Can the Bible Help Kids Think Critically?

max-bibleOnce upon a time, I would have choked on my own vomit at the idea of buying a children's Bible for my daughter. The way I saw it, the Bible was an indoctrination tool. I no more wanted to crack that book open than I wanted to get her baptized or plan her Bat Mitzvah or teach her to pray toward Mecca five times a day. It was all the same to me. In my mind, only religious people read the Bible. But, times have changed.

Today, I don't equate the Bible to religion; I equate it with religious literacy. It is the quickest and most effective way to expose kids to Western belief systems. When it comes to knowledge of Judaism and Christianity and — to a slightly lesser extent — Islam, you can't do better than to read some key Bible passages. Judaism relies heavily on Moses and the book of Exodus. Christianity revolves around the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And Islam loves it some Genesis-bred Abraham.

Of course, kids are too young to understand the language in the Bible, so it's definitely best to go with a children's version. Yes, they over-simplify things. Yes, they white wash. Yes, they take out all the language that makes the Bible at all enjoyable to read, frankly. But the greater good is that the kids will understand the stories and be drawn into them enough to actually remember them. And memory is sort of key in the education business.

My daughter has had her children's Bible for almost three years now. She's been known to take it out and look at the pictures, but lately — within the last year — she has taken to reading it in the car. She skips around a bit, but is always fascinated most by the moral aspects of each tale. I think this is the age where kids really start to think more about "right" and "wrong" and Biblical stories are larger-than-life tales with big-name characters, and so the degrees of rightness and wrongness are heightened.

The shocking thing about it all is that — contrary to the common assumption — reading the Bible seems to be helping to hone her ability to think for herself. She reads the stories with genuine interest and serious consideration — but without the reverence, deference and praise associated with faith-based Bible classes. It's remarkable, really, especially when I think back on the pure lack of critical thinking I employed when I heard the same stories as a kid.

The other day, for example, while reading in the car, she got to the 10th of the 10 Commandments and read (aloud): "Never want what belongs to others." Then she stopped and corrected Moses. "Well, you can WANT what belongs to others," she said. "You just can't HAVE it. You can buy one for yourself."

In the story about Joseph's dream coat, the passage read: "Joseph was one of Jacob's twelve sons. Jacob loved him more than all of his other sons..."

Maxine looked up at me: "THAT'S SO MEAN!" she said.

When Jacob is thrown in jail, and one of the other prisoners asks Jacob — quite out of the blue — to decipher the guy's dream, Maxine was all: "Well how would HE know what that means?!" And when a father (I can't recall who) tells his son that he must marry who the father chooses, Maxine declared that to be "dumb" and explained to me that, of course, the son can marry whoever he wants.

But my favorite bit was when her Bible told her that "goodly people" would go to live in heaven.

"I am a goodly person," Maxine said, "but I don't want to live in heaven."

And then she added: "Where do all the BADLY people live, that's what I want to know..."

Letting Kids Choose Their Clothes (And Their Faith)

When my daughter was still an infant, my husband and I took her to a local coffee shop for breakfast. At the booth over was an early-30s couple, each with multiple tattoos and piercings and jet-black hair to match their clothes. I wouldn't have paid much attention to the couple except for the company they kept. Sitting across from them sat a little girl dressed head-to-toe in pink. She was their daughter. In addition to a pretty pink dress and shoes to match, the 6-year-old wore a shimmering headband, which held back a long mane of perfectly combed, blond hair. As the family stood up to leave, it was impossible not to notice:  These two Morrissey types had given birth to a Barbie doll. The mother caught me mid-smile, and smiled back. "All she wears is pink" she told me. "I buy her all these black T-shirts, but she won't touch any of them."

After they left, I thought: I love that little family. And now, all these years later, I still do.

There is something I viscerally respond to when parents don't expect their children to be Mini-Mes, when they let their children's individuality outweigh our own personal preferences, or even embarrassment. My reaction was the same one I experienced many years later when I read an incredibly sweet and supportive wedding speech written by the father of a lesbian bride.

Embracing every part of our children that makes them different from us is the true test of our unconditional love. We are showing them, in no uncertain terms, that we want to support them on their life journeys — not just drag them behind us on ours.

After my daughter told me, at 5 years old, that “God made us,” I nearly panicked. After pacing the kitchen and explaining the contents of the ill-fated (or so I thought) conversation, my husband uttered 14 words that changed everything for me.

“To me,” he said, “it’s what she does in life that matters — not what she believes.”

It was my “Aha” moment. And in everything I’ve done or said to Maxine since then, this mantra — it’s what you do in life that matters, not what you believe — has propelled me forward in my work, and in my life.

Now that my daughter is almost 7, I understand all too well the plight of the hipsters in the coffee shop. Sometimes I feel the tug of opposition when we're out shopping and Maxine gravitates toward the bright, almost florescent, prom-style dresses that look like they've been bedazzled by Cher.

But I do try very hard to support her choices. Because letting our kid dress like "an Australian's nightmare," as Spinal Tap's long-suffering manager Ian Faith so eloquently put it, is  the right thing to do. By allowing our children to choose what they like, we are affirming that their opinions are valid, that their taste is respected. We are telling them it's better than okay to be who they are; it's wonderful.

This doesn't mean, of course, that we need to allow or support every choice they want to make. But let's do keep our eyes on the goal here: to allow our kids to explore the world and make reasonable choices.

Kick This Ass for a Man

"I've got no timing, I've got no timing.  I've got NO timing. You know what I want you to do? Will you do something for me? Do me a favor, just kick my ass, okay? Kick this ass for a man, that’s all. Kick my ass. Enjoy!"                                 — Artie Fufkin (Paul Shaffer) in This is Spinal Tap

So my husband says to me last night that, although he liked yesterday's blog, he was confused by the timing of it. He pointed out that, on Monday, I wrote a blog inviting people to participate in a contest to win a copy of Richard Dawkins’ new book. Then, on Thursday, I announced a winner — but not to the contest.

Hmmm. Yeah. Dammit. He’s got a point there.

So here I am, cleaning up my mess by announcing the winners to the 10 Commandments Contest. Since I’ve got three copies of The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True to give away, I’m awarding them to the three people whose ideas I’m most likely to steal when I run the series in November.

Congratulations, Katie, Jen and Karen!

Now, if you’ll kindly stop kicking my ass, I can get back to work.