January 17th, 2014

planet

lessons from freethinking, questioning, atheist parents

Late last year I was reading news stories about extreme child abuse in Christian communities after the parents of Hana Williams were found guilty and sent to prison for her murder, and this book called To Train A Child kept coming up in the discussions as a resource that urges Christian parents to beat the ever loving shit out of their kids so they'll grow up to be "good". It's a pretty fucked up idea, even if there weren't even more murdered children (Sean Paddock, Lydia Schatz) linked to the teachings.

I read quotes from the book and thought wow, everything in this book is the EXACT OPPOSITE of how I want to raise my children.

So I read a book about atheist parenting. Apparently there are many books that are the opposite of To Train A Child because its advice is so detrimental to development, but this one was suggested as the furthest away.

Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion

Don't get me wrong, I'm still a Christian. But I'm one who believes in a loving God who gave us our own brains for a reason, and I want both my kids to use those tiny brains to make the world a better place. And I do not agree with using God, Santa, the Elf on the Shelf, or any other unquestionable authoritarian to make my kid eat her broccoli. From an authority standpoint, atheists and I have the same God... we want our kids to follow rules because it's how we humans get along in society. Atheists believe this world is all we've got. I believe God is somewhere, but pretty hands-off, not waiting to strike us sinners down. We have to make our own decisions and ask our own questions about what's the right thing to do. I want my kids ot be good at those questions.

So I skipped some parts of the book about how to live in the world as an atheist, find a community since you can't join a church, comfort your son when he gets kicked out of boy scouts, etc, but I still found a lot of good advice about general parenting.

Fundamentalists crazies believe that the only way to get good kids is to make them afraid to be bad because there are great powers above them who will rain down punishments. So what happens when you remove that fear entirely? It turns out you find different motivations to be good. Better ones, in fact. People are really meant to be motivated from within - we're more likely to follow through on something if it's not driven by a carrot/stick, reward/punishment system, because we find internal reasons. Kids are more likely to read books if you show them books they like than if you offer them stickers for every book they read - when the stickers run out, they stop reading.

Fundamentalists crazies say we're born as horribly flawed sinners and The Bible has to show us the way to not be awful. Atheists and humanists say our survival instincts include the ability to get along. If someone is an ax murderer, we assume something is fundamentally wrong with them. We don't ask them "didn't you go to sunday school?" They can't get up during their trial and say "Whoh... then ten what? We're not supposed to kill eachother? I HAD NO IDEA!"

I learned about Theory of Mind - the term used to describe our ability to relate to one another. It starts when we're babies. The book said around 6-8 months, babies will look at us, look at something interesting, look back at us, to see if their fellow humans are following their gaze. Sure enough, little Olive did this to our Christmas tree, as if to say "mom are you SEEING this? share it with me!"

There are times when you have to exert some authority. A two-year-old isn't old enough to understand the science of why you shouldn't drink the stuff under the kitchen sink. But giving your kids permission to question you doesn't have to undermine that authority. The important thing is that they learn that you aren't abusing their trust, so when you do say "Just trust me, the bleach will make you sick" they'll listen up. Something that I think makes kids go crazy when they come from strict households is that they're not given any spectrum of "right" behavior - they're either obedient, or not. Fidgeting in a restaurant is just as bad as running out into the street. They lose their ability to evaluate real consequences because everything is an absolute. If you let your kids question your decisions and give them better reasons for your rules, they learn to evaluate their actions for themselves.

So even though Josie is only three I try to be honest with her. If I'm tired, I tell her it's time to go to bed because I'm tired, not just because it's bedtime. We're explaining which foods are healthy growing foods which has really been an adventure because wow, talk about a spectrum... it's her favorite thing to get clarification on. Broccoli is definitely growing food, cookies definitely aren't, what about water? cheese? tater tots? Hawaiian sweet roles? See all the fun we'd miss out on if we just told our kid "you have to eat what's on your plate because I'm your mom and I said so."

In my hippie parenting class at church I described a situation that frustrated me, Josie had been coloring and then all the sudden felt like throwing all her crayons on the floor. With one swipe of her arm she cleared the table into a scattered mess. I told her to clean it up NOW, she giggled and ran away. I was furious and grabbed her arm and forced her in there - something I'm not proud of, I'm never proud when I take advantage of the fact that I'm bigger than her. I also know it won't always work, and I don't want her thinking she should also use her size to pick on smaller humans (like her sister!)

I hadn't realized it, but my friends pointed out that I'd quickly fallen into that human trap of thinking only of myself. I assumed Josie was trying to spite me. The truth was more likely that she threw the crayons down because she's three and kids love to crash things. I wonder what would have happened if I said "That was a cool noise! I have an idea - if we pick these crayons up we can go outside and throw sticks off the porch!"

Sometimes we're tired, and not perfect, and don't want to assume good intent or remember that our kids are trying to get along in the world and we're just supposed to live by example for them. But we're called to be creative, as often as possible. We've got the brains for it, and if we do it right, our kids will have the brains for it too.