your family as points on a grid, standing equidistance from one another. The goal is not to invite your child to join you on your exact point on the grid (that's never going to happen), but rather to encourage your child be comfortable and confident on her own unique grid point. That your child is kind to other people is your concern; whether she believes in the prophet Muhammad is not. If you're curious what your kid believes, ask in the most neutral way you can: "What do you think? What makes sense to you?" And be sure she knows that however she responds is fine by you. Oh, and never try to pressure a child into believing the way you do — it rarely works, and might even backfire. Oftentimes, the harder you push a child to your way of thinking, the more distance the child puts between you — until, eventually, she's off your grid altogether.

This post originally appeared in July 2012.

12 Tips for Talking to Little Ones About Death

130415173542-32-boston-marathon-explosion-c1-mainWhen American children return from school today, many will undoubtedly have questions about the Boston Marathon bombings — having glimpsed photographs, viewed video clips or spoken to peers. Depending on the age of your child, you might have some questions yourself: How much do I say? How much do I share? Click here for some great advice from Dr. Gene Beresin on CommonHealth for discussing the event — and others like it  — with kids. Or read on for 12 general tips, revised from an earlier list, for talking to little ones about death. 1. Have the talk before your child suffers a personal loss.

It never feels like the right time to broach the subject of death with our kids, which is why many of us put off the initial talk until the conversation is forced upon us — through some sort of personal tragedy. Unfortunately, by that point, we're stressed and sad; our kids are confused and scared; and our minds are flooded with all the things we need to get done. Coping is often the best we can do. Having thoughtful, hopeful conversations with our children about the the cycle and meaning of life requires a clear mind. So, before something happens, be on the lookout for any and all excuses to have these talks. A dead bird in the yard can be a fantastic point of entry. Taking the time to explore the bird's death, what "dead" means, and why the bird died can open up those lines of communication in remarkably effective ways. Of course, many parents put off these conversation because they're children are young and/or they themselves are sensitive to the subject. Each child is different, of course, but generally kids want to hear about death much earlier than we expect. We know they're ready when they start asking questions: "Why is that bird not moving?" "Where did your grandma go?" or "What happened to those people at the Boston Marathon?"

2. Stay away from euphemisms. 

Passed away. Taken away. Resting place. Went to sleep.  Left. These terms are fine for adults, who know the score, but they’re terrible for kids, who might find it really creepy that their uncle was "taken away." These terms, as well as many of them provided by religious imagery, are just too abstract for a young children, says Earl Grollman, who wrote the excellent book Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child. Instead, use the real words: Die. Death. Kill. Murder. Suicide. Coffin. Cremation. Funeral. When we speak directly and specifically — even if the words seem sharp and awkward in our mouths at first — we avoid painful confusion and misunderstandings.

3.  Let them do the talking.

Damn those awkward silences and our need to fill them. As I have mentioned earlier, we parents want nothing more than to comfort our kids. Soothing them is in our nature. To hold back from saying things that will make a child feel better is one of the more difficult aspects of parenting. But when it comes to talking about death, experts say, less is more. Explain death as simply as possible, then step back and let listening take over. Nods and hugs are fine, but parents who try too hard to comfort with words can end up explaining more than than a child wants, or is ready, to hear. (Or they can unwittingly shut down on a child's natural, healthy response to death — sadness.)When in doubt, try turning the questions back on the child, suggests Grollman. When a child asks: “What did Grandma look like after she died?” a parent might answer: “What do you think she looked like?" This gives us insight into our children’s imaginations and helps us guide the conversations where they need to go.

4. Don't shield kids from pet deaths.

One could argue that part of the reason we have beloved pets is to familiarize us with the idea of death, let us "practice" mourning, and remind us that life does go on — and the pain does lessen. But, so often, we shield our children from the reality of a pet death — and, therefore, pass up the chance to introduce our children to the very real sadness that comes with it. We also miss the opportunity to let our kids build up their own coping mechanisms. It may seem harsh, but encouraging our children to be present when our pets are euthanized and/or allowing our children to be involved in the mourning process with us (rather than, say, leaving the room to cry), we are teaching our kids how to mourn and move on. We are teaching them it's okay to cry, and that grief — no matter how painful — is not life-threatening.

5. Give them something to do.

When children lose someone they love, they benefit from being brought into the fray, as it were, rather than sequestered away from it. Modern therapists not only condone taking young children to funerals — they encourage it. Unless the child refuses to go (which rarely happens, I'm told), kids should be able to witness and participate in the catharsis that funerals bring. Also, children need confirmation of death much more so than adults do. Without it, they may view death as something mysterious and temporary, rather than a real, permanent event. They may even await a loved one's return. "Participation helps soften the pain, enhance the healing process, and provide an opportunity for acceptance and transformation," says Lynn Isenberg, the author of a book called Grief Wellness: The Definitive Guide to Dealing with Loss"When a child can participate in a loved one's passing, it creates an action, a sense of doing, a sense of purpose, around the loss. A child can plan a ceremony, create a ritual, write words to share with family and/or friends, design an (activity) around healing... especially if the activity was directly related to the person who has died."

6. Keep heaven out of it.

Even nonreligious parents have a hard time leaving heaven out of death talks with their kids. We use heaven (yes, even Doggie Heaven) to put a positive spin on something heart-wrenchingly painful. But heaven isn't the salve some people think it is — not for youngsters. There is nothing "bad" in nature. And when we offer up heaven as a knee-jerk reaction, we lose out on showing kids the true and honest glory of nature. Things are born, they live and they die — and it is this necessary cycle that makes the world beautiful. Life and death are intricately related. There is no splitting them apart. And if we think about it for any amount of time at all, we realize we wouldn't want to. Heaven can be confusing for kids — do they have a right to be sad when everyone is acting as though there is a "happy" aspect to the death? Reminding a child that everything ends and dies, and that this is the nature of the universe, can and does help, says Eve Eliot, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher living from New York. For example, she often cites "the end of the day when the sun goes down, the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the time in (kids') lives when they have to leave the comfort of being home with their moms and enter school for the very first time. The very next inhale will be 'lost' on the very next exhale."

7. Don't yada-yada over the science part.

Talking about decomposing bodies may seem a ghoulish proposition, but the actual science of death is not only fascinating to children (particularly preschoolers), but can be comforting, too. It's true that adults tend to focus their worry on the emotional aspects of death — how it feels to lose someone we love, for instance. But children of a certain age aren’t as consumed by the grief aspect of death. They are still working on how things die (“Could I have caused it?”) and how it feels to be dead (“Will I be lonely?”) This is why it's so important to explain to kids how we humans work — how our beating hearts are what keep us alive, and that there is a difference between bodies and consciousness. “Most children understand the concept of something that has 'stopped working completely and can't be fixed,'” social worker Debra Stang tells us. “It's also important to reassure children that a dead person doesn't breathe, wake up, go to sleep, or need to go to the bathroom, doesn't hear or see anything, doesn't get hungry or cold or scared, and doesn't feel any pain.” But do remember, adds parent coach Miriam Jochnowitz, there is a limit to how much science to impose on a child. "It can be helpful just to understand more about what happened,” she says. “But follow the child's lead. Do not expound if they are not interested."

8. Expect that kids (and adults!) will have widely varying reactions to death.

For most of us, grief has a certain look to it: tears, pain, prolonged depression. So when people react to death in a way that runs counter to our image, we think it’s strange. We assume something is wrong. We worry. And it’s no wonder — given the popularity of author Elisabeth Kubler-RossFive Stages of Grief, which was introduced in her book “On Death and Dying.” Kubler-Ross said that the stages were denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and that most people go through one or all of the first four stages before reaching the last. Over the last 15 years, this hypothesis has informed how we, as a society, view children's reactions to death, as well as our own. The problem is that it’s all bogus. When it comes to the loss of a loved one, grief doesn’t work in "stages" at all. In an enlightening book called “The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss,” author George Bonanno says that resilience — not denial, anger, etc. — is what truly defines grief. His scientific studies, conducted over 20 years, show that most people weather the deaths of loved ones relatively quickly and thoroughly. Even weeks after devastating losses, many are able to experience genuinely positive emotions, even laughter. And this is not denial or drugs doing the work — but rather their own natural resiliency, Bonanno says. Personality has a lot to do with grief reactions, of course, and there are probably those who experience grief in the Kubler-Ross-created image. But, in general, studies show, grief has an oscillating pattern. It comes and goes in "waves” — which is what, mercifully, allows us to take care of ourselves and those around us.

9. Seek help

Sometimes we just can’t do it. No matter how much we want to, talking about death — or dealing with it ourselves — is a challenge we can’t face. Maybe we have suffered a particularly devastating loss recently, or maybe WE'VE JUST GOT SOME ANXIETY ISSUES, OKAY?! Whatever the reason, there is no shame is handing off the baton to someone (another adult, a therapist) or something (the Internet, the library) better suited to guide children in positive ways. By showing our children that they have lots of resources and support available to them, we ensure that when WE aren’t around, they will still have their needs met. There are some excellent books out there for broaching the subject of death with very young children. My personal favorite is still “When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death,” by Laurie Krasny Brown, which I wrote about here. But I also am crazy about an oldie called “About Dying” by Sara Bonnet Stein. It’s a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side. “When a Pet Dies,” by Fred Rogers, is also awesome (Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome?) and “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages” by Leo Buscaglia is also really nice. None of these books has a religious bent, by the way.

11. Feel free to say ‘I don’t know.’

Not one person in all of history has ever known for sure what happens when we die. So why is that we parents have such a hard time admitting we don't know? When it comes to death — and, frankly, religion in general — we sometimes feel we must be on one side or another in order to maintain stability and consistency in children's lives. But this is one area where saying “I don’t know” will never be seen as a sign of weakness or ignorance. What our children choose to believe as far as heaven/afterlife/reincarnation really has nothing to do with us anyway. We can state what we believe to be true, and we can state what other people believe to be true (to the best of our knowledge), but to think we are “teaching” them what happens after we die is a misnomer. No one can teach it because no one knows. Telling our children we're confused is okay. Telling them we keep changing our minds is okay, too. And throwing up our hands and telling them we haven't got the slightest idea what's going to happen — dammit, that's okay, too.

10. Tell the truth — your truth.

This one comes courtesy of a mother who responded to my survey earlier this year. "When it comes to death,” the woman wrote, “I have allowed my children to believe in a ‘heaven,’ for lack of a better word. I felt that allowing them to believe that ‘people go on to happy place surrounded by loved ones, waiting for other loved ones to join them someday’ gives them comfort about losing people. Heck, it comforts me to make up a place like that when I am grieving also." It’s not uncommon, as I said in No. 6, to gravitate toward the heaven narrative. Even nonreligious parents have a hard time with this one. But we can’t — as in CAN NOT — “make up” an afterlife and ask our kids to believe in it. This is just not cool. As author Grollman says: "Don't tell children what they will need to unlearn later." There's nothing wrong with wanting kids to know about all the "afterlife options" out there, but why not refer them to those who believe? A grandparent, perhaps, or a beloved aunt? By all means, there is rarely harm in encouraging our kids to get religious input from other family members or friends, but don't lie. The stakes are too high, the potential to hurt our kids too great. The litmus test is this: Are we telling our kids the same thing we would tell a trusted friend? If not, it's time to come clean.

12. Talk about dead people in happy terms.

After a person dies, the only thing we have of them is our memories. Yet so many of us don't talk about dead people because we feel even our happiest memories lead us to melancholy. We assume the only way to avoid the painful end is to not begin at all. But honoring our dead and keeping them "with us" is part of how we cope with our losses. Suppressing those memories can deprive us of both joy and comfort. Working Grandma’s favorite recipe into a mealtime, telling Grandpa’s favorite joke, or recounting the copious amounts of liquor Great Aunt Tilly used to consumed at Passover every year are all healthy ways of coping — not just with their deaths but with death in general. Giving memories of our dead a happy "place" among the living benefits us all. Especially our kids.

12 Reasons We Indoctrinate Kids — and Why We Shouldn't

Jesus Camp

In nonreligious circles, “indoctrination" has become a pejorative. Something to resist and avoid. The way secularists see it, instructing children to accept any religious faith uncritically deprives them of their own unique reflections, observations and opinions. At its worst, indoctrination is a requirement to blindly follow, to believe without question, to respect and obey authority figures simply because they have been branded as such. Yet, millions of parents throughout the world indoctrinate their children. Why?

1. Comfort: The idea of heaven can be undeniably comforting, especially to children with anxieties about death or dying. By instilling a child with belief in an afterlife, parents may feel they are protecting him from existential pain. And, indeed, in the short-term at least, they might be right.

2. Fear: Devoutly religious parents who believe in hellfire and damnation will indoctrinate, in whole or in part, out of fear for their children's eternal well-being.

3Calling: Those who feel they've been "called" by God to fulfill a duty may see it as their divine obligation to bring children into their faith.

4. Morals: Despite reams of evidence to the contrary, many people still believe there is a necessary connection between religion and moral acts. Parents who have been brought up in a religious household may not know how to instill morals without the aid of religion.

5. Community: Parents who derive a sense of belonging from their religious community may deem it in their children's best interest to be members of that community, too.

6. Tradition: For some families, religion acts as an heirloom — something of personal value handed down from one generation to the next. Religion can provide a structure for family get-togethers, a way to pass on memories, and a vehicle to understand one another.

7. Protection: Places of worship can be safe havens from the less desirable sides of the youth experience — early sex, drugs, alcohol. Getting children involved in a church, mosque, synagogue or temple can be a parent's attempt to stave off those things.

8. Ignorance: Sometimes the blind lead the blind. Those who have been brought up to believe a certain way just because may not think twice before doing same thing with their kids.

9. Parenting style: A parent with an authoritarian parenting style is likely to demand certain behaviors of their children, and this bleeds over into the religious spectrum. Kids may be expected to obey God, just as they are expected to obey Mom and Dad.

10. Truth: Many parents believe they possess the "truth" about the universe — whatever that means. Some believe that the wisdom of their own life journeys not only can, but must, inform the beliefs of their children.

11. Politics: Those whose religion is completely wrapped up in their politics may indoctrinate their kids as a means to an end.

12. Fairness: Parents who perceive that others are indoctrinating their children may indoctrinate their own as a way of balancing things out.

Unfortunately, the problems with indoctrination are many and striking. Not only does it take advantage of children’s undeveloped brains, but it can hinder their ability to draw their own conclusions about the world, independent from their parents. And that’s a skill that relates directly to their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth — the very attributes that will enable them to resist peer pressure and make wise decisions in adolescence and beyond.

What’s more, indoctrination breeds religious intolerance. It's difficult to teach compassion and acceptance while sending a message that your child is obligated to believe the way you do. True tolerance starts at home. If you're going to tell your child it's okay for others to believe differently than you do, you've got to be okay with your child doing the same. Otherwise, you're kind of a hypocrite. And by "kind of,” I mean totally.

Discussing Death with Little Ones (Whose Deaths We Fear So Much)

Not since 9/11 has a tragedy so deeply affected our nation as the massacre of 20 first-graders and six school administrators in Connecticut on Friday. It seems to me, words were not meant to communicate this level of horror. Our capacity for emotional pain is so much deeper than our capacity to verbalize what has happened. Sometimes silence and tears are our only option. Victims

But when it comes to children, we have a duty to discuss death and dying. It is an important part of parenting, and we mustn't shy away from it. Yes, it's hard. Our children might fear our deaths more than anything else, just as we fear their deaths more than anything else. That's only natural. But there are things our children must hear, and they deserve to hear them from us.

Here's a bit of advice, should you need or want it.

• Heaven Doesn't Help Us: Talking to Kids about Death

• 12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids about Death 

As for nonreligious children's books about death, these are the best I've found so far:

When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. I can't say enough great things about this book, which is why I dedicated an entire post to it.

The Tenth good Thing about Barneywritten by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Erik Blegvad. This adorable classic is about a boy losing his cat. Such smart writing. "Barney is in the ground, and he’s helping to grow flowers," the boy's father says at one point. "You know," the boys responds, "that's a pretty nice job for a cat.”

About Dying by Sara Bonnet Stein. I'm crazy about this oldie, which is a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side.

When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers. Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome? No. No, he didn't. This is no exception.

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia. The main character in this book is a leaf who is coming to terms with the fact that he will fall (die) at some point. It's quite gentle and calming and would be great introduction to death, particularly for sensitive kids who may be prone to anxiety over the subject.

Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie dePaola. Okay, this one is not about death, but about the reality of growing old and getting sick. It is one of my favorite children's books of all time — so sweet and poignant, it is guaranteed to make you cry. And it has a happy ending. My daughter loves it as much as I do. (DePaola's Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs is really nice, too.)

Washington Post Blog Spotlights 'Relax, It's Just God'

spotlight

This isn't so much a blog as brag, so if you are my close friends, family, or just really kind readers who don't mind if I bend your ears for a few minutes, please stick around. The rest of you: I totally understand. Enjoy our day. So this morning, I was featured in the Washington Post's On Parenting blog. The blog is written by Janice D'Arcy, an amazing parenting blogger whose work I've followed for a long time. She contacted me because of the Pew Research Center's new study finding that 20 percent of Americans belong to the ever-widening circle of "nones" — that is, people who do not adhere to any specific religion. D'Arcy asked me to share some general thoughts about why parents should introduce religion/faith to children even when they don't believe or aren't particularly religious themselves.

Here's the piece:

 

Explaining God without belief

 

Americans are increasingly less religious and less inclined to identify themselves with a particular faith, according to a fascinating new poll and survey. Among those without ties to a religious institution are many parents of young children, a group that can struggle with how to present the concepts of religious faith to children.

The Pew Research Center found that the number of people who said they are “unaffiliated” with a religion has grown to 20 percent of the population. The percentage includes more than 33 million who say they are atheist or agnostic.

A companion survey, produced by Pew and the PBS show Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, found that the unaffiliated, or “nones,” frequently report belief in God or an embrace of spirituality. However, their faith in particular religious institutions has waned. “Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics,” the survey found.

For these Americans, the question of how to explain religion and religious institutions gets complicated. How to translate to a child an adult’s intellectual or ideological differences with concepts most others hold to be sacred? How to not talk about it when religious references are all around?

For insight into this struggle, I turned to Wendy Thomas Russell, the author of a blog on secular living and the forthcoming book, “Relax It’s Just God,” on the subject of secular parenting.

I asked her for some guiding principles for secular parents. She said that it’s essential these parents talk about religion in depth and with frequency. Here’s why:

“Parents can’t shield their kids from religion. It’s impossible. Despite the somewhat rapid proliferation of ‘nones’ in this country, we are still the minority. Four of every five kids in our children’s classrooms have parents who self-identify as religious. So the chances are really high that our kids are going to be ‘introduced’ to religion, if not on the playground, then through TV shows, music, architecture, politics, history books, literature, bumper stickers, you name it. And our language! Our language is steeped in religious references. ‘I’d move heaven and earth,’ ‘God-forsaken town,’ ‘devil-may-care’…

But let’s say you’re a parent who has some baggage. Religion freaks you out a little; it makes you tense. So why should you go out of your way to expose your kid to other peoples’ religious beliefs? And who cares if you share your own anxiety over the subject?

First, and most importantly, religious tolerance doesn’t just happen. Parents have to teach it.

It’s human nature to be scared or skeptical of people we don’t understand; it’s why we parents have no qualms talking to our kids about people with disabilities. We don’t want our kids to treat disabled people badly; we want them to know that disabled people may be different from us, but they are people, and they deserve respect. Likewise, if we don’t tell our kids about religious people in a respectful way, we can’t possibly expect them to learn how to treat religious people with respect. It’s that simple.

Second, just because religion isn’t important to us personally doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

The chances are very good that my kid will meet people who are devoutly religious. Some of those people will be in her circle of friends. Some of them will be in her own family. Understanding religion and why it’s important means that she will be able to former closer bonds to the people she loves. She’ll also be more likely to judge people on the content of their character, rather than the “accuracy” of their beliefs.

Third, be the change you want to see.

I’m a nonreligious parent who wishes that more of my kid’s friends were being exposed to the idea of agnosticism and humanism and even atheism in a non-biased way. I can’t make that happen, but I can damn well live by the Golden Rule and treat others the way I want to be treated. Eventually, it’s bound to catch on, right?

Fourth, it may save your kid a lot of embarrassment.

In researching my book, I’ve learned that a lot of kids with little to no religious literacy begin to feel embarrassed about their lack of knowledge right around the time middle school begins. Which, with so many other things going on, is pretty much the worst time in a kid’s life to have to deal with embarrassment…

I don’t think any parent sets out to pass their anxieties on to their kids. If anything, parents think they’re being rightfully protective, not irrationally anxious. But when it comes to religion, anything short of encouraging kids to make up their own minds is probably going to translate as anxiety. And there’s just no need for it. Our kids shouldn’t have to fight our battles.”

What do you think? Might her advice apply to all parents? Is exposure to all religions the best way to give perspective and teach tolerance?

What Does Your Kid Really Know about Religion?

Religion Section

Most parents, I've found, want their kids to know about religion. Maybe the reasons are strictly educational, or maybe they're cultural, practical, even political. Regardless, most of us — whether religious or nonreligious — live in a diverse and complicated society whose collective beating heart is powered by the Internet; our children, we know, will be more successful at living if they understand the nature of faith and its role in people's lives.

And, yet, so few of us are willing or able to teach our kids about religion. Why is this? We're busy, of course. We've got priorities, and all that. But isn't more of it a simple lack of knowledge? Wouldn't most of us be willing to say something if we knew what to say or where to start? It's not like we can reduce "religion" to some simple concepts, right? The whole subject seems to run wild and far and resist any kind of containment. So where does that leave us?

Consider this:

A U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted in September 2010 found that a little over half of the American public knew that the Golden Rule was not part of the 10 commandments, the Qur'an was the Islamic holy book and Joseph Smith was a Mormon. Even less knew than the Dalai Lama was a Buddhist, Martin Luther inspired the Reformation, the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday and the Four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This is not to show how ignorant we are as a society — in fact, I was sort of impressed by some of the percentages — but to offer a starting point. We parents aren't expected to teach our kids everything; but we should at least cover the "basics" — the basic events, the basic people, the basic places, the basic meanings.

For the next week, I'll be finishing up a chapter for my book on how parents can "teach religion" without knocking themselves out. (You're welcome.) My plan is to single out the need-to-know stuff from the rest of it, and suggest lots of painless (if not fun) ways to deliver the need-to-know stuff to your kids' amazing brains.

So, now's the time I ask for you input:

What have you done to introduce your child to religion so far? What (if anything) about the subject interests your kids the most? What gets their attention?

And what about you? What has been the biggest challenge in promoting religious literacy in your house? Where do you falter? What tools are you missing?

In short, help me help you.

Thanks, guys!

Oh! And, by the way, congrats to Megan Parker, who won the copy of No! That's Wrong! in my book giveaway.  See? Subscribers to my blog get cool stuff. (That's a hint, people.)

And now this: