Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Follow the bouncing meme!

ball4y3As y’all know, on December 6, a number of nonreligious parents gathered at Harvard’s Fong Auditorium to get some ideas about raising kids without religion. Greg Epstein also led a discussion about how best to form a more lasting community to serve the needs of nonreligious parents in the Boston/Cambridge area.

Washington Post reporter Robin Shulman spent the day with us and wrote an article about it for the December 21 edition of the Post. Aside from one previously-noted misquote and one eyerollingly cheap shot ( “someone sneezed, and there was a long silence — no one said “Bless you” or even ‘Salud’ or ‘Santé'” ), it was a lovely and fair piece.

Early in the article, Robin used the word “congregation” to describe the intended parenting community. It wasn’t her word choice but that of Greg Epstein, who favors staking a shared claim in such language rather than retreating allergically from it. It was that single word that set off a memetic devolution of the article’s message.

It started at the Post. Reporters rarely write their own headlines. Whoever wrote this one apparently saw an opening in the word “congregation” and wrote the following head:

Humanist Parents Seek Communion Outside Church

Like “congregation,” communion has a general meaning and several specific ones. In the general sense ( “a joining together of minds or spirits”), the headline is perfectly accurate. But comments on the article, in blogs, and elsewhere show that many readers read the specific meaning ( “A Christian sacrament commemorating the Last Supper of Christ”) and went ballistic. And well they might, since the reference to “church” does indeed narrow the meaning.

Equally interesting is the syndicated life of the meme. Robin’s unchanged article appears today (Dec 28) in newspapers and online columns around the U.S. Sometimes the headline is unchanged (as in the Loveland, Colorado Reporter-Herald, for example), but more often, the copy editor or columnist in question has his/her way with the meme, often revealing his/her own biases or intentionally stirring the pot.

Here’s a sampler of headlines currently running across the U.S., including some less wobbly than the Post headline…

Humanists Want Community, Too
(Atlanta Examiner)
(No surprise that one of the simplest, most accurate headlines of all was hat-tipped from the Friendly Atheist.)

Humanists look to form parenting group with no religious elements
Organizers of a Boston seminar wanted to reach out to parents looking for guidance
(Wichita Eagle)

Humanist families find guidance, rituals without religion
(Santa Fe New Mexican)

…some with the same wobbly c-words…

Humanist parents seek communion, support
(Canton Repository)

Humanist parents consider their own congregation
(Winston-Salem Journal)

…some that I’m sure must mean something, but who knows what…

Parents seek life without religion
(The Tennessean)

…and some that are just plain silly or willfully ignorant:

Atheists trying to replicate church
(Reformed Chicks Blabbing at Beliefnet)

Teaching Children How to Go to Hell
(Covenant News)

For those of us trying our best to articulate a clear and consistent message about what humanism is and isn’t, the key to a peaceful inner life is truly giving up the illusion of control — making peace, once and for all, with the perpetual mutilation of our carefully-crafted memes.

Add that to my resolutions.

This Is Only a Test

erin5ERIN (10): Dad, I’ve been thinking.

DAD: I’m telling Mom.

ERIN: Dad, seriously. Okay — If God is real, I think I figured out why he would mix really bad things in with good things in the Bible.

DAD: And why is that?

ERIN: It’s to see if we can use our brains and figure out what’s good and what’s bad, then only do the good things…or if we’ll just do everything it says, like robots. It’s a test to see if we’ll think for ourselves.

(CORRECTION: I wrote this conversation down without attribution shortly after it happened. When I added it to the blog a week later, I credited it to Delaney (7). I have since learned that it was Erin (10) who said it. Mea culpa.)

“Getting” belief

empathysymbolA final P.S. to the Santa discussion — The post I linked to last time (by philosopher and PBB contributor Stephen Law) just reminded me of another benefit of doing the Santa thing, one I’ve spoken of but may not have written about. Stephen puts it like so:

[Allowing kids to believe in Santa, etc.] gives them an appreciation of what it’s like to be a true believer. Even after the bubble of belief has burst, the memory of what it was like to inhabit it — to really believe — lingers on. The adult who never knew that is perhaps kind of missing out.

I think it even goes beyond missing out. I’ve found that adults who never “inhabited belief” of any kind often (not always) exhibit utter bafflement when it comes to religious belief. You can see this in countless blogs and essays and comment threads — I just can’t understand how anyone could believe abc, Why can’t they just wake up and realize xyz, ad infinitum. A natural lack of empathy ensues.

Bafflement is not good. It’s a kind of incomprehension. I don’t want my kids baffled by any major part of the world. If Stephen and I are right, Santa belief is an opportunity that can be drawn on for a lifetime — a source of empathy for those who willingly immerse themselves in belief even when the evidence against that belief is overwhelming. Not a bad thing at all, that empathy. In fact, it’s a precondition for dialogue.

Even if my kids never get religion, I at least want them to “get” religion — and being a true believer for a little while just may be the ticket.

Empathy symbol courtesy

Pants-on-fire parenting


Give me the fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself.
Economist VILFREDO PARETO, referring to the errors of Kepler

In 1847, around the time Pareto was conceived, an obstetrician by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that pregnant women in his hospital were much more likely to die if their babies were delivered by doctors than by midwives. He then noticed that doctors whose patients died had usually come straight from autopsies. Semmelweis asked the doctors to humor him by washing their hands before delivering a baby. Maternal mortality in the hospital dropped below two percent.

It took another generation for the medical establishment to accept germ theory as fact — but once they did, the average human lifespan in Europe nearly doubled overnight.

Fast forward to the early 21st century, where we’ve overlearned the message. Thanks to air filters, airtight homes, and antibacterial everything, our environments have been so thoroughly scrubbed that our systems are losing the ability to deal with the germs and irritants that abound in the world outside our doors.

Among other things, the result has been a spike in serious childhood allergies and infections. According to an NPR story on studies supporting this conclusion, “An emphasis on hygiene means we are no longer exposing children to enough bacteria to help trigger their natural immune systems.”

With the best of intentions, we so thoroughly protect our children from an admittedly bad thing that we do them a disservice.

See where I’m headed?

I think the same idea applies in many areas of parenting — among them the careful scrubbing of all exposure to “nonsense” from our children’s lives. I’ve heard the assertion that “we must never lie to our children” from many nonreligious parents, always intoned in the kind of hushed voice usually reserved for sacred pronouncements.

Actually, I think it’s terribly important to lie to our children.

(N.B. That tongue-in-cheek sentence appeared in the initial draft of Raising Freethinkers until my editor protested that what I advocate isn’t really lying. Spoilsport. So I changed it to this:) Though I don’t advocate outright lying, the playful fib can work wonders for the development of critical thinking.

Many nonreligious parents, in the admirable name of high integrity, set themselves up as infallible authorities. And since (like it or not) we are the first and most potent authority figures in our kids’ lives, turning ourselves into benevolent oracles of truth can teach our kids to passively receive the pronouncements of authority. I would rather, in a low-key and fun fashion, encourage them to constantly take whatever I say and run it through the baloney meter. To that end, I sprinkle our conversations with fruitful errors, bursting with their own corrections.

When my youngest asked, “How far away is the Sun?”, I said, “Twenty feet,” precisely so she would look at me and say, “Dad, you dork!!” When my kids ask what’s for dinner, I say “Monkey lungs, go wash up.” When the fifth grader doing her homework asks what seven times seven is, I say 47, because she should (a) know that on her own by now, and, equally important (b) know the wrong answer when she hears it.

Yes, I make sure they end up with the right answer when it matters, and no, I don’t do this all the time. They’d kill me. But pulling our kids’ legs once in a while is more than just fun and games. For one thing, if every word from my mouth was a reliable pearl of factuality, they would get the unhelpful message that Authority Always Tells the Truth.

Now don’t instantly whip over to the cartoon extreme of Dad lying about whether a car is coming as we cross the street ( “All clear!! Heh heh heh.”) I’m talking about fibs of the harmless-but-useful variety — and yes, I firmly include Santa in that.

Knowing that Dad sometimes talks nonsense can prepare them to expect and challenge the occasional bit of nonsense, intentional or otherwise, from peers, ministers, and presidents. The result in our household is this: When I answer a question, my kids don’t swallow it without a thought. They take a moment to think about whether the answer makes sense. By seeing to it that their childhood includes nonsense, I’m building their immune systems for a lifetime swimming in the stuff.

An interesting and related post on lying by philosopher (and PBB contributor) Stephen Law

Humanist Parents Seek Communion Outside Church (Wash Post)

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 2008; Page A10

BOSTON — They are not religious, so they don’t go to church. But they are searching for values and rituals with which to raise their children, as well as a community of like-minded people to offer support.

harvardsem2293Dozens of parents came together on a recent Saturday to participate in a seminar on humanist parenting and to meet others interested in organizing a kind of nonreligious congregation, complete with regular family activities and ceremonies for births and deaths.

“It’s exciting to know that we could be meeting people who we might perhaps raise children with,” said Tony Proctor, 39, who owns a wealth management company and attended the seminar at Harvard University with his wife, Andrea, 35, a stay-at-home mother.

Humanism is both a formal movement and an informal identification of people who promote values of reason, compassion and human dignity. Although most humanists are atheists, atheism is defined by what is absent — belief in God — and humanists emphasize a positive philosophy of ethical living for the human good.

The seminar’s organizers wanted to reach out to people like the Proctors — first-time parents scrambling for guidance as they improvise how to raise their daughter without the religion of their childhood.

“I’m often told that when people have kids, they go back to religion,” said John Figdor, a humanist master’s of divinity student who helped organize the seminar. “Are we really not tending our own people?”

Across the country, religious observance hits a low for people in their mid-20s and steadily increases after that, “in conjunction with marriage and children,” said Tom Smith, of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago, which has polled people about religious affiliation and practice for decades.

Religious congregations are good at supporting parenting, said Gregory Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard who organized the seminar. Although most humanists may not believe in God, he said, they do believe in sharing their lives with others who share their values.

“Why throw the baby out with the bath water?” Epstein asked.

Most Americans are religious and believe in God, but a growing number of people have no religious affiliation. In 1990, 8 percent of respondents in the General Social Survey said they identified with no religion. In 2006, the last year for which statistics are available, the figure had doubled to 16 percent.

In recent years, the chaplaincy at Harvard has hosted humanist speakers such as novelist Salman Rushdie, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and U.S. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). Student interest is booming. But something happens when those students graduate, marry and become parents.

For the Proctors, especially for Andrea, who grew up in a Catholic household, arriving at the seminar took a lifetime of questioning.

Growing up, she attended church each Sunday, took Communion and was confirmed. She became disenchanted after a sex scandal at her parish was poorly handled, she said. Then in college, she was “exposed to a lot of different beliefs in religions and science. It causes you to question.”

Tony grew up fascinated by his neighbors’ ability to find community at church, which he sometimes attended with them. “Every Sunday they would go to church and see friends. That was a neat thing,” he said.

The Proctors found themselves making decisions about religion when they had a daughter last year. Andrea said her parents asked, “Of course you’re going to baptize her, right?” She answered, “Actually, no.”

Instead, Andrea did a Google search for someone who might perform a nonreligious ceremony to mark Sienna’s entry into the world and found Epstein, the Harvard humanist chaplain.

Epstein officiated at the ceremony, while both sets of grandparents spoke about their hopes and dreams for the child, Andrea said. The Proctors named “guide parents” instead of godparents.

By the time they got to the Harvard seminar more than a year later, they were ready to organize a larger community of families like themselves.

A room full of concertedly nonreligious people has its idiosyncrasies. At the seminar, someone sneezed, and there was a long silence — no one said “Bless you” or even “Salud” or “Santé.”

For sale were T-shirts saying “98% Chimpanzee” or showing a tadpole with the words “Meet Your Ancestor.” There were also children’s games from Charlie’s Playhouse, a Darwinian toy company, illustrating the process of evolution.

A recent study found that many Americans associate atheists with negative traits, including criminal behavior and rampant materialism.

People often ask, “How do you expect to raise your children to be good people without religion?” said Dale McGowan, the seminar leader and author of “Parenting Beyond Belief.” He suggested the retort might be something like, “How do you expect to raise your children to be moral people without allowing them to think for themselves?”1 He advocates exposing children to many religious traditions without imposing any.

At the seminar, Andrea Proctor was thrilled to meet another mother who would like to start a group of parents and children meeting weekly or biweekly.

“We just put a huge pool in our back yard,” Tony Proctor said. “We might have to start humanist barbecue pool parties.”

(Read and comment online. Caution: Many of the comments, as usual, are tending toward the vicious at the moment, so have some eggnog before you read them.)
1Robin did a nice job on this article, but this is not quite what I said. The quote above assumes that all religious parents do not allow their kids to think for themselves, a false and ridiculous assumption. For the record, my suggested reply to the question, “How are you going to raise your kids to be moral without religion?” was this: “Calmly reply, ‘Why, by avoiding moral indoctrination, of course, which research has shown to be the least effective way to encourage moral development. And what’s your plan?'” Oh well. I’m a silly, oversensitive monkey to even point it out.


ty65933Fully 72 hours before the annual visit of the Solstice Monkey, the Parenting Beyond Belief Solstice Drive is over, and I’m simply at a loss for words.

As of yesterday morning, thanks to the humanistic generosity of the many friends of this site, we had raised 53 percent of the year’s operating and upgrading debt. I was thrilled and humbled by your willingness to help out with this effort so I can continue to offer and improve on this level of support for nonreligious parents.

Then last night, my thrilled-and-humbled-ometer blew out completely as Richard Hendricks and Angie Lemon — an Austin couple who attended my recent seminar there — retired the remainder of the debt in a single stroke.

A note from Richard and Angie:

My wife and I would like to thank Dale for all he does for the secular parenting community. As secular humanists, we understand that all we have to rely upon is each other, so the help and generosity we show to one another is especially precious. And so we decided that we could make a real difference here, and support the kind of community we would like to see grow, by paying off the rest of the website’s fees for the year. Thank you Dale for all your hard work.

Richard Hendricks
Angie Lemon
Austin, TX
Parenting our son beyond belief since 11/8/2002

You are so welcome. Thank you, Richard and Angie, and many, many thanks again to all who participated.

Though the donation button will appear again at some point to defray ongoing expenses, this is the first and last time I’ll ever mention it. Now that we are out from under that financial unpleasantness, I plan to turn our efforts outward. Watch for an exciting new charitable initiative in early ’09.

In the meantime, start scattering bananas to get the Monkey through that longest night!

A Krismas potpourri

The Austin trip was simply perfect. Got to visit with regular Memling and CFI Austin Exec Dir Clare Wuellner once again, met her husband Roger, reveled in the shuttling services and company of Shane and Mark McCain and their fabulous kidlings, and chatted in person with Memling Thranil! The seminar itself was the largest yet at 62 participants, with no less than 31 kids in the daycare down the hall. Easy flights, warm weather, and home in time for a Sunday nap.

My meager attempt at reaching across the aisle after the vandalism at Mt. Carmel Christian Church largely fizzled, at least in the short term. I do hope it planted some seeds for later efforts. I sent words of support to the minister, and I know several of you did as well. Only one of the freethought organizations I contacted responded to my message, but that reply was very encouraging:

Dear Dale,

This was a most interesting idea you proposed. Unfortunately, I was out of the office on a speaking trip when you proposed it and your message wasn’t copied to anyone else here. Also, I didn’t read it until just now (7:45 PM Monday) when cleaning up my e-mail backlog upon my return….

So, by a copy of this e-mail to our executive director and my PR assistant, I’m asking that this idea of yours be looked into in order to see if it’s still possible to act and if we are in a position to do so.

Fred Edwords
Director of Communications
American Humanist Association

Through no fault of the AHA, it was indeed too late. As the local media noted over the weekend,

Motivated by devotion to their church, the very same people who donated their time and money for supplies came together again to heal this holiday hurt.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Carlos Guerra, who organized the live nativity scene. “At the same time, it’s good to see that situations like this bring the church together.”

Not just one church. Volunteers from other parts of metro-Atlanta arrived to help.

So what could have been the coming together of people of goodwill across lines of religious difference instead became yet another heartwarming confirmation of the singular power of faith.

Hemant Mehta picked up the story as well and agreed with my suggestion, as did most of his commenters. A good sign. Now let’s get a rapid response mechanism in place for the future.

One of the most difficult things about articulating a public position of any kind — especially one outside the mainstream — is that all the careful thought and word choice and message refinement and clarification in the world won’t prevent some yahoo from willfully distorting your position. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris get this all the time, especially in the form of “Dawkins/Harris fails to distinguish between religious extremists and religious moderates,” when in fact they do make those distinctions, with great care and in great detail.

Now an article in The Harvard Salient, a conservative political journal, has done the same with my recent Harvard talk, claiming that (among other things) I equated religious upbringing with indoctrination. As I pointed out in a probably ill-advised comment on the site,

I repeatedly noted that I distinguish between dogmatic and non-dogmatic religion and that many moderate religious parents work hard to reconcile the religious and scientific approaches to knowledge. “I don’t need a world free of religion,” I said at one point. “I’ll gladly settle for a world free of indoctrination.” Does that sound like someone who makes a blanket equation of religious upbringing and religious indoctrination?

The word “religion” almost never appears in the text of my speech without a modifier. I refer to “orthodox religion,” “traditional religion,” “moderate religious believers,” “liberal Christians,” and so on, precisely to avoid the dullard charge that I paint with a broad brush. Dawkins and Harris have also repeatedly made these distinctions yet are repeatedly accused of making no distinctions. It is tiresome.

I am open to all reasonable critique, but it seems sensible to ask that you limit your critique to what was actually said.

I say ill-advised only because I hate to get drawn into gleeful fencing with people who have already demonstrated an inability to set their biases aside and listen carefully.

The solstice drive
Four days remaining in the drive to retire the site operation debt that has been accumulating on my tender white shoulders this year — and as you can see in the sidebar, to my grateful astonishment, we are halfway there! I really cannot begin to express my appreciation to each and every one of you who has chipped in. Even if we don’t make it to the full amount, it has been a tremendous relief to have your help digging out of that hole.


Santa Claus — The Ultimate Dry Run

By Dale McGowan
Excerpted from Parenting Beyond Belief

One of the questions that came up in the Austin Q&A was the Santa thing — and it’s so clearly in the air, from Friendly Atheist to Rational Moms, that I can’t even wait ’til Wednesday to chime in, because oh do I have an opinion. I threw in my two bits on pp. 87-90 of Parenting Beyond Belief, which I now offer virtually in the space below.

santa32076I4339T’S HARD TO even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!

This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.

“Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”

I for one chose door number three.

“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

I avoided both lying and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.

“What do you think?” I said.

“Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”

I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.

“So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”

He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”

That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.

And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him by fiat. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
A related post from Krismas 2007
For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see pp. 85-87 of Parenting Beyond Belief.

Santa’s liddle helpurz


“Lane, when it’s just you and me in the room, you don’t have to say ‘Dad?’ You can just start talking.”




“Yes, Laney.”

“I need a box.”

“What do you need a box for?”

“It’s kind of a secret.”

“Oh. Okay, how big does it need to be?”

“Big enough for an elf.”


Not all elves are created equal. I managed to get the elfish proportions nailed down with a few more questions. Whatever she was up to did not involve elves on the scale of Will Ferrell, nor Elrond, nor Dobby, nor even Hermey the Dentist. Holding her hands out in front of her, Delaney (7) indicated an elf closer to pixie size—maybe four inches tall.

“He’ll come to our house if we build a place for him to sleep!” she said, barely able to contain herself.

“Huh. What kind of elf are we talking about?”

“A Santa elf, hello.”

“I didn’t know they came into people’s houses.”

“Well did you ever build a little place for him?”

I admitted I had not.

“Well then of course he never came.”

It was all making perfect sense. I helped her find a box and she spent the evening decorating it, right down to a bed of fabric swatches.

“They like snacks, I have to leave him snacks!”

“How do you know all this stuff?”

“Sheri told me. He visited her house, and he left notes!”

“They can write?”

“Dad! Of course they can write, jeez.” Sometimes my ignorance overwhelms us both. She put a tiny pretzel in the house along with a pen and a pad of Post-Its, then went to bed shivering with excitement.


elf76991“Laney Laney! He came! He came!” It was her sister Erin (10), leaning a little too excitedly over the elf house early the next morning.

“He bit the pretzel! He left a note!”

The evidence was irrefutable. The pretzel had indeed been gnawed, and a Post-It on the wall of the box said TANKS SO MUTCH.

Laney was beside herself with glee. She wolfed breakfast and bolted out the door to compare notes with an equally-excited Sheri at the bus stop.

The Southeast is awash in elf legends this time of year. I wrote about a slightly different tradition last year, one in which stuffed elves come to life in the night and move about doing mischief before ending up in some unlikely spot, as if caught in the act of living.

Erin’s complicity this year is pretty interesting; just last year she went all Mythbusters on Laney’s elfish fantasies:

ERIN: They do not.

DELANEY: They do so.

ERIN: Laney, there’s no way they come alive.

DELANEY: I know they come alive, Erin!

I walked in.

DAD: Morning, burlies!

GIRLS: Hi Daddy.

DAD: What’s the topic?

ERIN: Laney thinks the elves really come alive.

DELANEY, pleadingly: They do! I know it!

ERIN: How do you “know” it, Laney?

DELANEY: Because. I just do.

ERIN: What’s your evidence?

DELANEY: Because it moves!

ERIN: Couldn’t somebody have moved it? Like the Mom or Dad?

DELANEY: But [cousin] Melanie’s elf was up in the chandelier! Moms and Dads can’t reach that high.

ERIN: Oh, but the elf can climb that high?


DELANEY: They fly.

ERIN: Oh jeez, Laney.

DELANEY: Plus all the kids on the bus believe they come alive! And all the kids in my class! (Looks at me, eyebrows raised.) That’s a lot of kids.

This year Erin’s taking genuine delight in Laney’s delight, setting up elaborate proofs of each night’s visitation — proofs further confirmed by Sheri’s daily testimonies.

One morning last week, after the bus pulled away, another good friend and neighbor, mother of a kindergartner, waved me over.

“I have a kind of…unusual question for you,” she said. Given my speciality, it turned out to be an entirely usual question.

“I wondered what you guys think about the whole Santa thing,” she said. “And…well, also these elves. I mean, I know you don’t have religious faith, but I was interested to know what your take is on all that stuff. I sometimes worry that it distracts from the real reason for Christmas. But I don’t know if I’m making too big a deal of it.”

How very lovely to be asked for such an opinion by a Christian friend. I told her that “the whole Santa thing” is a point of contention among many secular humanists as well — a nice symmetrical irony if you ask me — but that I come down firmly on the side of relaxing and letting kids enjoy these things for the limited time they will choose to, in part because it gives them a chance to think their way out.

“We know for a fact that three or four years from now, they won’t still believe in elves, probably not even in Santa Claus,” I said. “They’ll stop believing it as soon as the desire to figure it out is stronger than the desire to believe in it. That’s when they sort the things they no longer believe in from the things they continue to believe. That’s a good thinking exercise. I wouldn’t want to deprive them of that or of the fun they’re having now.”

Some secular folks are especially horrified by the image of the little neighbor girls, each deceived by her own family, running to the bus stop to reinforce each other’s delusions. I can’t roll my eyes fast or high enough at such handwringing. Far worse, I think, are the parents who insist on shielding their kids from all nonsense. Isn’t it better for them to run into a little harmless nonsense right here and now than to grow up in a hermetically-sealed clean room of Truth? Just when and how do we expect them to learn to think their way around the messy real world if we raise them in a nonsense-free zone of their parents’ careful construction?

More on that Wednesday, when I’ll also say a bit about the great time I just had in Austin and update you on my sad little attempt at bridgebuilding.

PBB in the Harvard Gazette

One of the best articles yet on Parenting Beyond Belief and/or the seminars appeared Thursday in the Harvard Gazette. Many thanks to Cory Ireland for a thoughtful and positive piece.

Author McGowan is honored as ‘2008 Harvard Humanist of the Year’
By Corydon Ireland
Harvard News Office

harvard32209Can parents raise moral children without religion?

Greg Epstein M.T.S. ’07 thinks so. He’s the Humanist chaplain at Harvard, and has just finished writing a book due out next fall. Its title: “Good Without God.”

Dale McGowan thinks so too. He edited the recent anthology “Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion” (AMACOM, 2007). Last Saturday (Dec. 6), the Atlanta-based author was honored as 2008 Harvard Humanist of the Year, an award sponsored by Epstein’s office. He delivered the 16th annual Alexander Lincoln Lecture.

Previous honorees include the late television personality Steve Allen; biologist E.O. Wilson, Harvard’s Pellegrino University Professor emeritus; and Rep. Fortney H. “Pete” Stark (D-Calif.), who last year used his Lincoln lecture to formally out himself as the first openly Humanist member of Congress.

Cheerful, tall, and sporting a trim beard and wide smile, McGowan is the antithesis of the image of strident, hair-trigger Humanists — those with what he calls “UTT syndrome” (as in, “Unholier Than Thou”).

McGowan delivered the late-morning lecture at Boylston Hall’s Fong Auditorium, ate a lunch of burritos with his audience, then moderated an afternoon seminar on nonreligious parenting.

At a booth outside the auditorium was the lecture’s co-sponsor, Kate Miller, founder of the Providence, R.I.-based Charlie’s Playhouse, a maker of games and toys inspired by Darwin. Among them: a long narrow mat that condenses 600 million years of Earth timeline into 18 picture-packed feet of skipping surface; cards on ancient creatures; and what Miller said is her best-selling T-shirt, which bears the legend, “Product of Natural Selection.”

McGowan exudes a similar lightness. In both the lecture and seminar, he said, the operative word is “Relax.”

For one, relax about that morality question. Research shows that children arrive at moral values “reliably, and on time,” he said, as long as they grow up in a supportive environment.

Citing another study, McGowan related that at age 3 or 4 children are “universally selfish,” but by 7 or 8 they develop “a strong sense of fairness,” the foundation of a moral life.

In fact, research shows that indoctrination, often the focus of religious upbringing, is, more than anything else, what impedes moral development, claimed McGowan. “At the heart of indoctrination is the distrust of reason.”

Better off are children who get from their parents “an explicit invitation to disagree,” he said — that is, children “actively engaged in the refinement of their own moral development.”

Read the complete article here.

Another good article today in the Bend (Oregon) Bulletin.