© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Wondering and questioning, Part I

My greatest thrill as a secular parent is watching my kids follow their intellectual curiosity wherever it leads. My job is to run ahead down the corridor, flinging wide as many doors as possible—or much better yet, to stay the hell out of the way.

I’m convinced that the reckless, ecstatic wondering I’ve seen in my kids owes a lot to secular parenting. Religion, in addition to inspiring a certain degree and type of wonder, tends also to place real limits on the inquiring mind. Some things are sacred, after all, or otherwise unquestionable, or at least inappropriate, or too complicated to explain, or beyond the poor grasp of our human minds, too unseemly, too shocking, too sad, too unthinkable. You can hear one portcullis after another slamming shut.

There are no unthinkable thoughts in our home, no unaskable questions, no unbearable hypotheses. Not one. How can you decide whether something is right, I tell my kids, if you won’t even let yourself think it first? As a result of this simple policy, my kids are growing up with minds that race through fields of possibility, unhindered by the dark barricades of someone else’s fears.

It leads to some pretty strange places, like the time Erin, then eight, declared that she was SO glad we’re white.

I stifled my natural reaction
Shocked orang
and asked why. Turns out she had listened carefully on MLK Day, realized what a raw deal blacks have had, and was honestly grateful that she didn’t have to endure it herself.

There was a time when my daughter Delaney came up with a new theological hypothesis every week or so. Once, at age four, she declared that Jesus made all the good things in the world and that God made all the bad and scary things.

The next five words out of the mouths of many religious parents would be No no no no no—in that order—followed by a dose of theological castor oil to set the child straight. Very few would let the day end with their child still entertaining the notion that God is the source of all evil. Some secular parents do little better for the child’s independence of thought when they take the opportunity to say No no no no no—God isn’t real. I’ve always preferred to praise the independent thought and let the child run like mad with it.

Cool, I said to Delaney. I never thought of it like that.

The next week, she promulgated a revised encyclical: God, she said, makes all the things for grownups, and Jesus makes the things for kids. My favorite example: God made the deep end of the pool, and Jesus made the shallow end, for her.

I hugged her. “So God for me and Jesus for you, eh?”

“I guess so,” she said. “I don’t know for sure. I’m still thinking about it.”

She’s parroting one of my constant parental invocations there—the need to keep thinking, to never close one’s self off to further information.

Earlier this year on the way home from school, she told me about a chat she’d had that day with Mrs. W, the teacher at her Lutheran preschool. “I told Mrs. W I think God is just pretend, but I said I’m still thinking about it…And I asked if she thinks God is pretend.”

I looked at her in the rearview mirror, munching on the tart apple I’d for once remembered to bring for her snack, so beautifully innocent of the fact that she had stood with her little toes at the edge of an age-old crevasse, shouting a courageous and ancient question to her teacher on the far rim. My daughter, you see, hasn’t heard that there are unaskable questions.

“What did Mrs. W say?”

“She said no,” Laney said, matter-of-factly. “She said, ‘I think God is very real.’ ”

“Uh huh. Then what did you say?”

“I said, ‘That’s okay…as long as you’re still thinking about it, too.’”

Two years later, I still look at that sentence with awe. That’s okay, she said—because it would never occur to her that people must all believe the same—and then the call to continuous freethought, the caveat against the closed process.

How many people of religious faith ever hear that their faith is okay only if it remains open to disconfirmation? Whatever that number is, if I can keep my kids blissfully ignorant of the “rules,” it will go up.

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This was written on Wednesday, 02. May 2007 at 12:18 and was filed under belief and believers, My kids, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Delightful.

    Comment: Neil Schipper – 14. May 2007 @ 2:20 pm

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