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.)

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?"

"No."

"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.

www.toothpastefordinner.com

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

Supernanny

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

Tom_Cruise_Katie_Holmes_divorce_magazine_covers

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."

'Relax, It's Just God' Featured in Psychology Today

PT Cover

Well, they got it mostly right. And, dammit, maybe that's enough.

The current issue of Psychology Today contains a really great piece about atheism and agnosticism and what it terms "a new breed of nonbelievers." Apparently I belong to this new breed because I'm featured in the article, along with a handful of others — including my all-time favorite advice-giving atheist, Richard Wade.

I spoke with Psychology Today writer Bruce Grierson months ago about Relax, It's Just God and what drew me to the project. And I have to say, overall, Grierson did a bang-up job. In a lengthy, well-written piece, he points out that nonbelievers are everywhere — yes, even in church pews.

"That a in atheism simply means without, not against, belief in God," Grierson writes. "Not an adversarial position, just a position. There, in that vast middle of the religious spectrum, a space not occupied by fundamentalists of any sort, live tens of millions of atheists and agnostics, more or less quietly, mostly with their families. And their numbers are growing."

Grierson explains that many atheists embrace their religious roots and customs, especially when they have religious family members, and he devotes quite a lot of space to how secular parents deal with this tricky business of religious faith when it comes to their children. (That's where I came in.)

In addition to relating the story about how my book was born, Grierson does a skillful job summarizing what it is I'm all about. "The question," he quotes me as saying, "is how do we approach religion with our kids so that we're being honest but not indoctrinating them or scaring them, or putting them in a position to be made fun of or teased or hurt? These are fine lines. And because so many of us are first-generation secular, we can't fall back on what we ourselves learned before."

Wait. Did I just quote myself being quoted? That was weird.

Anyway, Grierson also references my Ten Commandments for Talking to Kids About Religion, focusing specifically on Commandments #3: Don't saddle kids with anxiety over the word 'God' and #8: Don't steal your child's ability to choose (although I happen to know that Grierson's personal favorite is #7: Don't be a dick. Mine, too, incidentally.)

Unfortunately, though, in the world of journalism, there are just so many opportunities to get things a little screwy. And Grierson (God love him) turned out to be fallible. In a paragraph about my own upbringing, for example, Grierson states that I was "raised Presbyterian and Methodist." Although I did attend Presbyterian and Methodist churches at certain points during my childhood, I was baptized Unitarian and wasn't raised in any particular faith. In the same paragraph, he describes my parents' approach to religion as don't-ask-don't-tell, which isn't true, either. What I said — and have written about previously — is that I personally instituted a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on religion while I was in college, and later abandoned it. But that was never my parent's approach to religion; it was my own.

That being said, the story — which is on newsstands through June — is just great, and I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

Oh, and there's a picture, too, which is super-stagey. But at least it features our super-cool Bigfoot painting in the background. (Relax, out there, it's just Bigfoot.)

 

Religious Picture Books Have Much to Offer — But Choose Wisely

Library books

Can we talk about religious picture books for a minute?

I'm assuming most of you didn't read your kid a religious bedtime story last night. And that it rarely occurs to you to wonder what new Islamic, Hindu or Christian children's books came out this year. I'm also willing to bet you don't spend a lot of time in the religious section at your public library.

But it might be time to start.

For the last month or so I've been obsessed with religion-books for kids — mostly because my own knowledge of religious stories is limited, and I'm always looking for language to use when talking through certain religious concepts with my daughter. At any given time, I might have 15 of these things stacked in my office, and another dozen on hold at the library.

As you can imagine, kids' religious titles run the gamut. Many focus on religious holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Christmas, Eid. Others contain more over-arching material — stories about Buddha or Muhammad or the parables of Jesus. Some are meant to "educate" and are much too comprehensive, dated or dry for most little ones to enjoy; others are beautifully illustrated and clearly written with children's interests in mind.

Because a good number are written for religious children, not all of them are a good match for secular families. The worst of the bunch are indoctrination materials, which — in my opinion at least — pose far more questions than answers. But the best can be quite good. They offer fun stories, interesting settings and clever text — and they do it so well that they don't feel like "learning experiences" — even though that's exactly what they are.

Of course, it's sometimes hard to tell the good from the bad and the bad from the ugly. Which is why I'm endeavoring to sort through the lot in search of the best and most helpful reads to pass on to you guys. (How nice am I?) In the meantime, though, I thought I'd offer some advice on choosing titles that won't confuse your child, offend you, or bore either of you to tears.

1. Choose a book that will appeal to your kid

You know your kid and his taste more than anyone else. You know when a book (or toy or game) has a good chance of holding his interest, or no chance at all. If your 7-year-old is a real boy's boy who's going to roll his eyes at an Easter story about a little girl and her lamb, put it back. If your daughter is only interested in princesses, maybe choose a book about the Jewish Princess Esther over a book about the Hindu God Shiva. Religious literacy isn't about cramming shit down kids' throats; in fact, it's quite the opposite.

2. Go for age-appropriate

Like No. 1, this is usually pretty easy to judge by a quick glance. The cover art and the amount of text on the first couple of pages are good guides. And, of course, if you're at all worried about violence or other adult situations, be sure to flip through the book before handing it on to your little one; lots of religious stories depict people — not to mention God — doing some pretty gnarly things.

3. Make it relevant

If you want this stuff to be at all meaningful, it's probably best not to introduce reading material completely randomly. Read her a Ramadan story during the month of Ramadan, a Good Friday story around Easter. You don't have to have some big master plan, of course, but do try to introduce each book with a sentence about why you're reading it — why this book, why now. As a side note: Many books out there are what I would call "secondary" books — books that are great to read AFTER your kid has been introduced to certain concepts. Hoppy Passover, for instance, is a sweet book about a bunny family that holds a Seder. But because it assumes some basic knowledge of Passover, it might be better as an accompaniment to another book — rather than standing on its own.

4. Check for historical accuracy

This is a biggie. As secular parents, the point of reading religious books is to teach our kids about religion. When authors take poetic license or manipulate religious history to the point where the stories are no longer accurate, the value for us is gone. Religious people might believe that their kids will get the "full story" eventually, and may not be worried about these deviations. Hell, they might even prefer revisionist history from time to time, especially when the revision creates a more believable, desirable or compelling story. But we as secular parents are looking for the truth. And, just as often, the inaccuracies insult both believers and nonbelievers.

5. Watch out for white-washing

That a story is "accurate" doesn't mean it's complete. Bible stories (especially the ones you find in the Religion sections at major bookstores) often are abbreviated to sound kinder, gentler, and more understandable. (The story of Noah's Ark is not nearly so charming when you consider that God went on to exterminate every living creature on earth, for example.) I do understand the desire to make stories age-appropriate. I've found myself struggling to explain certain religious violence to my daughter in a way that won't give her nightmares. But if a story needs to be white-washed in order to share it, maybe it's not time to share that particular story. I'd love for my kid to see Chinatown someday; that doesn't mean I need to watch it with her tonight. That said, if you find yourself sharing a cleaned-up Bible story with your child, no sweat. Just explain that there's a bit more to the story than that, and you'll tell her the rest when she gets older.

6. Be aware of slants and bias 

Although it may surprise you, this is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me. Even books written from a religious perspective can be really well-done and educational. It all depends on the nature and degree of the slant. With some titles, the only slant is the point of view. An author might use "we," for instance, instead of "they" when talking about the religious group featured in the book. But as long as you are comfortable addressing these slants as they pop up — "The author uses 'we' in this story because he, himself, is Muslim," for example — then this shouldn't be a problem. Some books, though, are more overt, and secular parents would do right to leave those behind. Sermonizing books will do nothing but confuse your child and annoy the hell of you. If you think you might be looking at such a book, but aren't sure, here's a hint: Flip to the back, and find the story's denouement, summary or wrap-up. That's where most authors put their "morals" — and if the book has a preachy element, you'll find it at the end.

 

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.”

Bam.

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, https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/KJB8J59, 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?