Memory Candles a Secular Way for Kids to Honor Their Dead

This is how my good friend Katie describes herself: "A confused Catholic married to a cultural Jew, raising a moral, but interfaithless family." You love her too now, right?

So anyway, the other day Katie and I were talking about a recent blog I'd written about the importance of talking with our kids about our dead loved ones in "happy terms." She said she'd really struggled with this herself, having lost her mom nine years ago to cancer. She still experiences lingering pain, and sometimes the loss makes her profoundly sad. (I expect she's not alone in this.) The anniversary of her mom's death has always been a trigger. She remembers that first year and how she felt as though she ought to be "doing something" on that day, but didn't know what that something should be. The unknowing, she said, actually made her more sad.

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Then her husband suggested a custom common in Judaism — a yahrzeit candle. Yahrzeit candles are lit by mourners on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. (The word literally means "anniversary.") It typically burns for 24 hours. It also can be lit on holidays, such as Yom Kippur or the final day of Passover. Now, every year on the eve of her mother's death anniversary, Katie lights a yahrzeit candle. It allows her a formal way to reflect and gives her permission to think (and to cry) and just generally miss her mom. She and her husband usually say a few words as they light it, too.

Just having a tradition, Katie said, is really comforting. Otherwise she'd feel "conflicted and unsettled about the 'right' way to acknowledge the day." She said it's so beneficial to her on a secular level, in fact, that she suggested I tell my readers about it.

So here I am, giving a bunch of atheists and agnostics an idea stolen by a Christian from a Jew. There's got to be a Robin Hood metaphor in here somewhere.

I really do love this idea — especially as a way to involve children in the process of dealing with loss. It would be great to let kids pick out their own memory candles when they lose a loved one — a pet, a grandparent, a friend — and then urge them to light the candle (or have a parent light it!) whenever they want to remember or honor their loved one. Ideally, at least in my mind, the candle would come out at happy times, too. Kids could talk to the candle or just quietly reflect. What a wonderful way to encourage kids to feel the full range of their feelings about loss. And it doesn't have to be intrusive either. You could light a candle for a holiday party, and no one would think twice about it unless you told them.

All places of worship have candles involved, and that's not an accident. (The Book of Proverbs 20:27, for instance, says "The soul of man is a candle of the Lord." This is where, I believe, the idea for the yahrzeit candle came from.) But fire is not just about religious symbolism. In a practical sense, fire brings a sense of calmness and serenity into a room. Fire is warm and comforting. Fire invites us to think — and think deeply. No wonder candles are the way Jewish people have chosen as their way to honor the dead. It makes perfect sense.

If you're interested, I found this guy who makes yahrzeit candles and sells them on ebay. The ones he sells are super-affordable and very simple, much like the one pictured above, with no designs. In other words, secular-appropriate.

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.

Only Five Religious Books Have Won the Caldecott — Most Before 1963

Noah-s-Ark-9780385094733If you've ever perused the religion books within the children's section of your local library, you're probably aware that it can be a bit underwhelming. Whether you're going for a book about the life of Buddha, the history of Confucianism, or the holiday of Easter, so many of the books are old and outdated, clearly written for religious children, or without much literary merit. It sticks out particularly because there are so many great secular children's books — brilliant, award-winning books that will stick with our kids for the rest of our lives. Sometimes it's hard to skip over those and land on what may turn out to be infinitely forgettable ones. That's why it's fun (for me, at least) to come across religiously themed books that are also (or were once) considered great literature. Which is what happened when my daughter brought home a brochure from school the other day listing all 75 Caldecott Medal winners, dating back to 1938. This year's winner is an outstanding book called This is Not My Hat. And in 2011, the pick was A Sick Day for Amon McGee. And in 1970, it was Sylvester and the Magic Pebble; and in 1964, it was Where the Wild Things Are; and in 1942, it was Make Way for Ducklings.

The point is, those Caldecott people are no dummies.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, very few "religious" books have appeared on the Caldecott list in the last 50 years. Other than Peter Spier's Noah's Ark in 1978 — which I can affirm is a pretty straight telling of the Christian tale and not overtly religious — the books have been almost exclusively secular. Not so, though, before 1963 — when four of the first 25 winners had religious themes, including the very first Caldecott. The first three picks appear to be overtly religious (particularly the second!) but Nine Days to Christmas — about the Mexican holiday of Posada — might be worth checking out. All five, incidentally, are Christian.

1938: Animals of the Bible, A Picture Book

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1945: Prayer for a Child

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1960: Nine Days to Christmas: A Story of Mexico

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1961: Baboushka and the Three Kings

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I do think it's important that nonreligious parents set aside their usual standards for literature once in a while in favor of injecting some religious literacy into their kids' lives. But within reason, of course. And this is not to suggest that there aren't some GREAT books out there for those who take the time to look. For some tips on choosing religious picture books appropriate for nonreligious families, click here.

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

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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.

One Set of 'Footprints in the Sand' is Plenty for This Kid

Footprints in the sand on beach near San José del Cabo, Mexico at sunrise When I was growing up — Missouri, 1980s — half the kids I knew had a framed copy of "Footprints in the Sand" somewhere in their house. Usually hanging in the living room.

That poem was as meaningful to these families as Rudyard Kipling's "If" was to ours. (My mom gave me a poster-sized copy of "If" right before I entered adolescence. I must have read it 500 times.)

The point is, although it wasn't in my own home, "Footprints in the Sand" was a part of my childhood. I have vivid memories of staring into the ubiquitous pictures of sandy beaches and thinking what a comforting, beautiful sentiment that was. Or maybe it was just the thought of a beach that I found so comforting and beautiful. (This was Missouri, after all.) I assume most of you have read it, but here it is:

Footprints in the Sand 

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord, “ You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?” The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”

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This notion of always having someone with us to keep us going is among the most common reasons people desire religious faith. It's also, I've discovered, a reason that secular parents who were raised in religious households sometimes feel a sense guilt for not introducing their kids to this potentially friendly presence in their lives.

But telling a child that God is in the room with them is not nearly as compelling as it sounds. Kids' minds are far more active than ours, their imaginations are rich and vibrant. If they want or need company, they have no trouble finding it. They hug their stuffed animals. They invent imaginary friends. They cling to their blankets. They talk to themselves.

I know I'm getting into "blasphemous" territory here, but kindly bear with me... Whether or not kids think there's a God above doesn't change the fact that they must solve their own problems here on Earth. In my personal experience, whether we talk things through with God or with Paddington Bear has absolutely no influence on the outcome.

As I've said before, my 7-year-old is very much on the fence about God. She believes sometimes and not other times — and that's fine by me. But she said something recently that inspired this post and made certain that, whatever she ends up believing, she likely won't ever feel the need for "Footprints in the Sand."

"I'll never be lonely," she told me, "because I'll always have myself."

Now THAT I'd hang in the living room.

10 Simple Ways to Mark Darwin's Birthday

Featured on BlogHer.comEvolution, or the process by which living organisms change over time, was not discovered by Charles Darwin. But he certainly gave the theory its street cred.

By introducing natural selection — the idea that organisms best suited to survive in their particular circumstances have a greater chance of passing their traits on to the next generation — Darwin gave us a plausible mechanism by which evolution could take place. And that made all the difference. Darwin's 1859 book On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was the most groundbreaking biological theory the world had ever seen. And it remains an idea so powerful that it's still banned today in some schools.

Tomorrow — Feb. 12 — would be Charles Darwin's 204th birthday. And it's practically the only secular holiday we've got. So let's celebrate!

 

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1. Watch this seven-minute video of cool-as-hell Carl Sagan explaining Natural Selection in a delightful and simply way.

2. Make a toast. Darwin's name is one we want our kids to know and respect, so even if they're too young to grasp the process of natural selection, at least get his name out there. At dinner tomorrow, raise a glass of something bubbly to Charles Darwin, a famous and important scientist whose life we celebrate.

3. Drop the "theory." As Sagan says in the video above, evolution is a fact. The reason we hear the phrase "theory of evolution" so often is because, during Darwin's day, evolution was a theory. But DNA has since proven what Darwin had theorized. Calling evolution a theory today is both confusing and misleading.

4. Check out this little guy. The LA Times had a great little story that ran yesterday on a creature known as the "hypothetical placental mammal ancestor." It's a small, furry-tailed creature believed to be the common ancestor of more than 5,000 living species — including whales, elephants, bats, rodents and humans. Check it out. They even have a full-color rendering of the darn thing.

5. Watch this six-minute clip of Richard Attenborough explaining the Tree of Life. It's a quick but extremely effective snapshot of how humans and every other life form on Earth evolved from the same pool of bacteria some 300 million years ago. And note how the rodent they feature, as the first mammal, looks pretty much exactly like the one in the LA Times article above. The clip was taken from "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life," a BBC Production made to mark Darwin's 200th birthday.

6. Check out Leonard Eisenberg's website evogeneao.com — a shortened version of evolutionary genealogy. It's a great site for parents and teachers, and has a link to this amazing Tree of Life graphic that is awfully fun to contemplate. (Click on the site to get a bigger version.)

 

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7. Visit a natural history museum.

8. Find a Darwin Day event going on in your region.

9. Go on a nature hike. Everything you see, whether it's a slug, cat or a bird, do what Eisenberg would do and talk about how that creature is literally, our cousin — 275th million cousin, perhaps, but a cousin nonetheless.

10. Read one of these books:

Charles Darwin by Diane Cook

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky

Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution by Steven Jenkins

Bang! How We Came to Be by Michael Rubino

Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Lawrence Pringle

Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer

Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton

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3 Must-Reads for Secular Parents

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The last month has produced an incredible little selection of articles relating to secular parenting, and I wanted to make sure you didn't miss them. The pieces are, in turn, educational, insightful, funny and heartwarming. And all of them are written by women — which seems significant because the secular community is, we are told, still dominated by menfolk. [To read the articles, just click on the titles below.]

1. Why My 7-Year-old is an Atheist (And Why I'm Okay With That) by Carolyn Castiglia

Castiglia, a comedian, writes about her daughter's "conversion" to atheism, despite her own rather open-minded approach to religion. The piece is very funny but also has some nice advice to impart.  A friend found this on Jezebel but it was originally posted to Babble. Here's a particularly good bit:

The way I imagine God has changed over the years – He's gone from being a person, a man, to being more of a Thing, a notion. Goodness. The Oneness of the Universe. With something female in there. The energy that keeps the whole thing afloat. God as I know it now when I know it is kind of a cocktail made from a shot of Buddhism, a shot of feminist activism and a splash of ginger ale (because that, my friends, is something you can always count on). My daughter, on the other hand, at the ripe old age of 7, is convinced that there is no God. Not even a god. Yup, my kid's an atheist. And she pretty much has been since she was 5. It's not for lack of exposure to God or god or even gods and spirituality, because she has attended Church and church and a UU "church" and it has made no impact. We've prayed together. I talk about God sometimes, in a good way. When I asked her recently why she doesn't believe in God she told me, succinctly, "Because I know too much about science!"

2. Losing Our Religion by Katherine Ozment.

Ozment is a writer who turned her attention to nonreligious parenting in this fun and honest Boston Magazine piece. Many parents are sure to find her situation all too familiar. Here's the nut-graph:

Like most upper-middle-class parents, my husband and I have worked out a strategy for every aspect of our children’s lives, from cord-blood banking and on-demand breastfeeding to extracurricular math classes and strict limits on screen time. Religion is the big exception. It’s something he (raised Jewish) and I (raised Protestant) keep meaning to address, yet year after year we manage to avoid it. Most days I can shrug this off. Who has the time? I think. And does it even matter? But as ambivalent as I am about organized religion, I recognize there is something to it. Participation in a religious community has been correlated with everything from self-esteem and overall hopefulness to the avoidance of substance abuse and teen pregnancy. So I worry: Am I depriving my children of an experience that will help shape their identities in a positive way and anchor them throughout their lives?

3. The Curse of the Herd by Gwen DeWar

This is not a story about religion, per se, but it may as well be. DeWar is a writer and anthropologist fascinated by the strong pull humans feel toward conformity. The focus of this piece, published by Psychology Today, is how this sort of conformity can and does affect our child-rearing — and not in a good way. She writes:

It’s disturbing, and it should concern everyone. Yes, social conformity serves some helpful functions, and many people believe in the rights of various groups to enforce their own cultural norms. If a community wants to reject science in favor of folk remedies, or to punish people for teaching evolution, isn’t that their prerogative? But unless this group is composed solely of adult volunteers, there is a problem. Children don’t volunteer. They don’t choose their birthplace. They don’t choose their parents or the cultural setting in which they grow up....Is freedom of thought a human right? Do kids have a right to learn about the tools of critical thinking? Our need to question and tinker may be as primitive as our need for food and love.

And while I'm on it, two other worthy reads are:

• Molly Worthen's One Nation Under God, an opinion published by the New York Times, in which which she argues that "the temple of 'my personal opinion' may be the real 'established church' in modern America." (So true!)

•  Picture Books for Strong Girls, a list of book recommendations published by No Time for Flash Cards. The list has some great suggestions, to which I would add Big Momma Makes the World, a book that tells the Biblical creation story, more or less — only "God" is a Southern Momma with loads of laundry to do and a baby to take care of. (Don't worry. She can handle it.)\

Big Momma Makes the World

 

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.)