Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

“Time is amazing”

In the final section of my nonreligious parenting seminar, I offer suggestions for helping kids engage mortality gently but honestly. Treat death as a natural part of life. Take casual opportunities to talk about it before a loved one dies. Talk about the life cycle of insects/animals/plants, then gradually connect to us. Read Charlotte’s Web and Tuck Everlasting. Take a walk in a cemetery.

Our current pet, practicing for the end

Get a pet.

I’m not suggesting you get your kids a pet so that they can experience death, but it’s a nice side benefit.

That one always gets a gallows chuckle in the seminar, but I actually mean it. Now given my choice, I’d rather completely spare my kids any exposure to death ever, secondhand or firsthand. It would also be nice if they’d fart money, but they continue to disappoint.

Likewise with banishing death. Wish all you want, our kids will experience profound, painful, permanent losses in their lives. My job is not to pretend I can change that, but to help make that difficult reality as manageable as possible for them — and shielding them from the pain of heartbreaking loss is not the way. That may be easier on parents and kids alike in the short run, but it sets them up for much greater pain down the road when it’s Grandpa or Mom or (FSM forfend) me crossing over to the other side. Of the grass.

My convictions were put to the test just over a year ago when Erin’s guinea pig died. I blogged at the time:

Erin held him all evening, cooing and stroking and sobbing. In the morning, he was gone.

When Erin’s heart breaks, it takes every other heart in the room with it — and her heart is as broken now as I’ve ever seen it. Still, I know the loss of Max, as painful as it is, is an important experience for her. Pets can contribute, however unwillingly, to our lifelong education in mortality. Though we don’t buy pets in order for kids to experience death, most every pet short of a giant land tortoise will predecease its owner.

When we looked into the cage Thursday morning and saw that Max was still, Erin screamed, then did the precise opposite of what I would have done: she flung open the cage, grabbed him, hugged him to her and wailed…She stroked his fur and touched his teeth and gently rolled his tiny paws between her fingers, all the time whispering Maxie, Maxie. Please wake up.

Then came a monologue both stunning and familiar — that ancient litany of regret, guilt, and helplessness:

I wish I had given him a funner life. He didn’t have enough fun.
Do you think he knew I loved him?
I should have played with him more.
I wanted to watch him grow up!
Do you think I did something wrong? I must have done something wrong!
I want to hear his little noises again.
It isn’t fair at all. It isn’t fair. Things should be fair.

maxWe buried Max in the backyard this morning under a metaphor of falling yellow leaves. Erin placed him in the shoebox on a layer of soft bedding. She put his water bottle to his lips once, twice, three times, convulsing with tears. She added food pellets near his head, like an ancient Egyptian preparing Pharoah for the journey to the next life. Flower petals, then Max’s favorite toy, and at last — this nearly did me in — she carefully dried her tears and placed the tissue in with him.

We talked over the grave about what a lucky guy he’d been to be born at all, that a trillion other guinea pigs never got the chance to exist, to be loved and cuddled like he was. She liked that.

A few weeks ago — a year later almost to the day — Delaney (8) got a guinea pig of her own. Erin asked to go with us to the pet store to help Laney pick out the toys, the food, the bedding. She led Laney up and down the aisles. “Max really liked timothy hay,” she said. “You’ll want to get some of that. Ooh, and look, there’s that little wooden thing he liked to chew on!”

As we stood in line at the register, Erin looked up at me. “I’m kinda surprised I’m so okay with all this,” she said. “I mean, I still miss him a lot, but it’s not so…you know…” She pressed a palm to her chest and closed her eyes, then looked up again. “You know?”

I knew. I reminded her of something she said a few days after he died. “You thought it would never stop hurting, remember?”

She nodded. “But it did. Time is amazing.”

And there it is. In addition to learning how much she could love and how much she could grieve, she learned that no matter how much a loss hurts, it will eventually hurt less. So next time — and there will be a next time — she’ll have a comfort she didn’t have before.

The reluctant animal / Can you hear me now? 11

mbta(The 11th in a series on effective communication. Full series here.)

Last September, I briefly mentioned a new CD by They Might Be Giants titled Here Comes Science. From the online samples alone I could tell that it was delicious and different. Now, after four months of family listening, it’s time to chat again.

One song in particular is so good in so many ways, I just had to give it its own blog moment. It’s terrific musically, catchy and inventive as hell, which makes it one of the few pieces on Earth I can hear more than a half dozen times without throwing a virgin into a volcano and jumping in after him. But it’s the lyrics that put My Brother the Ape in my Hall of Fame — and in the Can You Hear Me Now? blog series.

You can guess from the title that My Brother the Ape is about evolution, but it takes a different tack. In Parenting Beyond Belief I waxed on about how cool it is that we are literally related by common descent to all living things on Earth, cousins “not just of apes, but of the sequoia and the amoeba, of mosses and butterflies and blue whales” (p. 221). And it is world-changingly, paradigm-shiftingly cool — IF you can get yourself to let go of the concept of human specialness.

My Brother the Ape is sung from the perspective of someone who has trouble letting go and accepting his kinship with other animals. It starts with an invitation:

Well, I got the invitation that you sent to everyone
And I told you family picnics weren’t exactly my idea of fun
You replied that everyone but me said they were going to come
Which is how you talked me into going to the reunion

When you said everyone, you really meant it

My brother the ape
My brother the ape

Most songwriters, myself included, would have sent the narrative voice to the reunion and had him dance and sing and frolic in the oneness of all life. The Giants go deeper. Even after the reunion, Narrative Voice is still not all that comfortable with things:

I received the photos you sent, and I don’t regret that I went
Or the sight of everybody stiffly posing under one tent
But I don’t feel I belong and I keep wanting to escape
And I fail to see the likeness between me and my brother the ape

They all kept saying how much we look alike
I don’t think that we look alike at all

He starts working it out, bit by bit — two steps forward, one step back:

But I’ll admit that I look more like a chimp
Than I look like my cousin the shrimp
Or my distant kin the lichens
Or the snowy egret or the moss
And I find it hard to recognize some relatives of ours
Like the rotifer, the sycamore, iguanas and sea stars

My brother the ape
My brother the ape

In the end, he begins to come around, though you can see it’s still going to take some getting used to:

They say you don’t get to choose your family
But there’s no other one to choose

So that’s why I’m writing this now
And you can tell my sister the cow
That I meant to thank her for the gorgonzola, and I’ll allow
That I’ve been acting like a stranger, but you guys are all so strange
Though I think of what I’m like and I can see we’re all the same

So this time next year, we’ll meet at my place

My brother the ape
My brother the ape

My girls (8 and 12) have latched onto this song in a big, big way. They sing it around the house, they request it as a bedtime song, over and over and over. And in the process, the message that we are related to every living thing sinks in, bringing wonder with it.

It’s not that my kids have ever been reluctant animals. We’ve underlined our place in the scheme of things since they were born. We point out that the trees in our backyard are related to them in exactly the same way their cousins are, except with a common ancestor millions of years further back than Grandma. We refer to our dog as our wolf and ourselves as her monkeys. So for my kids, the song is mainly a fun and catchy reminder of just how cool that is and how far the kinship goes — to lichens and starfish and beyond.

But for someone who has been raised with the notion that humans are specially created in the image of God to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen 1:26) — or even coming from a pretty natural position of human chauvinism — evolution represents a serious demotion and a choking slice of humble pie.

A song that empathizes a bit with that reluctance can offer a place for the listener to stand, and sing, while they consider whether or not to come to the reunion.

Get the mp3 from Amazon (click here)

Parenting Beyond Belief: The Audiobook!

ipod pbbNot sure why I’m always the last to know — but with news this good, why quibble?

Once in a while I get a message from someone asking if Parenting Beyond Belief is available as an audiobook. Now, suddenly, to my delight (but without my prior knowledge or involvement), it is!

Now where’s the Polish audiobook?

Parenting Beyond Belief at
Parenting Beyond Belief on iTunes

The ultimate Robertson smackdown

robertsonYou may have heard about Pat Robertson’s reliably idiotic response to the Haitian earthquake — that Haiti is reaping the consequences of a pact made with the devil in the 18th century by Haitian slaves.

Sane commentators, both religious and non, have rightly heaped outrage and derision on Robertson’s latest departure from human decency. But the award for most brilliant smackdown of a lunatic goes to this letter to the editor, which appeared in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Dear Pat Robertson,
I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I’m all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I’m no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth — glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven’t you seen “Crossroads”? Or “Damn Yankees”? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there’d be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox — that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it — I’m just saying: Not how I roll. You’re doing great work, Pat, and I don’t want to clip your wings — just, come on, you’re making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad.

Keep blaming God. That’s working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.

Best, Satan


Good thing I’m happily married or I’d be on one knee in Minneapolis tonight.

(Hat tip to Brian Fogarty.)

Parenting Beyond Belief now in Apache

poza wiaraMy mother’s book has been translated into Apache. Apache, Helen! Not even Shakespeare or Dickens has been translated into Apache!
T.S. Garp, in The World According to Garp

Okay, PBB has not been translated into Apache. But that line from The World According to Garp was the first thing that popped into my head when I learned yesterday that Parenting Beyond Belief has appeared in its first translated edition — and at first blush, it’s hardly less surprising than Apache.

PBB is now available in Polish.

We’ve been hoping for two years to secure a contract for a French edition, especially given fascinating cultural changes underway in Québec, about which I posted in late 2007:

So why the sudden interest among the Québécois about parents non-croyants? It’s a fascinating story.

Québec has historically been the most religious of the Canadian provinces. Over 83 percent of the population is Catholic — hardly surprising, since the French permitted only Catholics to settle what was New France back in the day. But now Québec is considered the least religious province by a considerable margin — and without losing a single Catholic.

Non-religious Catholics, you say? Oui! French Canadians are eager to maintain their unique identity in the midst of the English Protestant neighborhood — and “French” goes with “Catholic” in Canada even more than it does with “fries” in the U.S. Yet educated Catholics — I’ve discussed this elsewhere — are the most likely of all religious identities to leave religious faith entirely. There is, by all accounts, a very short step from educated Catholic to religious nonbeliever.

Poland shares that tight equation between Catholicism and national identity. Fully 89 percent of Poles self-identify as Catholics. The church is considered by many, even some nontheistic Poles, to be a bulwark against the countless threats to Polish identity that pepper the nation’s history (though it was of little use to the three million Polish Jews murdered in WWII). The papacy of John Paul II and the end of Soviet influence in Poland combined to produce a renewed affection for the Catholic church.

So what does all this have to do with a book on raising children without religion? It’s simple. As in Québec, Catholic identity in Poland is high, but observance is fairly low, with Mass attendance at 40.4 percent in 2008. Poland is also a highly educated and literate country, and (as noted above) educated Catholics are the most likely of all religious identities to leave religious faith entirely. So there is a large and probably growing community of Polish parents trying to raise their children without the undue influence of that looming institution.

I’m happy to help.

Thinking selectively

chimpskull edinburghWhen I (ever) get around to shooting the sixth YouTube video in the Parenting Beyond Belief series, it’ll be about teaching elementary age kids about evolution.

My advice in a nutshell? Don’t. (That’s why I don’t usually put my advice in nutshells.) [Added: Please note that this is a joke, apparently too subtle. The next sentence reverses it. See? All is well.]

What I mean, of course, is DO teach them about it — but do it in the same way you might teach an eight-year-old about a Shakespeare sonnet or a Bartok string quartet. I wouldn’t sit my second grader down in front of Bartok’s Fifth Quartet and expect her to plead, please oh please Daddy, for the Sixth. The trick is to lay a groundwork by exposing her to music of a hundred kinds, so that later, when she encounters Bartok, she’ll have the experience and the conceptual grounding to make her own informed judgment about it.

Appreciating Shakespeare starts with exposure not to Sonnet 138, but Green Eggs and Ham. (Or maybe a marriage of the two.) Get them savoring meter and wit itself, then they’ll step up into more and more subtle examples of it very naturally as their palate matures. To understand why Bartok and Shakespeare are so friggin’ incredible, it helps to have come across a thousand other examples of their arts to get a sense of what’s possible and what’s been tried. Then you can really savor what they achieved.

Evolution is another thing that’s best approached in sensible steps. It’s an immense, complex and subtle thing that takes place in achingly slow increments as random variation is acted upon by decidedly non-random selective pressures. It’s directional in the short term and directionless in the long term. It is heartless and wasteful and elegant all at once.

In my early teens, I had a very basic grasp of evolution — condensable I’m sure to 50 words or less, half of which were “very.” I majored in physical anthropology in college because I knew juuuust enough to know how much I didn’t know — and how very much I wanted to know it.

I was nineteen before I had a solid grasp of evolution, its evidence, its mechanism, and its astonishing implications.

Since my kids are on track to beat me in everything else — looks, personality, sports, general maturity and fashion sense — I figure I’ll do what I can to help them grasp the greatest realization in human history a lot earlier than I did. The key is to focus not on evolution first, but on natural selection, the much more graspable process that drives evolution.

I addressed this in Raising Freethinkers (pp 17-18):

Q: My six-year-old is fascinated by the natural world. I’ve tried to introduce her to the idea of evolution, but when I say, “A long time ago, apes turned into humans,” she squinches her face—and I know she’s picturing something pretty funny. How can I help her understand the long, slow, fascinating process of evolution?

A: By teaching it the same way evolution happens—in small steps over many years:

1. Draw her attention to adaptations. If I’m out on a walk in the woods with my own daughter and we see a deer with protective coloration, I’ll often say, “Look—you can barely see it! What if I was an animal trying to find a deer to eat? That one wouldn’t be very easy to find. And its babies would have the same coloring, so I’ll bet they’d be hard to find, too.”

2. Imagine a poor adaptation. “Hey, what if it was bright pink? I think I’d have a pink one for supper every night, they’d be so easy to catch.” I step on a twig and the deer bolts away. “Ooh, fast too! I’ll bet I’d have to eat slow pink ones every night. Soon there wouldn’t be any slow pink ones left because I’d have eaten them all!”

3. Move to natural selection, using a non-human example and a shortened timescale. Evolution itself requires thousands of generations and a massive timescale, so above the microbial level we can’t see it in action. But we can study natural selection, the mechanism by which evolution occurs. Once natural selection is understood, evolution is an inevitable consequence of the passage of time. And one creature in particular is just waiting in the wings, so to speak, to explain natural selection to our kids: the peppered moth. [See the Activities section in RF Chapter 1.]

4. Use analogy to teach the otherwise unimaginable timescale. Analogies can be difficult for very young kids, but once your child is able to handle that level of abstraction, there’s no better way to render the inconceivable conceivable. Saying a million Earths would fit inside the Sun is fine, but saying “If the Sun were a soccer ball, Earth would be a peppercorn”—now I get it. Same goes for time. Use either Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar or Dawkin’s armspan analogy.

That’s been our approach, and once in a while, I get a hint that it’s working. Two weeks ago during the Christmas break, Connor (14) was sitting bored, looking out our back window. Suddenly he said, “Dad! Plants don’t feel pain.”

We had a conversation long ago about the many remaining open questions — like whether dolphins are actually smarter than we are, to what extent other animals communicate with each other — and whether plants feel pain.

“How do you know they don’t?” I asked.

“There’d be no reason for them to evolve that,” he said. “Pain is a warning so you can get away from something like a predator, or take your hand out of the fire. But plants can’t move anyway, so pain wouldn’t be an advantage. It wouldn’t help one plant survive to reproduce more than another one. It would just…hurt.”

I reel a bit in moments like these. Never mind whether he’s right — I have no idea myself. The wonderful thing is that he’s thinking creatively and in the right terms. In this case, that means thinking “selectively.” With that grounding, once he encounters evolution in greater depth, it’ll slip on like a glove.

Raising Free-linkers

rfRaising Freethinkers is chock-full of resources, including several bazillion URLs. Most are manageable, but some are just unforgivably long. Even as we prepared the manuscript, I wondered just how many people would really have the fortitude to type out strings like

Now Colin T at Science-Based Parenting has prevented an epidemic of carpal tunnel syndrome among secular parents by putting every URL from Raising Freethinkers online. He has even linked to the Amazon page for every recommended book.

I’m speechless.

This was something I had originally considered myself, but the enormity of the task kept it safely on the back burner. I am very grateful to Colin for taking this on.

Links to resources in Raising Freethinkers, Ch. 1-3
Links to resources in Raising Freethinkers, Ch. 4-6
Links to resources in Raising Freethinkers, Ch. 7-9

Full launch at last

fbbFoundation Beyond Belief — a non-profit charitable and educational organization created to focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists and to provide a comprehensive education and support program for nontheistic parents — is alive.

Foundation membership is now open, and our first slate of beneficiaries is in place.

And what a slate it is. There’s an organization of scientists committed to biodiversity, another providing health care to marginalized communities on five continents, and a secular alternative for addiction recovery. There’s a non-profit bringing safe drinking water to five countries in desperate need, an advocacy group for refugees fleeing war, and an advocacy group for asylum seekers fleeing torture. There’s a scholarship fund for GLBT students who have been disowned by their families, an organization protecting children in war zones, and another protecting the environment by working toward “greener” buildings and cities.

Selecting these has been a challenging and powerful experience. In the end, we chose a wide range of organizations in size, budget, mission, and scope. Members will now in turn choose which of these organizations they will support with a percentage of their monthly donations—which in turn will inform our future selections.

It’s a chance to watch the evolution of humanist philanthropy.

No more words. Time for pictures:

Now go. Join up.

UPDATE: As is to be expected with a site and project as complex as FBB, we’ve had some technical hiccups. If you’re having any trouble signing up, give it a couple of days and our brilliant webster Airan will have it all ironed out.