Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Wishing everyone a peaceful, happy holiday

The Passion of the Frost


Move while you still see me
You’ll be lost, you’ll be so sorry, when I’m gone.

Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ Superstar

So he said, “Let’s run and we’ll have some fun
now before I melt away.”

Frosty the Snowman

Last time I drew a parallel between God and Santa. This time we unveil an even more shocking truth: that Frosty the Snowman and Jesus the Christ are one and the same.

Oh you heard me.

Jesus was born improbably (via virgin), loved everyone unconditionally, then saved humanity by sacrificing himself on the cross as Mary wept. He was resurrected and joined God in Heaven.

Frosty was born improbably (via magic hat), loved everyone unconditionally, then saved a little girl by sacrificing himself in a greenhouse. Karen wept over the puddle he had become, then he was resurrected and flew to the “North Pole” with (ahem) “Santa.”

The corker? They both promise a Second Coming:

Do not let your hearts be troubled…I will come back.
Jesus (John 14:1-3)

Don’t you cry, I’ll be back again someday.

Why, it’s practically Narnia in top hat and carrot.

Santa Claus – The Ultimate Dry Run

Time once again for the annual reposting of my take on Santa, which first appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief. A lovely symmetry this year: My youngest is now eight, the age my oldest was when his Kringledoubt finally overflowed (see below). And sure enough, Delaney is currently on that same fascinating cusp between wanting to preserve belief and wanting to know.

santa32076IT’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.

A Hall of Fame reply…maybe

hofHad a lovely visit last month with the Freethinkers of East Cobb, a secular parenting group here in the Atlanta burbs. One of the group members named Kirstin left me a great gift — the cleverest reply I’ve ever heard to one of the most common questions nonreligious parents get.

She and her husband cross paths with the occasional evangelical Christian homeschooling parent in the neighborhood. At some point, by Georgia law, the Christian parent will ask where they go to church. Kristin told me

“Whenever we get that question, we just say, ‘Oh, we homechurch.’

The more I think about it, the better this answer gets. You would NOT want to use this to hide your beliefs, but the inevitable follow-up question will give you the opportunity to go there. It ends up being a gentle and interesting sidestep into, rather than around, the larger question.

According to the Googlemind, the coinage “homechurch” is rare but not unheard of.* It’s apparently used most often by Christians who are “between churches” for one reason or another. But it also works for a secular parent who is making an effort to raise religiously literate kids (and selves) without the shortcomings and single note of the traditional church.

I’ve written at length about what I think is the ideal approach to religious literacy, which boils down to several thousand little conversations, connections, observations and experiences woven into the daily fabric of family life for 18 years. Described that way, it’s more similar to “unschooling.” But saying “We unchurch” would be immediately misunderstood — an experience unschoolers are surely familiar with.

So my vote is unchanged. “We homechurch” goes straight to the Secular Parenting Hall of Fame. Use it responsibly, and send Kirstin a nickel every time you do.
*UPDATE: Or not. If you search with a space (“home church”), you uncover a whole movement of believers who “home church” because actual churches have gone too liberal on them. I avoid church (in part) because the perspective is too narrow and exclusive for me. They avoid it because the perspective is too broad and inclusive for them. Oy! (Thanks to several commenters for pointing out that dark reflection.)

Hey bloggers, we need ya!

fbbWe’re getting ready for a big blog bonanza to announce the full launch of Foundation Beyond Belief on January 1.

An estimated 1.4 zillion bloggers will receive the text and video for the announcement on December 29 to be posted on New Year’s Day.

If you’d like to help make the big cyber-yawp that announces the Foundation to the world, go here to give us your contact information and we’ll send you the post on the 29th.


In the Name of the Big Guy

hobWent to a classroom play of sorts at Erin’s middle school — a mostly unscripted mock trial. The teacher is innovative and fun, and Erin adores her, so I wasn’t surprised to see that she’d come up with this clever little exercise.

The kids were assigned roles — prosecution and defense teams, jury, witnesses, and so on.  On trial was an alligator, accused of eating the witch in the Rapunzel story (a wrinkle I’d never heard before). 

Various other fairy-tale characters testified — again, unscriptedly, so they had to think on their feet. It mostly went as you’d expect of sixth graders asked to improvise.

Erin was the bailiff. As the first witness approached — the prince, I believe — Erin instructed him to raise his right hand and place the other hand on a fairy-tale book she held out. (Had myself a nice internal chuckle at the parallel.)

It occurred to me casually — I’ve come ever so far — that the name of the Creator was about to be invoked. Sure enough, Erin looked the prince in the eye and said

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you Grimm?

The Conversation / Can you hear me now? 10

If you’re a nonreligious parent getting serious pressure or interference from a religious family member about your parenting choices, you’ve got to sit down and have a talk.

Last time I suggested a way of rethinking both the problem and the solution. It isn’t about changing the other person’s mind—it’s about reducing the dissonance that results from your differences. It’s not victory you’re after, but a relaxation of tension and building of mutual confidence. It’s détente.

Note 1: This conversation isn’t always necessary just because your religious perspective differs from your parents, in-laws, etc. Some religious grandparents are entirely respectful of their children’s rights to approach religion any way they wish with their own kids. Others offer nothing more challenging than the occasional grumble, whine, or plea. If you have one of these, be grateful. This post is about a stickier wicket—the grandparent or other relative who threatens, harasses, argues, pressures, and/or actively interferes with your right to raise your kids as you think best when it comes to religion.

Note 2: This is also not about your right to confront an antagonistic relative. For all I know, said relative has earned a merit badge in Self-Righteous Scumbaggery with you as the final project, and your right to retribution is enshrined in six different UN charters. But this post isn’t about us and our personal rights. It’s about creating the best possible family situation for our kids.

Note 3: There are countless variations on the nonreligious parent/religious grandparent dyad, but certain basic principles apply across the board. Be flexible and adapt as needed.

And off we go…

gma31990This approach is related to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a powerful and effective concept developed by Marshall Rosenberg and others. It starts with empathy—making an effort to grasp and feel what the other person feels, to hear things as s/he hears them, and to frame what you have to say accordingly. It can leave people feeling heard, understood, and honored – even if they continue to disagree. It can lead to amazing breakthroughs by recognizing that win and lose are not the only meaningful terms in dialogue.

When a secular parent tells me about locking horns with Grandma, I ask what Grandma is concerned about. The answer is almost always the same—the familiar goulash of hell, morality and discipline.

These concerns may be part of the mix, but I don’t think they are usually at the heart of things. The relative may even be convinced that hell-avoidance really is their main concern and may say exactly that, but I have reason to believe otherwise. (I’ll get to the reason by the end.)

Consider this: Most deeply religious people have their religion woven into their personal identity. It’s not just Grandma’s explanatory system or a moral code—it’s often who she is. She’s likely even to see it as the best of who she is. When her first grandchild was born, her visions of herself as a grandmother centered on sharing the best of herself, the deepest and most meaningful part of her life, with her grandchildren, and of proudly sharing her God-fearing descendants with her admiring friends.

The news that said descendants would be raised without religion would have hit her first and foremost as the end of that vision. Worse still, she would often feel personally dishonored and shut out. Finally, she would feel embarrassed by the judgments of her churchgoing friends.

So then: Hell, morality, discipline, identity, self-image, honor/dishonor, exclusion, family pride, and the judgment of others. A pretty potent mix. We can’t solve them all. But we can do some pretty impressive healing with just a few words. And in the process, we will give nothing away and tell nothing but the truth sur cette page.

There are four important elements:

HONOR the person. You can continue to think whatever you wish about the person’s beliefs. But people deserve respect as people. Refuse to grant that and you have no basis for discourse. If nothing else, honor their intentions, which (however misguided you think they are) are usually good.

EMPATHIZE. Make a real effort to see things as s/he sees them.

REASSURE. Some of his or her concerns can’t be helped. Some can. Reduce the concerns by addressing those you can.

INCLUDE. This is huge. A clear gesture of inclusion can repair an immense amount of damage and bring down walls. Most people will respond to that generous gesture with a desire to not abuse it. For the rest, some reasonable limits can be placed.

Here’s the idea:

I wanted to sit down and talk this over with you because you are important to us. I know you want what’s best for the kids, and I appreciate that.

I know your religious faith is a big part of your life. If I were in your position, I’d feel just the way you do—worried that this big part of who I am wouldn’t be shared with my grandchildren.

I want you to know that it will be shared. Even though we’re not going to church, it’s important to us that the kids learn about religion so they can make a choice for themselves.

We want you to help us teach the kids by telling them what you believe. Let’s set up a time for you and me and Amanda to have a cup of hot chocolate so you can talk to her about your faith. How does that sound?

Details are hammered out next, so you should be prepared with a sense of what is OK and what is not. But ONCE THE CONVERSATION HAS HAPPENED, s/he will be infinitely more receptive to a few simple ground rules. For me there were two: no thoughtstoppers (no reference to hell or the idea that doubt is bad), and present all beliefs as your own (“I believe that…”), not as givens.

Sometimes it won’t work. But I’ve heard from so many people that this was the breakthrough, the approach that finally achieved something positive — including many who had sworn in advance that “It’ll never work with my dad” — that I have to think there’s something there. Several people have described step four as the turning point, the moment s/he is invited to share his or her belief with the kids. The road is not paved with daisies from that point forward, but at least it isn’t paved with IEDs anymore.

And this is why I believe it isn’t really all about hell — because without addressing hell one bit, enormous progress is made.

The bottom line in this is that there is an alternative to (1) saying nothing, or (2) spitting nails, or (3) giving away the farm. We can be the generous ones, the ones who understand where the other person is coming from, the ones who find a way forward, without giving up one bit of parental autonomy.

Reword it for your own situation, but have this conversation sooner rather than later — then come back here to tell us how it went.

Beyond win-lose / Can you hear me now? 9

gma31990A couple of years ago at a convention, I made a passing comment about family dissonance during a Q&A. “If you’re getting serious pressure from a religious family member about raising your kids without religion—Mom, Grandpa, mother-in-law, whoever—you need to address it directly. Don’t assume that it will get better with time. It will usually get worse.” Something like that.

After the talk, a gentleman cornered me in the ballroom. Great advice, he said. In fact, I just talked to my mother-in-law a few months ago and laid down the law.

(Ruh roh.)

What follows is as exact a transcription of his story as I could manage by scribbling it on a hotel pad a few minutes later:

I sat her down and said, “Okay, look. Let’s get some things straight. I am not going to apologize to you or anyone else about raising my kids without religious brainwashing. I don’t know why you are so obsessed with this. It’s no big deal that we don’t go to church. In fact, if we can get the kids to the age of eighteen without seeing the inside of a church, I’ll consider it a great success. I don’t want to hear any Jesus-this or Jesus-that around the kids. If we can agree on that, you can spend time with them.”

Just seven words in, she would have lost the ability to hear him as the blood began pounding defensively in her ears. No one can really hear and think under this kind of assault. And the veiled threat at the end is a particularly nice touch.

To get a real taste of just how this sounds to religious Grandma, reverse the poles a bit. Imagine you’re a secular humanist grandparent with a religious adult child, who says to you:

Okay, look. Let’s get some things straight. I am not going to apologize to you or anyone else about raising my kids without atheistic brainwashing. I don’t know why you are so obsessed with this. It’s no big deal that we’re keeping the kids out of science class. If we can get the kids to the age of eighteen without seeing the inside of a science book, I’ll consider it a great success. I don’t want to hear any evolution-this or science-that around the kids. If we can agree on that, you can spend time with them.

Ow, ow, ow. That’s about where this guy left his mother-in-law. Fight or flight. He looked at me for affirmation.

“Oh…okay,” I said, hesitantly. “And, uh…how’s it goin’?”

“Well,” he said, “we haven’t spoken since then. But I won.”

Aw geez. He’d missed the whole point.

Now I don’t know anything else about this guy’s situation. Maybe this woman put him through ten kinds of hell and deserved nothing more or less than to be cut off at the knees. Maybe there was no hope of achieving anything beyond that self-satisfying gofuckyourself. But even if the former is true, the latter almost never is.

If his situation was like 95 percent of those I’ve seen or heard described, his “I won” showed that he misunderstood both the problem and the solution. What did he win—the right to raise his child without religion? As the parent, he’d already “won” that right (barring inter-spousal differences — another post.) If his mother-in-law is actively, directly controlling his parenting decisions, he has a different (and much larger) problem, one that his monologue did nothing to solve.

In most cases, the problem isn’t that Grandma is actively preventing you from parenting the way you want—it’s that an atmosphere of tension and dissonance and poison is created by your differences. Sometimes that atmosphere can turn into something more concrete—sneaky proselytizing of the kids, demanding that other family members choose sides, or outright shunning—but it’s the tension itself that’s at the root. Reduce the tension around your differences and you reduce the symptoms of the tension as well.

Whenever I say this in my seminars, I see a half dozen heads shaking slowly. I know what they’re thinking. There’s no point. She’s never going to change her mind, and I’m sure as hell not going to change mine.

This is where we go wrong—by thinking that changing someone’s mind is the only goal of such a conversation. If it was, they’d be right. There’d really be no point. But one of the central idea of this little series is that changing minds is not the only way forward.

What’s needed in these situations is not victory but détente.

hk3499Anyone who lived in the U.S during the Nixon years tends to hear that French word spoken with a German accent. Whenever Kissinger said, “Vee ah voorking vithin a framevoork of détente vith de Zoviets,” I thought it meant, “We agree not to bomb each other for now.” Turns out détente is a much more interesting vurd meaning “a relaxation of tensions and building of mutual confidence.” It is not a ceasefire nor a compromise, but something designed to make an actual exchange of warheads less likely. In the Cold War, détente meant (among many other things) exchanging ballet companies and art exhibits and such to show each other our human sides.

I do think it’s best to sit down and address tensions about your nonreligious parenting with any religious family member who is especially distressed by it. The key is to aim for a reduction in tension, not a “win.” You’re the parent. You’ve already “won” the right to do your thing. What you want is to scale back the tension and discomfort resulting from those choices so your kids can grow up in the best possible family situation. And you can do it without giving up anything. That’s détente.

Next time I’ll share my thoughts on how to do that.

There is too much. Let me sum up.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
Inigo Montoya

Too many things to blog about. I get started on a post and suddenly three new things pop up. I need to clear the deck a bit or I’ll never get back to the Can You Hear Me Now? series, which I swore I’d finish by Krismas. So here goes:

1. “Faith on Campus” is a video contest co-sponsored by Patheos and the Washington Post “On Faith” blog. College students are invited submit videos with their personal views on faith/belief. This challenge asks students 18 years and older to describe their beliefs on video. Students can submit videos here. In February, Patheos will award a $2,500 cash prize to the top video. Three runner-up prizes valued at $1,000 will also be awarded for each of the following three categories: (1) Why I am a [fill in your faith/belief]; (2) How I live my beliefs on campus; (3) Rituals and practices of my faith/belief.

Do I have to say how unbearably cool it would be for a secular humanist student to win this?

2. It’s a lovely week for Parenting Beyond Belief, which gets a mention in the current issue of Parenting magazine, another in Metro Parent Detroit, and an especially good article in Portland Family.

3. The whole McGowan family is co-featured in the current issue of Ruckus magazine in an article about secular families and their approach to Christmas. (Click on the turning pages to read the full mag online. Article starts on p. 26.)

4. St. Louis Memlings: A great event is afoot in St. Peters one week from today. The Ethical Society Mid Rivers is hosting an event called “Raising Freethinking Kids,” led by Foundation Beyond Belief board member Trish Cowan. It’s Wed, Dec. 9, 7:00-8:30 pm at St. Peters City Hall. More info here.

5. I’ve heard your prayers! The annual page of PBB Recommended Gifts for science-minded kids is now updated and reposted. Each recommendation is based on a combination of formal reviews, customer ratings and comments, personal recommendations gathered from parents and kids, my own experience, and/or runecasting.

6. This is cool (thanks Tim!):

7. So is this (thanks Phil!)

8. Someone please pull me off Tim Minchin. He’s turning blue.

9. Foundation Beyond Belief continues to march toward the full launch on January 1, with forums, personal profiles, and the ability to set up automatic deductions and distribute your impact among ten selected charities. Looking for one last tax deduction before the end of the year? We’d be grateful for your support. Thanks SO much to those of you who’ve already chipped in. While you’re on the site, why not join up?

Okay, that clears the dance floor a bit. See you soon.