Two Items of Business for Secular Parents

calendar-1Okay, people, a couple of items of business on this fine Monday morning. 1. Mixed Marriages: If you happen to be in an "interfaithless" marriage — one partner is religious, the other isn't — you'll want to keep an eye out for Dale McGowan's newest project, a book called "In Faith and In Doubt." McGowan, who announced the book title on his blog last week, promises to show "how religious believers and nonbelievers can create strong marriages and happy families." The book is slated for release around July 2014, but McGowan (author of Parenting Beyond Belief: Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion) will be blogging about the process in the meantime. Best of luck, Dale!

2. Secular Parents: For those who live anywhere near Long Island, the local branch of the Ethical Humanist Society and Long Island Center for Inquiry are hosting an all-day seminar for secular parents on Sept. 21.  The seminar, titled "Raising Kids to Be Good Grown-Ups," is focused particularly on instilling kids with strong moral character. Segment titles include: "Without God, Will My Kid Grow Up to Be a Criminal?" and "Morality, Religious Concepts and the Cognitive Development of Children." The conference is billed as helping to "foster a society that encourages open debate and critical thought, as well as investing in the future for our children." Speakers include Lenore Skanazy, author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), Dale McGowan (!!!), and Dr. Alison Pratt, a clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive therapy and behavioral analysis, among others. For a schedule, visit:

Raising Critical Thinkers Means Letting Our Kids Criticize Us


We’ve all heard the cliche about letting kids rule the roost. Countless books, TV shows, teachers (neighbors, in-laws, airplane passengers...) repeatedly instruct us to set strict rules, limitations and boundaries for our kids. They tell us this is the key to good parenting. They insist we demand courtesy and respect, and not allow them to display anger, disappointment or frustration "inappropriately.” Largely because of these influencers, we start putting our kids in time-outs for talking back, or being unkind. We become infuriated when they speak to us in voices dripping with sarcasm and defiance. We remind ourselves that if our kids don’t respect us now, then they won’t respect us ever. And if we fail at asserting our authority, even for a moment, we are screwed.

Yet, amidst all this traditional authoritarianism, we have the gall to tell our kids it's important to think for themselves, to question what they hear, to value their own opinions, to assert their independence. What's more, as nonreligious parents, we rely on their critical thinking skills to spare them from brainwashing, propaganda and indoctrination.

Our real message becomes: “Question authority... Just not mine.”

Linda Hatfield, parenting coach and founder of Parenting from the Heart, says the the only way to truly empower children is to let them challenge our decisions and opinions — and win. When we use punishment, shame, guilt, bribery and rewards, she says, not only do children lose valuable self-esteem and miss out on excellent opportunities to think things through — but the parent-child relationship is damaged (which breeds a whole manner of other problems, she says.)

In her Los Angeles-area parenting courses, Hatfield insists that kids be able to challenge their parents without being punished for it. “Even if you don’t agree” with them, she says, "give them credit when they do their own thinking.”

In this way, she says, children will learn that it's not only okay, but good, to question what others tell them. And they’ll respect our decisions and advice far more for the rest of their lives because we have respected them first.

 “What I think is most important,” Hatfield says, “is what we model.”

Now, I’m the first to admit, this is easier said than done. Kids are just so immature sometimes. They never just say: “Gee, Mommy, I strongly disagree with you. Please reconsider your decision and let me have that ice cream now, rather than making me wait until later.” Instead, they scream and cry and spit and embarrass us in public places. It’s tough. Even when we do think they have the right to challenge us, we often don't feel we can, in good conscience, give in to their demands because they've been such shits about it.

But Hatfield, who runs her parenting courses and workshops alongside her husband, Ty, asks parents to understand that most of what they consider “misbehavior” is actually age-appropriate; kids, she says, are behaving not to be bad (a word she loathes) but because they’re going through normal developmental stages. So instead of blasting them for doing what you want them to do — challenge what they hear! — Hatfield asks parents to focus on the message, not the method — and to stop taking things so damn personally.

By all means, tell them that spitting is not okay, and that there’s no need to yell.* But then allow yourself to reconsider your own conduct and decisions, Hatfield says. Does it really matter whether the kid has ice cream now or later? Maybe it's a good time to say "Yes." If nothing else, take the opportunity to teach them to value their own opinions and feelings, and encourage them to help find compromises and solutions that work for both of you.

Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, says he talks about this in his workshops. In an e-mail, he told me:

“My kids heard from a very early age that they always have the right to know the reason for a decision AND to question it if they feel it's wrong or unfair. I told them I couldn't just say ‘Because I said so’ and the few times I've said that, they've gleefully called me on it. I've made a point of changing my mind, out loud, when they have a good point. That does more for their growing autonomy than almost anything else I can do. I can attest that the result of all this is not chaos but a pretty smoothly functioning home with scads of mutual respect.”

Here's a cool video of McGowan speaking at a freethought festival in April:

*If you’re yelling this bit yourself, it’s probably not going to work. Just FYI.

Why Secular Parents Should Do the Santa Thing

Does it seem a bit weird to talk about Santa in July? Probably. But that's the chapter of my book I'm working on at the moment, so that's the subject you're getting today. My apologies in advance! I'm not sure how many of you have read Parenting Beyond Belief, edited (and partially written) by Dale McGowan, but it's considered sort of a must-read in some nonreligious parenting circles. The essay-driven collection is a hodgepodge of ideas set forth by famous and not-so-famous atheist/agnostic parents on a whole range of topics.

My favorite bit in the book is offered by McGowan himself on the subject of the whether secular families who celebrate Christmas should engage in the Santa myth with their children. McGowan's bit was offered as a counterpoint to an essay by Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism who in 1993 wrote The Trouble With Christmas — a book that no-doutedly helped fuel the overhyped, so-called "War on Christmas" controversy. Flynn's Parenting Beyond Belief essay (which can be read here) is called "Put the Claus Away" and lays out five main arguments against letting kids believe in Santa.

1. To perpetuate the Santa myth, parents must lie to their kids. 2. To buoy belief, adults often stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the child's developing intellect. 3. The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear. 4. The myth makes kids more acquisitive, not less so. 5. The myth appears to exploit age-appropriate cognitive patterns that religious children use in forming their ideas of God.

Although I think there's a whole lot of exaggeration in this list, his first and second points are the same ones I struggled with about the time my daughter hit her second birthday. Is it okay to lie to my kid when it's all in "good fun?" And, if so, how much lying is too much lying? After all, "letting her believe" is not the same as "encouraging her to believe," which is not the same as "insisting she believe." Yet all of these include some level of deception. Can I justify deception? Or has this whole lying thing gotten blow way out of proportion?

I explored this issue a bit — and fielded some great comments — back in February, with a post called Honesty, Schmonesty: When Did Lying to Kids Get Such a Bad Wrap? I don't think I mentioned it at the time, but my thoughts on this were affected by a mother who wrote a blog post on coming clean about the Tooth Fairy before her son was ready. As she says in her post, the boy already had suspected that Mommy was the Tooth Fairy and was having fun collecting "evidence" and "investigating" his suspicions. But when this blogger revealed the truth (although cryptically) before he had fully figured it out, the boy was devastated. "Now I know for sure that Mom and Dad are the Tooth Fairy," he lamented. (She quickly back-tracked and, to his delight, was able to salvage his belief for a bit longer… which, as it turns out, is all he wanted.)

The blogger, Noell Hyman, contributed a couple of essays to Parenting Beyond Belief — which brings me back to McGowan.

In his essay, titled "Santa Claus — The Ultimate Dry Run,"  McGowan hits a home run in his defense of the Santa myth. He argues that "figuring out that Santa is not real" is a wonderful rite of passage for children, as long as parents tread lightly around the myth, and stay alert for the first hints of skepticism. When McGowan's son, for example, began to ask pointed questions — How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How can he make it down the chimney with his big belly? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? — McGowan didn't try to answer the questions. He simply said: "Some people believe the sleigh is magic. Does that sound right to you?" and so on.

"I avoided both lying and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself," McGowan wrote in the essay. And then, when his son was 9 and finally asked him point-blank whether Santa was real, McGowan said, one last time, "What do you think?"

"Well," his son answered, smiling. "I think all the moms and dads are Santa. Am I right?"

McGowan smiled back and told the truth.

"So," McGowan asked, "how do you feel about that?"

His son shrugged. "That's fine. Actually, it's good. The world kind of… I don't know… makes sense again."

How cool is that?

Dale's attitude, which I think is the perfect combination between smart and fun, is the one I've tried to adopt as my own. I'm totally down for giving Santa cookies and looking for him out the window before we go to bed on Christmas Eve. But, as Maxine gets older and her critical thinking start kicking into high gear, my plan is to encourage her questioning while not ruining the surprise. If she asks me how Santa gets around the world in a night, I'll say, "I have no idea. It seems almost impossible, doesn't it?" If she asks me whether I believe in Santa, I'll say: "You know how I am about believing in things I've never seen for myself. What do you think? Do you believe in Santa?"

It's not all that unlike how I deal with the God questions, honestly. And McGowan makes very clear in his essay that this is part of the point. He writes:

"Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one… By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside."

The other thing McGowan suggests (that I love!) is heaping on praise the moment your child figures it all out for the first time: "Wow! How did you figure it out? What were your clues? I'm so proud of you!" In this way, you underscore how the Santa story is a real rite of passage, and "figuring it out" is something that takes a special type of maturity and wisdom.

Help Break New Ground! Participate in Survey of Nonreligious Parents

I don't want to make too big a deal about this, but DUDE! MY SURVEY FOR NONRELIGIOUS PARENTS IS READY TO GO! I can't tell you how excited I am to see this survey come to fruition. Some of you may know that Parenting Beyond Belief author Dale McGowan conducted an excellent survey of nonreligious parents a couple of years ago — the first of its kind — and, in a way, my questionnaire begins where his left off. It delves into how we nonreligious parents make it work in our families and communities, how we've chosen to address religion with our children, and the hardships that so many of us face in doing so.

I truly believe the results of the survey will be fascinating, inspiring and important. But it's going to take a lot of respondents to get there. So please take part, and then pass it on! Have fun, and let me know what you think.

Click here to take the survey!

And special props to my friend Catherine Gritchen — my data-collecting inspiration. She's living proof that Christians can be as open-minded as the rest of us.

Thanksgiving 'Prayers' for Secular Families


I recently became a member of a Facebook group called Mothers Beyond Belief, sort of an offshoot of Dale McGowan's Parenting Beyond Belief community. It's an online support group for secular moms. So last week the mother of a 5-year-old shared that her daughter wanted to say a "pray" before meals. The family doesn't believe, and therefore doesn't pray, so the mom was looking for other things the family could say instead. I loved the question, especially in light of this particular holiday. Thanksgiving dinner is one of those meals so extraordinary that it practically cries out for some type of deeper acknowledgement. At my house, we usually end up toasting the cook, which is infinitely appropriate but also lacks the power of prayer. Something about joining your hands and closing your eyes and really thinking about what's been done for you on that day, and throughout the year.

In that spirit, I thought I'd give you a few kid-friendly secular prayers — the first two came out of the Facebook thread, the second two courtesy of Maybe you'll use them today. Maybe you won't. But isn't it nice to have the option? Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Now we come together We are glad to see each other. All the good things that we share, come to us with love and care.

Earth we thank you for our food, for work and play and all that's good, for wind and rain and sun above, but most all for those we love.

We love our bread. We love our butter. But most of all, we love each other.

Thank you for the food we eat. Thank you for the friends we meet. Thank you for the birds that sing. We give thanks for everything.




10 Commandments for Talking to Kids About Religion


I've said it before and I'll say it again: When you're not religious, talking about religion with kids can be a serious challenge. The words don't come naturally. Little things can freak you out. And, about the time your kids learn to ask questions, you begin to notice how much of our society is informed by religious faith, and how many people around us believe things we don't. Panic has a way of setting in.

Hopefully, you aren't like me. Hopefully you're less anxiety-prone, more level-headed. Good for you. But, for the rest of you: It’s going to be fine. Stay focused. As the Brits say, "Keep Calm and Carry On." Kids will remember your attitude more than your words. Act like talking about religion is no big deal, and very soon talking about religion will be no big deal.

Here are my 10 Commandments:

1. Expose your kids to many religions

Have you ever noticed how religion can get in the way of a religious education? Either children are schooled in one particular belief system, or they’re not being taught a damn thing. But a good religious education is one that covers the basics of many religions from a cultural and historical perspective, without a whole lot of emotional investment. What is religion? Why did it come about? And why is it so important to people? Pick up some books and educate yourself about various religions; tell your kids what you're learning. Put major religious holidays (such as Rosh Hashanah, Diwali and Eid al-Ahda) on your calendar, and use them as opportunities to talk about history and tradition. Point out signs and symbols, religious clothing. Seize opportunities to visit places of worship. Religious literacy is a gift; give it.

2. Embrace the 'graven image' of science

A "graven image" is described as anything worshipped in place of God — whether it be other gods or demons, power, pleasure or money. Because science is something that can be valued in place of God, it’s possible to consider science a graven image. So be it.  For every religious book you read, tell you kids one cool thing about the real world. Evolution, the stars and planets, you name it. Atheist scientist Richard Dawkins' book, "The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True," is a great new resource. But, remember, you need not set up religion and science as opposing forces — the way religious people often do. Present the facts. Your kids likely will figure the rest out on their own, and it will mean more when they do.

3. Don't saddle your kids with your anxiety over the word 'God'

The Pledge of Allegiance. The Girl Scout Promise. The motto written on American money. There is religion all around us, even in school. But it need not be a crisis. Let your kid know that God is a part of our culture's language, its songs, its poetry, its monuments and its works of art. God is a part of human history, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everything needs to be loaded with meaning. Kids may pledge their allegiance “under God” not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they may sing Christmas songs or say “Bless you” when someone sneezes. If your kids prefer to a draw battle lines for themselves on these matters, great! Just be sure you’re not nudging them toward the battle.

4. Keep in mind: There's nothing wrong with believing in a higher power

Faith in a higher power is only as good or bad as the people who possess it. Most of the people your kids will meet during their lifetimes will have something wonderful to offer the world; that “something” may be accomplished despite belief in a higher power, or it may be accomplished because of it. "Religion" has become a loaded word — referring more to dogma than the simple underlying belief in God — and that's unfortunate, in a way. Because religion is like a fingerprint; everyone's is slightly different. Consider the chances, for instance, that any two people envision heaven in exactly the same way?  Or interpret all the major Biblical passages in the same way? Or inject religion into their politics and social mores in the same way?  Not bloody likely. In the end, then, to say someone is "Christian" or "Jewish" or "Muslim" means very little. Knowing someone's religion is a far cry from knowing her beliefs; knowing her label is a far cry from knowing her heart. So when you speak of "religion" around children, try to be as neutral as possible. And if you do choose to speak of religion in negative terms, be sure to explain exactly what you oppose, and why. Rarely do people oppose faith itself, but rather the actions that can arise out of faith. It's important that kids understand the difference.

5. Honor your mother's faith

Just because you're a nonreligious parent doesn't mean you have to shield your child from religious family members. If you give your child a context in which to hear about Grandma’s religion — or Cousin Suzie's, or Neighbor Bob's — you won't mind so much when those conversations arise. It may benefit Grandma to be able to talk with your child about her faith, and it may benefit your child to hear about faith from someone he knows and loves. And, as long as you've set the scene up front in a gentle, nonjudgemental way, there should be very little worry. For example, you might say: "Some people believe that a magic power, often called God, created the universe and is watching over us. And many people say that if you believe in God, you will go to live with God in a place called heaven after you die. That's why it's so important to Grandma that you believe what she does." (This is a great tip for parents in mixed-religion marriages, as well.) One caveat: If there’s a risk a family member will say something harmful or hateful to your child, the faith-sharing privilege is off the table. Luckily, I think most religious folks are capable of having conversations with children without invoking images of hell or condemning anal sex.

6. Don't kill your kid's good time

One of the many problems with ardently opposing religion is that it's so damn boring. If you’re preoccupied, for example, with explaining to your kids that Adam and Eve weren’t the first humans and that those who believe such things are irrational, you’re probably not telling the Adam-and-Eve story very well. And that’s a shame. Because it's a really great story! A child’s age, certainly, will dictate the tenor of your conversations about God, and which stories are appropriate to share. But don’t forget to have some fun. Go to the library and dig up as many interesting-looking books as you can. The more pictures, the better. And don't just offer flat readings of the stories; inject the stories about Jesus with all the drama and excitement with which they were probably intended. The same goes for tales of Abraham and Shiva and Mohammed and Zeus and all the other religious figures, both past and present. The more fun the stories are, the more your kids will want to hear them, and the more likely they'll be to remember them. And that's good. What kids don't know can hurt them — and that's especially true when it comes to religion.

7. Don't be a dick

Putting the word "dick" into the adultery commandment is probably not the most PC thing ever — which is ironic because this commandment sort of embraces political correctness. Here's the thing: When it comes to religion, most humans believe their way is the best way, the right way. And for non-theists, who have science on their side, their conviction may be all the stronger. But conviction need not translate into being snarky, arrogant or mean. There is nothing at all wrong with criticizing people for saying hateful things or doing harmful things. But let's cut the vitriol. You may discuss, oppose, even argue. But try to do it without name-calling, generalizing, or degradation — even when you see theists name-calling, generalizing and degrading nonbelievers. Yes, it’s possible to fight fire with fire. But, in the end, it’s all just fire.

8. Don't steal your child's ability to choose

If you're going to teach children that it's okay for people to hold religious beliefs, you must be willing to let your children hold religious beliefs as well. Otherwise, the words sound hollow — and they are. There's no shame in wanting your kids to believe the way you do. So guide them. Teach them the value of science. Explain the difference between fact and faith, between dogma and freethinking. Teach them morals and ethics. Tell them everything you know about religion. And then let them take it from there. Let them know they are free to choose what they want to believe, and encourage them to change their minds as often as they like. If they want to experiment with religion, support them. They'll probably come around to your way of thinking eventually anyway. And if they don't, it doesn't matter. What does matter to you is that they grow up to be good and happy adults. Or is it?

9. Don't lie about your own beliefs

Everyone has the right to to their own thoughts and beliefs, and that includes you. Don’t hide them! Not only would you be sending a message that religion is an uncomfortable/scary/intimidating subject, but you’d be making it clear that it’s okay to be ashamed of your beliefs. You can put off the conversation for a while, but eventually your kid will ask. Admit when you are confused or don't have all the answers. Tell them that the existence of God, in any shape or form, is something no one can prove or disprove, which is what makes it so easy to debate. Let kids know that yours is a household that talks openly and respectfully about tough subjects — including religion.

10. Respect the religious without tolerating intolerance 

Teaching your kids to respect religious people is important. But that doesn't mean they must respect religious intolerance. It doesn't mean they must respect immoral, unethical or hateful words and actions simply because they come under the heading of religious righteousness. Will kids say mean things on the playground? Yes. Do all those mean things need to be treated seriously? No. Fights will break out; feelings will be hurt. It's a part of growing up. But hurting or terrorizing another child — or anyone — in the name of religion is no different than terrorizing a child for any other reason. Bullying is bullying, and should be treated as such. The bottom line: Don't hold religious beliefs against people who are being nice. And don't hold it in favor of people who are being mean.

Church Is Fun! (Or Is It?)


Several months ago, I interviewed Dale McGowan, an atheist dad and the author of two books, Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, and its followup, Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide to Parenting Beyond Belief. Among other things, McGowan is an advocate for exposing children to a variety of religions first-hand so that they might feel free to draw their own conclusions. He told me that, over the years, he has schlepped his own three kids to a host of temples, mosques, churches and synagogues — all to help them understand what religion is and how it works. McGowan goes to these services as an observer, not a believer, but he finds the visits fascinating and worthwhile — and, he says, so do his kids.

Naturally, I thought it serendipitous when, around the time of the McGowan interview, I received an invitation to attend the Catholic baptism of a good friend's son. Such a great excuse, I thought, to show my own daughter the inside of a church.

When I explained to Maxine what we’d be doing, she was thrilled — especially when I told her baby Alec would be sprinkled with water during this particular ceremony. In the weeks leading up to the big day, we chatted a bit about what it meant to be baptized. Maxine wanted to know, for instance, why she had not been baptized. I told her that baptisms were a way to symbolize a child’s membership into her parents’ church, and that her parents didn’t belong to any church. That seemed to satisfy.

On the day of the baptism, my sister and I, along with her son and my daughter, loaded into one car and headed to the church about an hour away. Halfway there, Maxine started to get antsy. “Are we there yet?” she asked a bunch of times, despite the fact that I kept telling her she was being so cliche.

Finally, the car came to a stop for the first time since we’d left home. Maxine was ecstatic. She rose up in her car seat, her face bright and smiling. She took in everything around her.

“Is this where Alec is going to be baptized?” she asked, hopefully.

“No, honey,” my sister replied, matter-of-factly. “This is a toll both.”

Maxine's face fell.

“Don’t worry,” I offered. “We’ll be there soon.”

By the time we got to the church, she was back to being fully charged. While other children squirmed in the pews, looking everywhere but forward, Maxine literally (and by literally, I mean literally) sat on the edge of her seat, riveted by the priest’s every word. She seemed to watch with the same level of obsessive interest she only ever afforded "Phineas and Ferb."

When it was our time to rise and see Alec receive the sacrament, Maxine squeezed in for a front-row view. As you can see, she was easily close enough to the water to be baptized by proximity. It was hard not to wonder if I had given birth to a natural-born Christian.

After all the children had been blessed, the priest lit some candles and read from the Bible. Then me made his closing remarks, and people began to collect their things. That’s when Maxine turned to me.

“But when are they going to start throwing water at each other?” she asked, clearly confused.

“They don’t throw water at each other,” I said.

Then, as the dark shadow of disappointment moved in, I watched my little girl's face fall for the second time that day.

No wonder she'd been so riveted by church, I thought. She'd expected a water fight.