Addressing 'God' in Secular Families: When is the Right Time?

When my daughter was 2, and barely out of diapers, she had her first Potty Emergency. We'd been having lunch when suddenly she rose and sprinted to the bathroom with the speed and determination of a hunted deer. I'd been hopeful she made it in time, but when I arrived several seconds later, she was standing in front of the toilet, fully clothed, staring down at a puddle on the floor. Her little shoulders had fallen. Without looking up at me, she shook her little head and said exactly what I would have said in the same situation:

"Jesus Christ."

I'm sure my Presbyterian ancestors would have been charmed to know the only thing my daughter knew about the Christian Messiah was that he made for an effective expletive.

In many nonreligious families, there aren't a lot of opportunities for religious references to arise outside of idioms, proverbs and occasional profanity. Few of us visit churches or attend mosque or synagogue or temple. We don't pray before meals. We don't emphasize the religious aspects of national holidays. We don't have Bibles or Qur'ans lying around. God just doesn't come up.

As a result, sometimes we don't know how to start the conversations. How do we kick things off? And when, exactly, are our kids ready to have these talks?


"I don't want to make a big deal of telling her I don't believe in God," one atheist mom told me, "but there never seems to be a right time to say it."

There is no magic age for God talk, and it depends a lot on the personality of the child, but kids are generally ready to start exploring ideas of spirituality around ages 4 or 5. This is when blossoming imaginations welcome supernatural ideas, and when concepts like good and evil come into focus. It's about this time, too, when inquisition replaces demand as the rhetorical tool of choice:  Why did this happen?" "What happens if someone does that?" And it's during these years they are first exposed to the reality that mom and dad don't have exclusive control of the thought process: kids at preschool and daycare also have ideas to share.

Watch carefully, and you'll see the signs of mental development, and a readiness for thoughts unrelated to immediate needs and wants. You may notice a new interest in how plants and insects die, curiosity about the sunshine, and a knack for picking up on anything "out of the ordinary." They'll pretty soon notice that people have different answers, different explanations, and that some of them will undoubtedly involve faith.

Even when you know the timing is right, the thought of broaching the subject of religion can be intimidating — even paralyzing. Many parents fret that they waited too long. Their children begin to "act" on what they hear without the benefit of context. They may assume that the religious ideas voiced by relatives or peers are absolute truth. They may learn to phrase things in ways that make their parents uncomfortable, which causes the parents to try to "undo" the children's learning.


"My son overheard a discussion that I was having with another adult," one mother told me. "When he heard me mention 'God' he asked: 'Do you mean the ‘One True God?' Apparently, his public school kindergarten teachers were praying with the kids in class."

This is not to say it's imperative that we parents are the ones to bring up religion. More than 50 percent of parents surveyed said their kids had brought up the subject themselves. Don't be surprised when the moment arrives. Accept the opportunity, and dive right in: "I'm glad your Uncle Joe brought it up!" you might say. "This is interesting stuff."

The trick, if there is a trick to this, is to let children's curiosity be your guide. Try not to tell them more than they want to know, or answer questions they're not asking. There's no need for a boring dissertation or a nervous oratory. Nothing needs to be forced or coerced.

Seriously, if talking about religion is anything other than natural and interesting, you're probably trying too hard.

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..."

When 'Religious Jokes' Cross a Line

On Facebook, you see a lot of religious memes. They are posted (and reposted and reposted) by religious people with genuine reverence. On the Facebook group for secular mothers that I belong to, you see a lot of religious memes, too. Only they're posted ironically, and for the express purpose of being skewered. The contrast can be refreshing.


Now, to be fair, the group is much more about connecting with a like-minded community of women. Most posts seek parental advice or share the latest on someone's health scare or fertility problems or battle with cancer. But there are jokes to be had, too. Lots and lots of jokes.

It's a good group.

But sometimes, in good groups, bad things happen. And a few days ago, there quite the dust-up around a member who posted a picture joke that ended up offending a good number of people. I didn't see the joke myself — it was taken down before I logged on — but the controversy continued into a follow-up post that I did see.

From what I gather, the picture depicted the Last Supper (original, right?) and featured a joke about the cost of the Last Supper and who would be footing the bill for all that food. The joke was apparently a play on the stereotype that Jews are cheap. And it used that word, too: Jews.


Tempers flared immediately.

It was offensive, people said. It promulgated a harmful stereotype.

No, said others, it was totally benign. And, plus, plenty of religious jokes are posted and tolerated on the site. Why not this one?

But it didn't poke fun at a religion. It poked fun at an ethnicity. That's different. 

It was funny. Sorry it offended you.

It was harmful. And you're not really sorry.

And so it went.

Finally, the member took down the joke.

The controversy interested me on a couple of levels. On one side, I had to roll my eyes at this idea that poking fun at religious groups is A-okay, while posting jokes about other groups — ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation — is not. Talk about a sweeping double-standard.


But then there was this ridiculous notion that because some people thought the joke was funny, the joke deserved to be seen in that light. In short, this woman didn't mean to offend people, so why were people so bent out of shape?

The whole thing reminded me of the whole "rape-joke" controversy last summer. Remember that? When comedian Daniel Tosh was talking about rape jokes at the Laugh Factory and a woman in the audience heckled him by saying, "Actually, rape jokes are never funny!" And he responded by saying: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

Well, as you can imagine, that thing blew up, too — BIG TIME. Tosh got hammered by feminist groups. Meanwhile, tons of big-name comedians lined up to defend Tosh's right to tell jokes about rape. They turned it into a censorship issue.

In the midst of the ongoing debate, a woman named Lindy West, a comedian herself, printed her response on the website Jezebel. And talk about nailing it. First off, West is a funny, funny lady. Second off, West is smart, smart lady. In a nutshell, her point was this: Comedians have every right to say whatever they want, make whatever joke they want, no matter the subject, no matter how dark. Will it offend someone? Of course. Most jokes would offend someone. But just as comedians have the right to tell any joke they want, WE have the right to respond any way we see fit. If we want to stand up and say, "That is a joke that harms women," and call for that person to be fired from Comedy Central, then that's what we should do. It's not about the subject matter; rape jokes can be funny. So can jokes about molestation and cancer and race and ethnicity and religion. It's about the specific joke. We're not talking about government censorship; we're talking about audience regulation. Democracy.

Religious_fc7036_2240321I'm not, as my friends can attest, easily offended. I love edgy humor, the edgier the better. Shock value is a value I admire. But just because SOMEONE finds something funny — or that someone told it TO BE funny — doesn't mean it's a good joke. Or that they should telling it. Sure the line is hard to see sometimes; but we are human beings. We should care enough to look for it. And if we don't, we should be prepared to be, forgive the expression, bitch-slapped.

In the end, Tosh got scolded in a very effective way. He was the object of national criticism, apologized to his fans on Twitter. Democracy.

In the end, the Facebook user got scolded in a very effective way, too. She took down her joke and dropped out of the group.

God Bless America.

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:

The Best Thing About Being a Secular Parent? You Tell Me!

Not long ago, my sister and her husband invited an old friend over for dinner. The friend is a talker, so their nights with him usually require a lot of generosity on their parts. He tends, my sister tells me, to drone on endlessly about inane topics — including, but not limited to, good meals he's eaten recently. You know that guy too, don't you? Yeah. Well all do.

Anyway, on this particular night my sister's 4-year-old son was sitting at the table with them. He apparently had taken his cue from his parents because he was being very patient and respectful throughout most of the meal. But finally he'd had enough. In his adorable little 4-year-old voice, he started saying BOOORING as the friend was talking. Luckily (or not), the friend is a loud talker, too, so he kept going, oblivious to the review he was getting. But at least three times Little Guy punctuated this man's story with BOOORING before my sister was able to quietly  hush him.


I talk a lot here about the unique challenges of being a secular parent — from interacting with judgmental or aggressively religious relatives to dealing with religious bullies at school to just knowing how to approach religion with little ones — and I don't often focus on the good stuff. The fun stuff. The easy stuff. Because, well, as Little Guy would say: BOOORING.

But today I'm making an exception. The truth is, for all the challenges that come with it, being a secular parent is so damn fulfilling. It can make many conversations so much simpler and easier. And secular parenting seems to have so much in common with good parenting, too. The way we respect all of our children's feelings, for example, not just those that embrace a certain God. Or the way we encourage kids to think independently and follow no one without question — whether it be Jesus, Muhammad, the local drug dealer, or a libidinous high school boyfriend.

But before I drone on and on — BOOORING — I want to hear from you:

What do you think is the single best thing about being a secular parent?

Feel free to comment below — or on Reddit or Stumbleupon, Facebook or wherever else you see this post pop up. Or you can e-mail me privately at

Then be sure to check back! I'll publish the list in May.

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.

A Newer (And More Laid Back) Brand of Atheism

Religiously speaking, this is an unusual time in our history. Secularism is clearly on the rise, and yet religion maintain a stronghold over our society and politics. That science has boldly answered so many "mysteries of the universe" has not stopped supernatural beliefs from influencing how most Americans think and live. Every day I read headlines about how God is on the way out; every day I read headlines about how God is on the way up. For us nonbelievers, it's hard to know where we stand, where the country stands — and what the future holds.

We are a nation that revels in extremes. We watch with fascination as religious zealots (Christian Fundamentalists, Islamic Fundamentalists, etc.)  duke it out with anti-religious zealots (New Atheists). But most of us — theists or no — thankfully reside in the broad in-between. We see no need for zealotry, and we certainly don't support it.

As a person living during America's "secular boom," I personally have been accused of "turning away" from God. Many of us have. But the truth is, to say I have "turned away" from God is like saying I've "turned away" from rugby. I'm fine with the fact that other people play rugby. They seem to really enjoy it. It's just not my game.

Now, of course, naysayers will argue that religion is not at all like rugby. Rugby is not known for hurting people, causing wars, embracing elitism, inciting hate. And I get that. But I'd just ask anyone reading this to picture a beloved friend or relative who also happens to be deeply faithful. We all have at least one. Someone we love not just despite his or her spirituality, but maybe even because of it.

That's the rugby I'm talking about.

The atheists I know don't wish to offend nice people or cause our families pain. We wouldn't dream of trying to stamp out our grandmothers' faith. We, much like Jesus, do not wish to throw stones. Much like the Buddha, we prefer a middle path. And much like virtually every major religion in the world, we strive to take care of our families, do right by our communities, and live by the Golden Rule.

Isn't it a shame that this sort of narrative — a new and, dare I say, improved brand of 'New Atheism' — doesn't garner more headlines?

And, now, this picture of a monkey — living the dream. Enjoy your weekend, everyone!

Squirrel Monkey, Costa Rica, photo by Wendy Thomas Russell

3 Must-Reads for Secular Parents


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.)

4 Reasons Not To Indoctrinate Kids Against Religion


Indoctrination, whether it be religious or nonreligious, requires that parents send a clear and convincing message that there is only one way to think about God and, in doing so, imply that other ways are wrong, silly, short-sighted or dangerous. There is a pretty major difference between revealing our beliefs to our children and insisting our children — and the world around us — believe the same things we do.

Severe indoctrination leads to the opposite of critical thinking — that is, reflective thinking aimed at deciding what to believe. Part of what makes severe indoctrination so scary is the fact that it can hinder a child's abilities to draw her own conclusions about the world, independent from her parents. And that's a skill that relates directly to a child's level of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth — the very attributes that will enable her to resist peer pressure in adolescence and beyond.

Indoctrination, whether intentional or accidental, can and often does drive a wedge between parent and child. Parenting coach Linda Hatfield once told me that our voices become the voices our children hear for the rest of their lives. If we say "You can do it," for instance, that becomes a mantra that plays in their heads even when we can't be there to say it ourselves.

So when a parent disparages the intelligence of a person who believes in an all-knowing, all-seeing God, that parent is giving his children information that may very well echo in their ears for years. If ever a child, say, chooses to experiment with religion or falls in love with a person of faith, such words would most definitely be remembered — and, very likely, resented. In short: The more we push our rigid opinions onto our kids now, the more we risk having our children withdraw from us later.

Here are four more reasons to avoid inculcating our children with nonreligious or anti-religious beliefs:

1.  Indoctrination often fails. More than a quarter of American adults — 28 percent — have left the faith in which they were raised, according to Pew Forum's 2008 Landscape Survey. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, that number spikes to 44 percent. Think how you would feel if your kids failed to believe something you have given them no choice but to believe? Talk about an ego-killer. And it's no fun for the kids either, by the way, who probably want nothing more than to make you proud.

2. Your passion could backfire. Children who feel unconnected from their parents (and that's many of them during the teen years) may use religion (or anything else that seems important to their parents) as a point of rebellion during adolescence —  a way to assert their authority and establish independence. If religion is a sore point for you, that's all the more reason not to indoctrinate.

3. Your kid might have a natural affinity for some type of spirituality. Or he may come to need it at some point in his life. One respondent to my 2012  survey told me he has a friend who "traded in his alcoholism for God." Despite the respondent's non-belief, he commented: "It was a good trade." Religion might someday have the power to make your kids feel good or even safe. To take that away could be detrimental — not to the child's eternal soul, of course — but to his happiness. And there aren't a lot of things more important than that.

4. Indoctrination breeds intolerance. The natural byproduct of religious freedom is a good, healthy dose of religious tolerance. It's extremely difficult to teach compassion and tolerance to others when you're sending a message that your way is the only right way. True tolerance starts at home. If you're going to tell your child it's okay for others to believe differently than she does; then be okay with your child believing differently than you do. Otherwise, you're kind of a hypocrite. And by "kind of," I mean totally.

And now, on a lighter note, here are some more Toothpaste for Dinner comics:


'My Friend Said If You Don't Believe in God, You Go Into Fire'

My daughter was sitting next to me on the couch earlier this week, playing a game on the iPad, when she stopped and looked up. She'd remembered something that a friend had told her at summer school. "She said if you don't believe in God, you go into fire," Maxine told me.

"She did?" I asked."Oh. Well, she's talking about hell. Have you heard of hell?"


"Some people believe you go there if you don't believe in God," I added with as much neutrality as I could muster.

"Do you believe that?" she asked.

"No. I don't believe that, and Dad doesn't believe that. But some people do."

"Is it true?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Well," she said, "I don't either."

Then, back to the iPad.

This is now the second time we've dealt with the whole hell thing. The first was last year in kindergarten. Both involved very good friends of hers who meant her no harm — and, in both cases, Maxine did not seem too bothered. But I did think it would be a good time to revisit the list I published at that time — When Timmy Gets Told He's Going to Hell: 8 Tips for Parents — and to ask you guys: Have you dealt with this recently? What, if anything, did you or your child do? And was ass-kicking involved? Just kidding about that last one.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

And now for the tips.

1. Don't panic.

This is pretty much the mantra of this blog, and it's a good one to remember here. Your kid is going to have to wade through a load of shit in elementary school, which will only prepare her for the bigger load of shit she'll have to wade through in middle school until the shit piles so high, it spills over into your life during adolescence. Best to learn to chill out now. Bourbon helps.

2. Remember: Hell is a nasty word, but it's  just a word.

We tend to give hell a lot more weight than it's really worth. That's not to say it's okay to tell someone they're going to hell, but let's put it in perspective. Sally is told she's "ugly" because she wears glasses or has freckles. Johnny is a "sissy" because he can't throw a ball. Mary is "retarded" because she has a stutter. Timmy is going to "hell" because he doesn't believe in God. Each insult is just as mean and hurtful as the next — and, also, just as untrue.

3. Consider the source.

Not all H-bombs are created equal. One thrown by an unassuming kindergartner is not the same as an assault by a junior minister at a relative's church, or talk of hell by your child's Muslim grandmother. A school incident may require no action from you (See No. 4), but if a place of worship is scaring your child, it's probably best to find a new place of worship. And if a family member is involved, that deserves a sit-down talk.

4. Follow your kid's lead.

While we parents love to impose our sage advice on our kids, sometimes the best thing to do is listen and encourage. When we steer our kids too much, or expend a lot of energy trying to fix their problems, we often send the message that they can't possible fix these problems themselves. If your child dealt with the H-bomb without becoming abusive to the bomber, she deserve major kudos. Maybe she told the teacher. Maybe she defended herself. Maybe she did absolutely nothing. Whatever it was, tell her she did a bang-up job. "Good for you!" you might say. "I love how you handled that." Or the old reliable: "I'm so proud of you."

5. Appeal to logic.

Take your kid outside. Look up at the sky. Stomp on the ground a little. Look at some pictures of space and the Grand Canyon. Then talk about this "hell" of which people speak. If it exists, where is it? A great centerpiece to any religiously complex conversation is: "Does that make sense to you?" For example: "If someone is a nice person, and only does good things for other people, do you think that person will go to some horrible place after he or she dies? Does that make sense to you?"

6. Separate the hell-talkers from the religious masses.

A great many religious people — particularly modern, progressive types — have done away with this old-fashioned notion of hell altogether; either they believe that only truly evil people go to hell, or they've abandoned the notion altogether. And even among those who do believe in hell, most are not particularly worried about whether you are going there; they're far more worried about whether they are going there. The point is, not all religious people believe your kid is going to hell; it's important your kid knows that.

7. Use it as a learning opportunity.

Hell is a super-interesting field of study, for kids who are old enough to handle it without nightmares. And treating it as just that — a field of study — helps remove some of its power. Look up Hell on Wikipedia. Read about how each religion imagines hell, and how they differ.  You might be surprised how many religions have no concept of hell at all. Talk to your child about how hell is depicted in songsmoviesartworksliterature and video games. Also, explain that many people think of hell as a condition of one's own mind; when you do hurtful, amoral things, you must then suffer the guilt and remorse and regret that goes with those decisions. (For many of us, that's a fate worse than anything the devil could do.)

8. Tell someone.

I added this one at the last minute after I read a post by blogger Steph Bazzle on Parenting Beyond Belief. Her 8-year-old son came home from school after a fellow classmate told him he was headed "down there." Bazzle ended up writing an e-mail to the principal, teacher and guidance counselor. Not a freak-out e-mail, but a heads-up e-mail. Their response? The principal called her immediately, genuinely concerned. And the school guidance counselor scheduled a tolerance course for every grade in the school. Can't ask for better than that.

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.

On Tom, Katie and Interfaith Families


To answer your first two questions: Yes, I'm going there; and, no, I'm not above it. Now, back to TomKat.

If media reports are to be believed — and let's say they are for the sake of this conversation, shall we? — actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes have split up based, in part, on a dispute over the religious upbringing of their 6-year-old daughter, Suri. In case you are reading this from under a rock somewhere, Cruise is the highest-profile Scientologist in the history of Scientology, and Holmes — well, she ain't. (I've read she was raised Catholic, which probably means she's a Buddhist by now — ha ha.)

There may well be much more to the divorce than this — always is — but what I wouldn't give to know how this pair has gone about discussing religion with that kid.

Suri's age sure seems significant. While the topic of religion may be blissfully avoided for the first several years of a kid's life, most children get God-curious around age 5 — which is about the time they start school and meet other kids. It's quite possible that, in the Cruise-Holmes household, religious differences played a supporting role until very recently, when Suri (through no fault of her own) pushed it front-and-center.


A child changes everything.

That's what they say, and that's how it is. A new birth has a rather magical way of changing our lifestyles, interests, priorities, and relationships. Most of the time, of course, the changes are for the good — especially when it comes to the relationships part. Children can make us parents stronger, more resilient, more mature, more committed, more loving. But sometimes, the changes are…. well, let's just say challenging. Like how our "parenting styles" (which some of us didn't even know we had!) can bump up against each other, creating tensions and resentments where none existed before. Things we didn't think were important AT ALL now seem to matter A WHOLE FREAKING LOT. And compromise is especially hard to achieve when our little innocents are the ones who might suffer when we give up too much — or too little.

Interfaith marriage is so much more common than it's ever been. According to recent studies, upwards of 25 percent of American marriages are mixed. And, as religion loosens its grip on each passing generation, that percentage is expected to rise. In my own survey, which concluded a couple months ago, 20 percent of the nonreligious parents surveyed were married to people who held religious beliefs different from their own.

Of course, in a sense, this is wonderful news. America is, after all, the great melting pot. And the more couples comingle, the fewer divisions we'll have and (theoretically at least) the fewer conflicts we'll have.  But interfaith marriage isn't easy, either, and that is especially true when a couple bears children.

According to an excellent piece in the Washington Post (Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they're falling fast too) many interfaith couples underestimate the importance that faith plays in their lives. And some of them intend to become more religious after marriage — something they may not share with their partner before the vows are taken.

The Post article cites a paper published in 1993 by Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who found that divorce rates were higher among interfaith couples. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination had (at the time at least) a one-in-three chance of divorcing, Lehrer found. A Jew and Christian had a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years. (Same-faith marriages, by comparison, divorced at a rate of one in five.)

"As Lehrer points out, a strong or even moderate religious faith will influence 'many activities that husband and wife perform jointly.' Religion isn't just church on Sunday, Lehrer notes, but also ideas about raising children, how to spend time and money, friendships, professional networks -- it can even influence where to live. The disagreements between husband and wife start to add up."


One of my husband's heroes is Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a Presbyterian minister, civil rights activist, gay-marriage proponent and proud liberal. In his sermons, Coffin equated God with love, and love with God and didn't let anything dilute that one true meaning.

Sloane married plenty of interfaith couples in his day, and his personal contention (which he outlined during an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air) was that marriages could absolutely withstand differences in faith — especially when the parties shared the same "level" of faith. For instance, he said, a Jew and a Christian who are both slightly religious won't have any problem at all; the same with a Jew and a Christian who are both very religious. His reasoning: One's devotion to faith matters more than the underlying faith itself, as long as the couple share a genuine respect for the other's religion.

You notice who's left out of Coffin's feel-good scenario, though, right? Couples with different levels of faith.

Coffin contended that most problems arise when one parent is very religious and the other isn't; when one person wants to attend church or mosque or temple, for example, and the other wants to stay home. If a couple's religiosity is uneven, we're led to believe, couples may feel as though there's a "winner" and "loser" when it comes to deciding how much of one religion to bring into the house  — or keep out of it.

It's an interesting point. Especially when you relate it back to Tom and Katie. (Yes, dammit, I'm still writing about this shameful topic. Let it go.)

If it's true that Cruise came to the marriage holding firm to the, I don't know, staff? of Scientology, while Holmes came draped in the light mist of her parents' Catholicism, then they're level of devotions were certainly not aligned. Perhaps she thought they were stronger than the sum of their religious parts. Perhaps he thought she'd come around.

The point is, interfaith marriage can work, but it doesn't always work. And the more couples think about their faith/non-faith in the context of child-rearing BEFORE THE CHILDREN ARE BORN, the less likely they'll be to end up on the front of Us Magazine over a story about their impending divorce.

12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids About Death (Part I)

Grim Reaper

Let's face it, talking about the Big D with the little humans we love more than anything in the world ain't easy. All we want to do is protect our kids — is that so wrong? — and here comes Mother Nature to screw it all up: Hey, guess what, darling? I'm going to die! But don't worry, because you're going to die, too! In fact, everyone you've ever loved or will ever love is going to DIE! But don't mind that. Let's go get some ice cream.

Yeah, it pretty much sucks — and it sucks for every parent on the planet. But, believe it or not, that doesn't mean it has to be an awful or depressing or scary topic of conversation. In fact, talks about death can be some of the most rich and textured talks you'll ever have with your kids.

Here are the first six of 12 common mistakes parents make in talking to their kids about death. The other second six are here.

1. We wait until tragedy strikes to start up the conversation.

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 tragedy strikes and the conversation is forced upon us. 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?" "What happened to the evil queen?" "Where did your grandma go?"

2. We use 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 damn 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, Grollman says.

3.  We talk too much.

Damn those awkward silences and our need to fill them. As I mentioned last week, 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. 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. We shield kids from the death of pets.

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 goes on after they die —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. We don’t give our kids anything to do.

When your 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.  We view heaven as a necessary solace

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 when we do that, we are at risk of blurring the line between heaven and nature. There is nothing "bad" in nature. (This may be the one thing religious and nonreligious people agree on!) When we offer up heaven as a knee-jerk reaction (rather than a true and honest belief), 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 so freaking beautiful. Life and death are intricately related. If we don’t have death, we don’t have life. 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 would be awesome, no doubt about it. But there also is solace in the predictable logic of science. 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."

A side note: I suppose a great many religious people will take issue with No. 6. As they see it, the point of life is to follow divine law (which commands that they be a good person, etc.) so as to ensure a heavenly place beside the Big Guy Upstairs. But many of us nonreligious types believe that dead people simply go back to the same nonexistence they experienced (or didn't experience) before they were born. We don't become souls — we become memories. So perhaps the point of living isn't to get somewhere else but to collect memories that make us happy and "give" memories that make other people happy. Being a good person is vital in this scenario — because if other peoples' memories are the last vestiges of ourselves that we leave behind, we want to make those memories as good as we possibly can.

Click here for Part II,  and here to find out why heaven is rarely helpful when talking with kids about death.

'But What if Santa Believes in God?'

One of the best things about writing a parenting blog about religion is that people send you their funny, insightful and just plain cute religion-related kid stories. Especially if you ask them to. People who read blogs are nice that way. So, to brighten up your Thursday, here are seven stories guaranteed to make you smile — if not guffaw. Enjoy! And thank you, readers, for sharing your lives and laughter with me.

Laura wrote:

My 5-year-old daughter, Alice, and I were talking this past December about all the big questions: Who is God? Do you believe in God? How did the world get made? etc.  I answered in my best think-your-own-thoughts vein with things like: Some people believe God made the world, and other people believe the world wasn't made by anyone.  We talked about the Big Bang a little bit, and she seemed to be agreeing with the scientists and skeptics, and then she comes out with this worried-sounding question: "But what if Santa believes in God?"

From Harry:

It was late spring, after our garden was in, when our aging cat Maggie died. My daughter, 3 years old at the time, was handling it surprisingly well. She was talking about us burying Maggie with a glimmer of excitement. She was happy to help us push the dirt into the hole to cover her up. I was feeling really proud of the incredible parent I must be to have a 3-year-old able to handle death so lightly. Later that night, she was talking to her Grandma about what we had done that day. And then I heard her say, "We planted Maggie today, and soon we are going to have KITTENS!"

Carla shared this story:

Traveling down Interstate 57 near Effingham, IL, there is a giant, white cross erected by the side of the road.  My 3-year-old son, Gareth, says, "Look, Mommy, that is a big T!"  Not ready to have that conversation, I said, "Yes, that it is a lot of people's favorite letter." 

Tiffany wrote:

My son’s name is Loki, which, for some reason, was the only name my husband and I agreed on.  Both my husband and I are atheists, but we try to expose our child to different ideas, religious and otherwise, from all angles. It’s up to him to make the decision in the end. As a result, we read lots of myths.  Interwoven with Greek mythology are stories from the Bible, the life of Muhammad, and Loki’s all time favorite: Norse mythology (of course). After reading a particularly awesome ‘Loki story’ that day, my son put it all together. “Mommy,” he said, looking at me with all seriousness. “I am—a GOD.” 

This one came from Shahzad:

Before becoming an atheist, I had been attempting to raise my son Ijaz (about 4 years old at the time) in the Islamic tradition at home and had taken him to the mosque on two occasions for annual Eid prayers, where he was able to follow along with the Islamic prayers that required multiple prostrations. My wife and I assumed that he was doing okay with these annual visits, but we learned otherwise when he heard us discussing the upcoming Eid and immediately interrupted to clarify his disdain for the mosque visits by saying, "I don't want to go to that place where people lie down." It was funny to realize that this was what my son had taken away from our understandably half-hearted attempt at following my childhood religion.

Alexa said:

The boys and I had a really funny discussion a few months ago, when I was reading Greek myths to them. Sirus said, "Wait - how come there are 12 gods here? Is Zeus the same as the God who created Jesus?" When I said no, he asked, "So were they wrong? Or are we?" It's a good thing my mom wasn't in the room for that, she would have had a coronary when I said, "The answer to that question is, what would you rather believe?" 

One of my all-time favorites is this one, which I received via e-mail some months ago. Unfortunately, I can't find the original message and no longer have the name of the writer. If you're reading this and you recognize this story, please let me know!

Before school began, I chatted with my 5-year-old before bed one night. I told him about how he was going to be meeting all kinds of new kids at school. Some will look like him, some will look really different. Some will like all the same things he likes and some won't like those things at all, and some more still will like things he can't stand. Everybody is different and nobody is wrong when it comes to what they like and don't like. Then I explained that some people believe in a man who, according to beliefs, lives up in the sky in a place called "heaven" and from up there he watches over all the people on the Earth. Not everybody believes in him, but a lot of the kids he will meet DO. He asked me the man's name, so I answered "God." His response? "I don't think God is a good name for him. His name should be Rollbert."

What Happens When You Don't Tell Your Kid About Religion? Only Really Terrible Things, That's All.

Church of Scientology

Let's say you're a secular parent who doesn't feel the need to talk about religion with your kid. Maybe you don't like religion, or understand it, or even care about it very much. Maybe you tried once to broach the subject with your kid, and it was pretty awkward and confusing and you were sure you screwed stuff up. Maybe you decided, after careful consideration, to table the whole thing for another time. And by "another time," you mean in, like, 20 years.

"So what?" you ask. "She'll get the information she needs eventually, right? And if she's really interested in religion, she'll ask. Plus, what's the worst that could happen? Is discussing religion with my kid really such a big deal?"

Yes, dingbat, it is.

Now if you asked me whether postponing or avoiding the topic of religion is the worst thing you could do, I would say: Of course not! There are far worse things you could do! But since when is your goal to do "better than the worst" when it comes to your child? Aren't you the same person who obsesses about which school would best suit your son's personality? Worries about whether new media will kill his ability to be creative? Feels guilty when you're forced to hit the McDonald's drive-through three times in the same week?

But, hey, let's say for the sake of argument that your gut tells you to just let sleeping dogs lie — and by dogs, of course, you mean gods. Let's say you want to know, specifically, what will happen if you keep your trap shut and let your kids figure it out for themselves.

By my count, there are exactly five possibilities.

Possibility No. 1: Your kid will feel like an idiot

Maybe it's a public sort of humiliation — the kind that occurs when other kids tease your child for not knowing something uber-basic, like what a Bible looks like or what was in Noah's Ark. Or maybe it's the private sort, wherein your kid realizes she's not as "smart" as other kids and is afraid to ask questions that might embarrass her. Either way, she internalizes her ignorance, and her self-esteem plummets. Well done.

Possibility No.2: Your kid will offend people.

When a child doesn't have a foundation of religious understanding, the likelihood that he'll accidentally offend a friend or family member is extremely high. Now, to be fair, you might not care if your kid offends your holier-than-thou, Jesus-freak brother-in-law. You might even secretly enjoy it. (He's such an intolerant jerk. It would serve him right!) But how much do you think your child will enjoy offending her uncle? Or best friend? Or teacher? And how much worse is it that your little snickerdoodle won't even understand what she has said that's so offensive? Sorry, but saddling your kid with confusion and shame makes you pretty much the worst parent on the planet — no matter how limited her exposure to Happy Meals.

Possibility No. 3: Your kid will assume you have "issues" with religion.

KJ Del'Antonia wrote on yesterday's Motherlode blog about the responsibility that white parents have to talk to their kids about race. Many parents think that not talking about race sends the message that race doesn't matter. "But," Del'Antonia said, "research suggests the opposite: that when we don’t talk about race, our children continue to think about it — and what they think is that it matters too much to talk about." Avoiding God talks can send the message that you consider the entire subject to be scary, wrong or bad. And even if your child doesn't see why religion is taboo in your household, he'll learn quickly to respect your silence and ask no questions. That may seem fine, until years from now when your son meets and falls in love with a deeply religious girl — and you are literally the last to know.

Possibility No. 4: Your kid will join the Taliban.

Okay, probably not, but it could happen. Greg Brown has a fantastic song called "If You Don't Get it At Home," whose refrain is: "If you don't get it at home, you're gonna go lookin'...." It's so very applicable here. If you don't encourage your kid to explore the ins and outs of religion at home, she'll find it elsewhere. Fundamentalist Christian groups gain a good number of followers from families who have all but banned religious talk from their households, according to Parenting Beyond Belief guy Dale McGowan. And let's not forget teenage rebellion. When she's 15, your daughter might very well be hunting for ways to piss you off. And, dude, how pissed would you be if she up and joined the Taliban? Or, worse, the Church of Scientology? [Scientologists: It's a joke. Please don't start stalking me or threatening me with your crazy lawsuits. Thanks.]

Possibility No. 5: Your kid will become that intolerant jerk.

So let's say your kid is way too smart to join the Taliban, or any other fringe religion. Let's say, at 8, he's got atheist written all over him. But how — if you don't talk about religion — is your child supposed to learn that religious people deserve your kindness as much as anyone else? If all your kids observes in his house are subtle eye-rolls, sighs of exasperation and occasional disparaging remarks about "fundies," won't he start mimicking that? It's inevitable, isn't it? Unfortunately, he may not know enough about religion himself to do be selective about his negativity. He'll simply lump all religious people together, and treat the lot of them with eye-rolling and signs of exasperation. Goodbye, Tolerance. Hello, Bigotry.

I'm not trying to say there's one perfect way to discuss religion in your home — just as I'm not judging any parent who hits McDonald's on the way home. We are human, and we're all doing the best we can. How you approach the subject will depend entirely on your experiences, your personality, and your beliefs. All I'm asking is that you start the talk while your child is still young enough to want to listen, and seize opportunities to talk these things through. Find websites. Check out books. Read this blog. Whatever gets you started. Define some basic words: God, for instance, and HeavenReligion and Prayer. Remember, you need not know everything there is about Buddhism to say the word Buddhist. Or everything about Islam to say the word Muslim. Simply saying the words out loud and trying your best to answer any questions that arise can be incredibly helpful to your child— and surprisingly empowering for you.

‘Kids Who Don’t Believe in God go to a Very, Very Bad School’

Six-year-olds are fickle little things. In the last year and a half, Maxine has gone back and forth numerous times on the whole religious faith thing. For a long time, she divided her week up as follows: “I believe in God three days, and I don’t believe in God two days.” (I never bothered telling her there were actually seven days in the week; logic was obviously not what she was going for.)

When last we spoke about it, Maxine had decided she was both Christian and Jewish.

A few months ago, she was sitting at her kindergarten table. (You know the ones — those super-low-to-the-ground tables with those itty bitty chairs? The ones that make you want to throw up they're so cute? It was one of those.) This was around Christmas, and the eight kids seated at this particular table were talking about God. One by one, each voiced their belief in God — except Maxine, who said that thing about believing three days and not believing two days.

“But everyone in the class believes in God,” one child told her.

“No, they don’t,” Maxine countered.

And then this:

“Kids who don’t believe in God go to a very, very bad school.”


There it was.

You want to know what’s worse than a fiery pit of hell to a kindergartner? A very, very bad school, that’s what.

Luckily for us, Maxine is already one skeptical little chick. She once heard a song on the radio called "A World of Happiness" and demanded we shut it off because a world of happiness would be wrong. "People," she insisted, "need to be sad sometimes."

So, yeah, she's not the sort of person who believes everything she hears, which may have been our saving grace during the God conversation. When she heard the "bad school" scenario, it didn't make much sense to her. And it didn't take much to convince her that the little girl at her table couldn't possibly have known the religious convictions of all 24 kids in her class.

But the whole thing stung her a little. And it stung me, too.

I’ll be devoting some of my book, of course, to dealing with this particularly sticky issue in secular parenting. What should  parents do or say when their children get told they're going to hell? What are the best ways to protect and prepare kids for this almost-inevitable scenario? Moreover, how do we counteract the negative scare tactics involved in religion without treating the entirety of religion as something to oppose or fear?

I'm eager to hear from you on this one. Have any of your children been told they're going to hell? What happened? How did your child handle it? And how did you?


Nonreligious Parents: It Only Takes a Few Minutes to Make a Big Difference

I am so grateful to all of you. The results of my Survey for Nonreligious Parents have been pouring in, and the results are absolutely fascinating. All your answers are so thoughtful, heartfelt and inspiring — not to mention quite funny at times.

A few examples:

  • In answer to the question, "If you considered yourself religious and no longer do, what describes the reason you made the switch?," a father checked the box for "Something I read." Then, in the comment field below, he explained: "The 'Something I read' was the Bible."
  • A mother said she was forced to have the "God" talk with her son after he heard some Christian songs at a relative's house. The boy had misunderstood the lyrics, apparently, because he came home that day announcing, "Don made me! Don made everything!"
  • A mother confided: "I did, at one point, say that the idea of God was like a make-believe wizard in the sky who some people thought had powers to do things to or for people. This was, in retrospect, possibly a little narrow."

So, yeah, I'm staying highly entertained over here.

But — that said — I’ve got a goal to reach, and I’m not there yet.  So please pass on the link,, to all your friends and relatives, clubs and groups who might be interested in adding their voices to this fantastic chorus. I'd appreciate it ever so much.

And in case it's not clear: This survey isn’t just for atheists. You may be a believer who chooses to keep religion out of your child-rearing, or a spiritual person with an open mind about matters of religion. As long as you'd describe yourself as a nonreligious parent, I want to hear from you.

Again, thanks so much in advance both for the amazing responses so far, and for your help in promoting the survey. Special thanks to Dale McGowan, the Facebook pages Parenting Beyond Belief, Mothers Beyond Belief and Grief Beyond Belief, Atheist Nexus, the blogs Life on the Hill and Empress of Dirt, and all the good people of Twitter who have put the word out time and again.

It’s a worthy cause, I promise.


Honesty, Shmonesty: When Did Lying to Kids Get Such a Bad Wrap?

I’ve gotten in the habit of writing some pretty opinionated blogs lately, but the truth is: I still have far more questions than answers. And a good number of questions center on this whole business of lying. Is it harmfully misleading, for example, to let my child believe in the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny? What about super heroes and Disney princesses? Magic tricks? God? Where do we draw the line? If we don't come clean with our kids about our views on heaven, are we betraying them? But if we do come clean about Santa, are we just being shitty? How are we supposed to allow the magic of childhood to endure without confusing our kids — and ourselves?

I can easily imagine myself researching this topic a bit and then writing a blog post on lying. I can image that I might top the blog post with a headline to the effect of: "Honesty Really Is the Best Policy." But, just as easily, I can imagine crossing out that headline (partially because it's dreadful) and writing this one instead: "Honesty Shmonesty: When Did Lying to Kids Get Such a Bad Wrap?" Then I can imagine going back and forth on which one to use.

The point is, there's no clear answer on this to me.

We want our kids to be moral, ethical, honest people, yet we tell them it's okay to lie sometimes. ("They're white lies!") Not only that, but we out-and-out lie to them sometimes. (“No, honey, I didn’t just tell your auntie that her new client should be punched in the throat. I said she should, um, drink punch in a boat. Now run along.”) And then, to make matters even more confusing, we decide — completely subjectively and emotionally — that it's okay to lie about some things and not about others. We even tell them it’s good to lie sometimes. “Tell your friend you love the birthday gift, honey. Otherwise, you'll hurt her feelings.”

In an essay called “No Messing with Heaven” written a couple of years ago and re-published on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, writer KJ Dell’Antonia quotes John Patrick Shanley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the play “Doubt.” When you let kids buy into things you don’t believe to be true, Shanley is quoted as saying, “you’re lying to your children. And one day they’re going to realize that you were a hypocrite.”

Dell’Antonia lamented, “I don’t want my kids to wake up at 10, or 15, or 50, and realize that I lied to them! That would be awful! What would they think of me?”

But then she wrote: “I can’t help noticing, as I think that through, that there’s an awful lot of ‘I’ and ‘me’ in those worries, and not a whole lot of anyone else.”

I think I’m with Dell’Antonia on this one. And if I had to write an opinion today and choose one of the headlines from above — I’d probably choose "Honesty, Shmonesty." (Mostly because the first one is so dreadful.)

But I want to hear from you guys. Where do you fall in the lying debate? Where do you draw the line? And how is it working out for you?

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.