Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

The Power of Two: How Shared Dissent Can Make All the Difference

 

First published in 2011, this article feels especially urgent in 2018. Erin is now a junior in college.

A few days ago, Erin, my eighth-grader, made me proud. That alone is not news. But in this case she showed courage in someone else’s defense, and when that happens, my shirt buttons grab their crash helmets and wince.

“Guess what happened today,” she said.

I gave up.

“I was at the table in the cafeteria with these three other kids, and two of them asked the other girl where she went to church. She said ‘We don’t go to church,’ and their eyes got big, and the one guy leaned forward and said, ‘But you believe in God, right?'”

Oh here we go. I shifted in my seat.

“So the girl says, ‘Not really, no.’ And their eyes got all big, and they said, ‘Well what DO you believe in then??’ And she said, ‘I believe in the universe.’ And they said, ‘So you’re like an atheist?’ And she said ‘Yes, I guess I am.'”

I looked around for popcorn and a five-dollar Coke. Nothing. “Then what??”

“Then they turned to meee…and they said, ‘What about YOU? What do YOU believe?'” Another pause. “And I said, ‘Well…I’m an atheist too. An atheist and a humanist.'”

She’s 13, old enough to try on labels, as long as she keeps thinking. She knows that. And she’s recently decided that her current thoughts add up to an atheist and a humanist.

“And I looked at the other girl, and…like this wave of total relief comes over her face.”

Oh my word. What a thing that is.

“Erin that’s so great,” I said. “Imagine how she would have felt if you weren’t there!!”

“Yeah, I know!!”

I’ll tell you who else knows — Solomon Asch.

The Asch experiment is one of the great studies in conformity. When you are alone in a room full of people whose opinion differs from yours, the pressure to conform is enormous. But when individuals were tested separately without group consensus pressures, fewer than 1 percent made any errors at all. The lesson of Solomon Asch is that most people at least some of the time will defy the clear evidence of their own senses or reason to follow the herd.

One variation in the design of the study provides a profound lesson about dissent. This is the one that Erin’s situation reminded me of. And it’s a crucial bit of knowledge for any parent wishing to raise an independent thinker and courageous dissenter.

In this version, all but one of the researcher’s confederates would give the wrong answer. The presence of just one other person who saw the evidence in the same way the subject did reduced the error rates of subjects by 75 percent. This is a crucial realization: If a group is embarking on a bad course of action, a lone dissenter may turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members to join the dissent instead of following the crowd into disaster. Just one other person resisting the norm can help others with a minority opinion find their voices.

This plays out on stages even larger than the school cafeteria. On April 17, 1961, the US government sent 1,500 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The idea was to give the US plausible deniability—barely plausible, but still. It was supposed to look like the exiles did it on their own.

Well, it did end up looking like that. The invasion was a mess of lousy planning and execution. Most of the 1,500 were killed or captured by a force of 20,000 Cuban soldiers, and the US government was forced to essentially pay a ransom of 53 million dollars for the release of the prisoners. And that’s in Mad Men dollars—it would be $510 million today. Cuba’s ties with the Soviet Union were strengthened, and the stage was set for the Cuban Missile Crisis six months later.

In short, it was a complete disaster. And in retrospect, that should have been obvious to those who planned it. But among President Kennedy’s senior advisers, the vote to go ahead had been unanimous. Why? It came out later that several of them had serious doubts beforehand but were unwilling to express those doubts since they thought everybody else was on board. It was the height of the Cold War, and nobody wanted to look “soft.” The climate of the discussions made real dissent too difficult to articulate, so a really bad idea went unchallenged.

The presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger was there for most of the discussions, and he later said that he was convinced that even one dissenter could have caused Kennedy to call off the invasion. ONE. He said he wished most of all that he had found the strength to be that dissenter.

At least Kennedy learned his lesson. During the Missile Crisis later that year, he made a point of fostering dissent and encouraging the collision of ideas among his advisers. The resulting policy led to the peaceful conclusion of what may have been the most dangerous crisis in human history (so far).

Many think that times of crisis and war are the worst possible times for argument and dissent. Hitler certainly thought so. He often said the mess of conflicting opinion in democracies would cause the Western powers to crumble before the single-minded focus of his military machine. He got the difference right but misdirected the praise. Military historians are pretty much agreed that the stifling of dissent in the Third Reich’s military decision-making was its fatal flaw. It was entirely top-down. Only if Hitler’s plans were flawless could that system be stronger than one in which ideas contend for supremacy.

So Montgomery and Patton’s pissing contests, MacArthur and Truman’s showdowns, and the constant whirl of debate among the Allies and even among the branches of the American service was a better approach to running a war than the single-minded dictates of dictators, from Napoleon to Hitler to Saddam Hussein. Crush dissent and you will most often end up shooting yourself in the foot. United We Stand is bad policy, even in wartime.

Dissent is often discouraged in the corporate world as well. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s research found that corporate boards that punish dissent and stress unity among their members are the most likely to wind up in bad business patterns. It’s corporations with highly contentious boards that tend to be successful. Not always—it depends on the nature of the contention—but when boards generate a wide range of viewpoints and tough questions are asked about the prevailing orthodoxy, they tend to make better decisions in the end. All ideas have to withstand a crossfire of challenge so the bad has a chance of being recognized and avoided.

A list of corporations with boards that valued conformity and punished dissent reads like a Who’s Who of corporate malfeasance: Tyco, WorldCom, Enron.

There’s something so counter-intuitive about all this. It seems on the face of it that uniting behind an idea or position or plan is the best way to ensure success. And it can be, if the idea or position or plan is good in the first place. And the best way to ensure that it is good is by fostering dissent from the beginning.

And “from the beginning” really means long before the meeting even begins — while the decision makers are still in the eighth grade cafeteria, learning to accept the presence of difference in their midst.

Had the other girl in my daughter’s story not mustered the courage to self-identify first as a person with a different perspective — in this case an atheist — Erin would have been statistically less likely to share her own non-majority view. Once the girl spoke up, Erin’s ability to join the dissent went up about 75 percent. And once Erin shared the same view, the other girl enjoyed a wave of retroactive relief at not being alone.

The other two kids also won a parting gift. They learned that the assumed default doesn’t always hold, and that the world still spins despite the presence of difference. They’re also likely to be less afraid and less astonished the next time they learn that someone doesn’t believe as they do, which can translate into greater tolerance of all kinds of difference.

Age Stories: How My Kids Met Me One Year at a Time

“Twenty-eight!”

“Hmm, okay, 28. Ooh, that’s a good one.”

Despite living with him for 13 years, I knew very little about my dad. He worked three jobs and traveled a lot. When he was in town, he came home exhausted from a hundred-mile round-trip commute. I didn’t even know he was a nonbeliever until long after his death at 45.

My mom spoke very little of him, consumed as she was with the lonely and impossible task of working full-time while raising three kids by herself two time zones away from any other family.

I’ve wondered how much my kids would remember of me if I died today. The situation is different — I’m more involved in their lives than my dad was able to be in mine, for several reasons — but I wanted a way of sharing my life with my kids that was natural and unforced.

At some point, without even meaning to, I found a way, starting a tradition in our family called “age stories.” Simple premise: At bedtime, in addition to books or songs, the kids could pick an age (“Twenty-eight!”) and I would tell them about something that happened to me at that age. For a long time it was one of their favorite bedtime options.

Through age stories, they now know about my life at age 4 (broken arm from walking on a row of metal trash cans), age 9 (stole a pack of Rollos from Target and felt so bad I fed them to my dog, nearly killing her), age 21 (broke up with my first girlfriend and got dumped by the second one), 23 (my crushing uncertainty on graduating college), 25 (the strange and cool job in LA that allowed me to meet Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., Jimmy Stewart, Elton John, and a hundred other celebs), 26 (when I pursued and stole their mother’s affections from the Air Force pilot she was allllmost engaged to), what happened on the days they were born, and everything — eventually just about everything — in-between.

They know how I tricked a friend into quitting pot (for a night anyway, at 15), the surreal week that followed my dad’s death (13), how I nearly cut off two fingers by reaching under a running lawnmower (17, shut up), my battles with the administration of the Catholic college where I taught (40), the time I was nearly hit by a train in Germany (38) and nearly blown off a cliff in a windstorm in Scotland (42).

Age stories can also open up important issues in an unforced way. Delaney happened to ask for 11 — my age when my parents moved us from St. Louis to LA — right before we moved her from Minneapolis to Atlanta. It was a very difficult time for her. I described my own tears and rage at 11, and the fact that I held on to my bedpost the day of the move — and how well it turned out in the end. I wasn’t surprised when she said “11” again and again during that hard transition in her own life.

We’ve talked about love, lust, death, fear, joy, lying, courage, cowardice, mistakes, triumphs, uncertainty, embarrassment, and the personal search for meaning in ways that no lecture could ever manage. They’ve come to know their dad not just as the aging monkey he is now, but as a little boy, a teenager, a twenty-something, stumbling up the very path they’re on now.

And they keep coming back for more.

Give it a try. Make it dramatic. Include lots of details and dialogue. Have fun. Then come back here and tell us how it went.

When Being ‘Out and Normal’ Mortifies the Kids

 

“Why did you do that?? Seriously Dad.”

It was late summer 2011, and we were driving back to Atlanta from the North Carolina reunion of Becca’s mostly Southern Baptist extended family. Even though we differ about as much as can be imagined in politics and religion, it’s a family I’m grateful for. It’s a real pleasure to watch each other raise families and get older.

As we drove, Becca and I did our usual post-game show in the front seat, with the kids chiming in from the back. At one point we hit on something that happened at dinner on the last night.

That’s when I learned that I had embarrassed my fifteen-year-old son.

“It was so awkward,” he said.

Ah. I really should have seen that coming. “I guess so. But I don’t mind a little awkwardness. Helps break the ice sometimes.”

“But this didn’t break ice!” he said, exasperated. “It MADE ice!”

Though it’s almost never mentioned, my worldview seems to be common knowledge in the family. I don’t push too many points, but neither do I leave the lowest-hanging fruit completely unplucked. Most of all, I follow the advice I give in workshops: be out and normal. Act as if there’s nothing unusual about the religious and nonreligious sharing a world, a country, a family, a table, a marriage, a friendship. There isn’t, of course. What’s unusual is for religious people to know they are sharing all these things with nonbelievers, all the time. It’s a good opportunity to see that the world spins on.

Whenever I have to figure out whether and what to say or do this or that as an atheist among the religious, I tend to operate from that one principle: be out and normal. Things usually go just fine. Once in a while, though, I end up embarrassing the progeny.

After that last supper (stop it), the family patriarch, a good-humored Baptist minister in his 70s, gave away some prizes he’d brought with him — T-shirts, pins, that sort of thing. He asked everyone to write down a number between 1 and 100. We all did.

“Now,” he said, “what I didn’t tell you is that each of the numbers I’ll read off has something to do with me.” He smiled. “The first number is…73. That’s my age.” Woohoo, someone hollered, and won a T-shirt.

Next he called the first two digits in his address, then his phone number, then his Social Security Number, giving away prizes to the closest number for each.

Then came the finale. With a bit of ceremony, he produced a small wooden box. He told a story of being approached by a man who was raising money for local church kids to go to camp, something like that. He’s a good storyteller and loves an audience, so when at length he opened the hinged box and revealed the contents, he got himself a nice Ooooooo from the congregation.

It was an unusual pendant, a chain of copper-colored beads, and hanging at the end, a large black cross with splayed ends, a kind of extended Coptic cross. It was made of black glass, maybe obsidian, with swirls of metallic blue and copper.

“Now,” he said. “I want you to write down another number between 1 and 100 to see who gets this cross.”

I could claim that I hesitated a moment, that I pondered what to do, whether to participate, but no. Instead, I did what the other 45 people in the room did — I wrote a number on the back of a piece of paper and folded it up. That was the normal thing to do. But this is the moment that was shortly to embarrass my fine boy.

When at last Uncle Bill raised his fingers to indicate the number he had chosen, I hoped that the family atheist was not the only one in the room who figured that a Baptist minister giving away a cross would choose the number 3.

But I was.

As I unfolded the paper and slowly raised it for all to see, a small gasp went up in the room, or in my head, I’m not sure which. Pastor Bill’s face went ashen, and he looked down, then up again, and sighed, then smiled resignedly. “Okay. It’s yours.”

Here’s where “be out and normal” breaks down a bit. It’s hard to quickly figure out the “normal” way for an atheist among Baptists to accept a cross that he has won by way of religious insight from a minister who is also his wife’s uncle. But it’s not hard to figure out why the same moment embarrasses the atheist’s teenage son, sitting at a table with his Baptist cousins.

That I get.

Still, I can’t picture myself doing it differently — like not writing a number down, or taking Connor’s later advice — “You could have just not shown it!”

But I did show it. And I accepted the cross respectfully, praised the craftsmanship — it really is a striking piece — and later restored color to the pastor’s face by telling him I would give it to his devout sister in recognition of her 20 years as my mother-in-law.

Worth an awkward moment, I think — even if my boy would disagree.

Endings

[Reposted from January 2008.]

An animated video of a kiwi with a dream nabbed “Most Adorable” in the 2007 YouTube Awards, along with 14 33 million views to date. As you’ll see, there’s something more profound going on here than mere adorability:

My kids all loved it. Connor watched it again and again, sorting out the implications of and emotions around the kiwi’s decision.

This morning Erin asked to see it again, and I got her on the YouTube page. She watched it once, then clicked on one of the video responses that popped up. Suddenly she was clapping and woohooing.

“What happened?” I asked.

“THE KIWI LIVES!” she crowed. “He doesn’t die at the end! He LIVES!!”

I walked to the computer, puzzled. She replayed what she had just watched. Somebody had done a 15-second remake of the ending:

Most interesting of all are the comments on that one — mostly irate, convinced (as I am) that this revised ending robs the original of its poignancy and power. I agree, but I LOVE what it reveals about the human inability to accept, or even think about, death.

In addition to death itself, the original raises issues about the right to die, the consequences of free will, the power of the creative spirit, and the dangerous beauty of singleminded dreams. It’s incredibly rich and provocative. If instead you prefer a dose of denial with your entertainments, the revision’s for you.

Or, if you prefer no remnant of redeeming features, there’s this:

Q&A: Lean on me

(Here’s the first in my new occasional Q&A series. Click Ask a Question in the sidebar to submit your own question.)

Q: I saw a note on Pinterest recently that really grabbed me, and I’ve not been able to shake it. It was a list of suggestions for parents. One of the entries was “give your children something to believe in – because there will come a time when they are alone and scared or sad, and they’re going to need something to believe in.”

My husband and I are, at the least, agnostic….But I do want to know that if something really shakes the lives of my children, they will have some way of comforting themselves, some way of (eventually) coming to know that everything will be all right. How is this accomplished?

A: How I love this question. It cuts right to the core of the ultimate reprieve that religion offers from fear and vulnerability. Life may be incredibly hard and unfair at times, but believing that Someone Somewhere who is all-powerful and all-good has a handle on things and will see to it that justice prevails in the end… I can easily see how that idea can make life bearable, especially for those who are in much closer touch with the raw human condition than I am.

It brings to mind the Russell quote I’ve written about before: “Ever since puberty I have believed in the value of two things: kindness and clear thinking….When I felt triumphant I believed most in clear thinking, and in the opposite mood I believed most in kindness.” And there’s the key to the question. If I can’t offer them the kindness of God to lean on, what can I give my kids to help them through the inevitable times they will feel the opposite of triumphant?

You may have heard the Christian acronym J-O-Y, which stands for “Jesus, then Others, then Yourself” — the supposed formula for true happiness. Take away Jesus and you have the real-world resources I hope to build in my kids: the support of other people, and a strong self-concept.

Kids need to develop the ability to connect emotionally and meaningfully with others, and that’s a skill that starts at home when they are young. You care for your child and encourage their natural empathy for others. They become the kind of people who attract others to them in mutually supportive relationships.

As they get older, peers overtake family as the leaning posts. It’s no coincidence that teenagers often become obsessively centered on their peer group for identity and support as they are pulled through a period of rapid change, and that they focus more on those who are going through the same transition than on the all-too-familiar family they are transitioning away from.

They’ll also make connections based on interests and passions. In addition to a really tight group of friends, my daughter Erin (15) is passionately involved in photography, volunteering, volleyball, animal rescue, and acting. She’s in specific clubs that connect her to others with the same interests, and if those interests continue, she can continue to be connected to those larger passion communities throughout her life.

Those interests won’t all continue, of course, nor will all of her current friendships. Some will fall away as she grows older and her circumstances change, but she’ll retain the ability to connect. It’s not a static belief she needs, but that ability, that skill. Those mutually supportive connections with other human beings, connections she has built herself, will get her through hard times, as well as the strong self-concept on which those relationships are based.

And, when she’s 21 or 31, if we’ve built the right kinds of connections between us and earned it ourselves, her family will be that ultimate connection she can always lean on. To paraphrase Tim Minchin, we are the people who’ll make her feel safe in this world.

But I’m not headed into White Wine in the Sun here. There’s another song that captures this humanistic idea of people caring for each other better than any other.

R&B legend Bill Withers wrote it after he moved to LA in the lates 1960s following a stint in the Navy. He was really alone for the first time in his life, feeling vulnerable, away from the personal connections that had made him feel safe growing up in a small coal mining town in West Virginia. He sat down and wrote one of the great songs of all time about what he was missing. Not a particular belief, not God, but somebody to lean on. And unlike God, that human relationship can be mutual — which to my mind is SO much more satisfying and meaningful.

Being Toto

The Wizard of Oz is a secular humanist parable.

I’m not the first to suggest this possibility. But the eye roll I got from my 17-year-old son when I said it at dinner the other night could have cleared the dishes from the table. He’s currently soldiering through an AP Lit class in which the teacher earnestly insists that no cigar is ever, ever just a cigar. When one of the short stories they read described a red ovarian cyst in a jar, the teacher looked searchingly at the ceiling. “Red,” she said, drawing out the syllable and shaping her next thought with her hands. “Passion.”

“OR,” said my boy in the exasperated retelling, “red — the color of an ovarian cyst!!”

So I knew I was in for it when I claimed that The Wizard of Oz isn’t just a story about a girl and her weird dream.

But it isn’t.

Frank Baum (who wrote the book) was a religious skeptic and Ethical Culturist. Yip Harburg (who wrote the screenplay and songs) was an atheist. That doesn’t mean a thing by itself, of course. But it takes very little ceiling-gazing and hand-gesturing to see the Oz story as a direct reflection of a humanistic worldview.

Dorothy and her friends have deep, yearning human needs — for home, knowledge, heart and courage. When they express these needs, they’re told that only the omnipotent Wizard of Oz can fulfill them. They seek an audience with the Wizard, tremble in fear and awe, then are unexpectedly ordered to do battle with Sata… sorry, the Witch, who turns out pretty feeble in the end. (Water, seriously?)

When they return, having confronted their fears, the Wizard dissembles, and Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal a mere human behind all the smoke and holograms — at which point they learn that all the brains, courage, heart, and home they sought from the Wizard had always been right in their own hands.

It’s really not much of a stretch to see the whole thing as a direct debunk of religion and a celebration of humanistic self-reliance. And as a bonus, Connor actually granted me the point.

Scooby meets The Shining

Back from an EPIC two-week family vacation in California, probably our last big trip as a family unit.

We ended in Yosemite, the most sock-off-knocking place on Earth, staying outside of the park in the tiny Gold Rush town of Coulterville at the Hotel Jeffery. It was an unmissable opportunity. The Jeffery, you see, is haunted. In my enthusiasm for the idea, I even booked Room 22, “the most haunted room in the hotel.”

Right after I booked and paid for it, I ran and told the kids about this fun thing I’d done, thinking they’d jump up and down. What a putz. Connor (16) thought it was cool, but the girls pretty much jumped up and down on my head.

“What were you THINKING?!” Laney asked. “Seriously, Dad, jeez!”

“Well most of the hotels near the park are already booked!” I said defensively. “And this one had a lot of rooms available, and they’re uh…they’re cheap.”

“Gosh I wonder why.”

It shouldn’t have surprised me. My kids have a healthy skepticism, partly because I’ve been pulling their legs continually since birth. (Hey, they were having a hard time out of the canal.) But their well of experience and reading and thinking about the supernatural isn’t much deeper than mine was at their ages, and I would NOT have jumped at this chance if my dad had come up with it. Hell no. I’ve worked it all out since then, so I no longer register more than a distant, limbic twinge at this stuff. Oh yes, still that.

But I’d already handed over my gold nuggets for the rooms, so we were going to be staying at the Jeffery. But to avoid a revolt in the parking lot, I knew I’d have to offer the girls something from my own well.

My biggest breakthrough in thinking about religion was realizing I didn’t have to search for the deity to decide whether I believed; I just had to look at the reasons other people believed and decide whether they were any good. (SPOILER ALERT: Nope.) The same thing works with the paranormal. So before the trip, I showed Erin and Delaney the first two minutes of this video:

“Oh, please!” Laney said when the door opened (1:30). Erin laughed with relief. Now they were dipping into their own wells of experience. Both of them grew up in a 115-year-old Victorian house in Minnesota. Like the Jeffery, none of our door frames were quite squared, and the slightest change of air pressure would cause a door to drift open, even if you couldn’t feel it. The silliness of somebody else’s evidence helped their concerns melt away. “You’re just people like us in the universe” became one of the catch phrases of our trip.

So I thought we were done. Oy, putz!

The last leg of the trip arrived. We drove straight from LA and pulled up in front of the Jeffery, which has a very cool, fairly authentic, unpolished feeling. Gaudy wallpaper, dim lighting. Wood creaks and paint peels. No check-in counter — you get your keys from the bartender at the period saloon downstairs, which was nicely filled with bikers. And upstairs we went.

The doors of unoccupied rooms are left ajar. Of the 22 rooms in the hotel, 22 were ajar. We were the only guests for the night, and we had one room on each of the two floors — at opposite ends. Becca noticed there were no phones. And we hadn’t had cell reception for twenty miles. This was getting good.

And then it got better. Once the saloon emptied out, even the staff left. Locked the door and left. We were now the only people in the building.

Despite all this, and the sun going down, everybody was still fine fine fine…until Becca opened a little black case we’d been given with the key for Room 22. It was a ghost detection kit, with instruments like a “GaussMaster electromagnetic field meter,” a motion detector, and a laser thermometer.

Delaney had been sitting on the bed, reading the instructions, which she slowly lowered into her lap.

“I don’t want to do this.”

All of her earlier fear was right back on her face. It’s easy to dismiss mediums cooing over a door that opens by itself — literally kid’s stuff. But this looked an awful lot like science.

I wasn’t going to force her to do it, of course. But I also thought we should try to defuse her fears before the lights went out.

I picked up the instructions and read. “Hmm. Um hmm. Looks all official and sciencey.” She nodded. “Well there’s a word for that. It’s called pseudoscience. Guess what ‘pseudo’ means.”

“I dunno.”

“Fake,” I said. “Pseudoscience means fake science. Something pretending to be science that isn’t.”

Now this was interesting. From nothing more than that, she suddenly looked visibly relieved. Not completely, but better. Somehow knowing there was a word for the fakery, a whole category, gave skepticism a form of its own, something she could hold on to.

Of course having this long, fancy word didn’t really confer legitimacy any more than the sciencey words in the instructions did, any more than calling something “transubstantiation” makes it less goofy. But in that moment, having a name for “fake science” helped her see that it might be exactly that.

I read the instructions aloud for one of the gizmos. “‘If the reading is between 0.3 and 0.5, you may be in the presence of a spirit.'” We turned on the meter and pointed it at a corner. The needle went up and down from 0.0 to 0.6. “They said that means there’s a ghost there. How do we know that isn’t the normal variation?” She shrugged. “We don’t. And they know we don’t know that, so they make up numbers to freak us out and sell ghost detection kits.”

Two minutes later, we each had a device and were tiptoeing, Scooby-style, down the intentionally dark hallway, humming scary organ music, pointing at shadows and giggling. We went into dark guest rooms, scanning everything as we went, needles bouncing and lights flashing. By the time we got back to our rooms, they were back to the reaction they’d had to the video of the self-opening door.

The next day we talked about the incentive the Jeffery has to bill itself as haunted — hell, it’s what snared me! — and came up with a few ways they could do it better. I think their skeptical wells are a little fuller for the experience. And it was damn fun.

(If you have a minute, go back and enjoy the video of “orbs” around 4:00.)

Venus envy

When I was 10, my dad tried to show me Comet Kohoutek, which was unfortunately a fizzle, at least where we were. But we saw a lot of other cool things over the years, and he taught me to watch the sky.

My daughter Delaney is now 10, and she’s been a skywatcher from the start. I wanted to show her the last transit of Venus for 105 years, which happened yesterday, but it rained pretty much all day. Which reminded us both of something I told her years ago.

Guillaume Le Gentil was part of one of the most unimaginable scientific undertakings ever. Somebody in the 17th century, I can’t even remember who or how, realized that Venus crosses the disc of the Sun twice, eight years apart, then repeats the pair about 105 years later. Then somebody in the 18th century — Ed Halley, I think it was — figured out that viewing the transit from different parts of the globe, and taking accurate measurements of when Venus enters and exits the disc, and comparing the readings, could help us figure out the distance from Earth to the Sun, which could then be used to figure out every other astronomical distance in the solar system. And that the next opportunity to do this would be in June 1761.

May I just say this about myself. If I’d been sitting in the bar with Halley, and I’d heard this, I would have found it very interesting, then gone back into me pint. “If only this weren’t the bleedin’ 18th century,” I might have funk to meself.

Fortunately, better folks than I were there, and they started chanting the Nike slogan, then made plans to dispatch over 100 observers all around the planet, in the 18th century, to figure out how far away the Sun is.

One of the dispatched was a French astronomer named Guillaume le Gentil, who left Paris a year before the transit and headed for a spot on the southeast coast of India called Pondicherry. He was delayed in landing by an extended naval skirmish, part of the Seven Years’ War. Weeks passed, then Transit Day came and went with le Gentil trapped on a rocking ship, unable to take useful measurements.

Instead of returning home, he decided he might as well hang out until the next transit eight years later, on June 4th, 1769. He killed some time mapping Madagascar, then returned to Pondicherry, built himself a little observatory, and bided his time.

June 4th dawned bright and clear, and le Gentil sat with growing excitement in his observatory, waiting for the transit.

Moments before it began, a cloud rolled over the sun. The view remained obscured for the duration of the transit, then cleared nicely when it was too late. Le Gentil nearly lost his mind. Honestly, who wouldn’t.

Then things got worse. He decided to return home, but first got dysentery and had to miss his ship. He got better, then caught another ship, which wrecked off the coast of Réunion. He made it to shore, then eventually caught a Spanish ship home. He arrived in Paris eleven years after he left, only to learn he’d been declared dead and had lost his coveted seat in the French Academy of Sciences. His wife had remarried — although seriously, can you blame her? — and everything he owned had been sold off.

He essentially sued everyone, got his stuff back, got back into the academy, got him a new wife, and did just fine. But he never saw the transit of Venus. And after about 18 hours of clouds and rain, it looked like we wouldn’t either.

But then, then, just as the transit began yesterday at 6pm, I saw a sudden brightness outside. I jumped up from the dinner table, threw together a pinhole camera and ran out to the front yard with Laney in tow. Sure enough, after about five minutes of focusing and refocusing, Laney and I saw that tiny magic dot and screamed.

We walked back inside. My wife was still there, and no one had eaten my tilapia. In the history of transit-watching, that counts as a win.

Squirrel!

McGowans just don’t do sports that way.
Connor McGowan

My kids are sportier than ever I was — which is to say they play sports, period, at all. But I’d never thought much about the way they do it until last week when I overheard Connor (16), Erin (14), and Becca talking about it.

Connor’s done T-ball, soccer, football, basketball, and wrestling…each for 1-2 years. Erin was on swim team and played soccer and basketball, then dabbled in track before finding and adoring volleyball. Delaney (10) has done two years swimming and six years of rec-level soccer. Regardless of length, they’ve all been low key, and each sport has competed for time and focus with a lot of other dabblings — acting, photography, science, guitar, piano, paintball, graphic design, and the art of sitting around.

Erin’s on the cusp of her freshman year and planning to try out for the high school volleyball team, so she’s attending a volleyball training program two mornings a week, run by the high school coach. Erin has terrific skills and has come a long way in recent years. Still, this program is really pushing her both physically and in terms of skill development, in part because she’s encountering The Ones Who Live to Volley— girls whose exit from the womb was preceded by a wicked spike. Erin loves volleyball, but these girls ARE volleyball. She brings four years of YMCA ball with her, while they’ve got eight years of bloodcurdling competitive league play. Some of them train with a private coach instead of Dad in the driveway. It shows…and it’s kind of freaking her out.

Boy, do I get it.

Erin was describing these Übervolleymädchen when Connor offered his observation that McGowans just don’t do sports that way. He really could have said we don’t do anything that way. We’re not monomaniacal focusers, he explained. We’re dabblers. We’re generalists. “That’s good,” he said. “You don’t want to let one thing take over your life.”

The voice in my head had come out to play.

I’d never thought of this as a family trait, but it certainly sums me up…for better and worse. My life could be described as the continuous inability to walk into the Baskin-Robbins of life and pick a damn flavor, from hobbies to college majors to actual careers. As a result, I’ve been pretty good at a dozen things but master of nothing. Before I get a chance to dig in and own something, really own it, the squirrel in my periphery — a different instrument to play, a different major, a different course to teach or book to read or career to try — that pretty, fluffy squirrel gets itself good and chased. Until I see a chipmunk, ooh!!

Even within a given rodent, I never stand still long enough to acquire genuine depth or experience. When somebody once introduced me before a speech as a “Renaissance man,” I winced. That’s just an insult to the 16th century. Da Vinci somehow dipped his whole damn self into each of the many things he did, while I’m like a wine taster with a gnat’s attention span. By the end of the day, I’ve tasted a hundred vintages and am not even slightly drunk because most of the wine is on the front of my shirt. Oh sure, I’m “better rounded” than I would otherwise be, which is great, but SQUIRREL!!!

Though I can’t join them, I’ve always been grateful for people with the focus to get insanely good at one thing. We owe the modern world to them. But I’m a generalist, skating over the lovely surface of their achievements, and my kids are too. We each know a little about a whole lot. I really love that approach to life, but once in a while it bites me on the ass — like every time Dabbling Dale is tinkering with a new shiny thing, only to be tapped on the shoulder by The One Who Has Mastered The Shiny Thing You Are Now Holding Upside Down.

They don’t mean to tap the shoulder. Well pfft actually yes, they sometimes do. My greatest humiliations were intentional shoulder taps by one Thing-Masterer or another. Right now Erin is encountering a less intentional but still difficult consequence of being a dancing, sampling generalist instead of a specialist.

There’s another downside, one that is catching up with me in a big way lately. I blogged recently about flow, and my love of the idea, and the fact that I just don’t experience it that often. Maybe if I had stopped to develop one area more intensely instead of hopscotching full time, I could achieve those deeper flow experiences that elude me.

When I heard Connor trying to make Erin feel better by identifying generalism as a family trait, and a good one at that, I was really mixed. In addition to the flow question, the specialized paths are much better lit. It was never the thing for me, at all, but in addition to the undeniable thrill of seeing the world in a complexly synthesized way, there’s been some real hell to pay for being a generalist.

Yes I know, it’s not either-or. Except it is. If you try to be a specialist with some added breadth, you will, eventually and repeatedly, run into The Specialist Without Breadth who (with a permission slip from Darwin) will happily crush you underfoot on the way to the medal podium.

I’m trying to be aware of this “family trait” of generalism, and most days, I still feel it’s the better way. But that’s partly because of who I am, of course. I need to let my kids know there’s another valid way, and that specializing has massive payoffs of its own. If they do keep following me into the general, they need to know they are in for a fascinating trip, the occasional humiliation, and a shirtful of really great wine.

6000 days

Part 3 of 3.
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The aim that the child should grow up to become confidently independent is synonymous with the aim that the child should grow up mentally healthy.
Psychologist John Bowlby (1956)

We’re born with brains wired up for the Paleolithic, not for the world as it is today. We’ve developed better ways of knowing and controlling the world around us, but the fears and behaviors that protected us in that era — fear of difference, hypervigilance, out-group aggression, love of clear categories and authority, magical thinking — are still with us, even though they’ve now become either pointless or dangerous.

I want to help my kids let go of those fears so they can have a better life.

Religious and social conservatism are symptoms of those fears, reactions to the problem of being a Stone Age human. For the half of the planet still living in marginal conditions, that problem is mostly unsolved. For the rest of us — thanks to agriculture, germ theory, separating our drinking water from our poop, the scientific method, and a thousand other advances, we’ve made some serious progress. And that partial solution has made all the difference, freeing us up to live better lives than we once did.

I want my kids to get that very good news.

Education, experience, and parenting take a child from Stone Age newborn to modern adult in about 6,000 days. Or so we hope. In addition to shoe tying, the five-paragraph essay, algebra, good oral hygiene, the age of the universe, the French Revolution, and how to boil an egg, there’s something else we need to help them learn, or better yet, feel — that life is better and you have more control than your factory settings would have you believe.

At a convention five years back, author/filmmaker (and Darwin great-great-grandson) Matthew Chapman was asked why Europe rapidly secularized after the Second World War while the U.S. remained devout. He paused for a moment. “Honestly,” he said, “I think socialized medicine had a lot to do with it.”

Not the answer we were expecting.

For most of the history of our species, he said, we’ve been haunted by an enormous sense of personal insecurity, and for good reason. The threat of death or incapacity was always hanging over us. Religion offered a sense of security, the illusion of control. Once the states of Europe began to relieve some of those basic fears, people began to feel a greater sense of control and security, and the need for traditional religion began to wane.

Whether that’s the whole answer or not, I think he’s on to something here. Traditional religion is driven by human insecurity. I have a good number of friends and relations in the deep and toxic end of the religious pool, and I can’t think of one who truly jumped in unpushed. Some were born into it and raised to believe they couldn’t live without it. Other experienced some kind of life crisis resulting in a terrifying loss of control that pushed those ancient buttons — and they jumped in with both feet.

I feel immense empathy for these people — even as their beliefs make me nauseous.

I also have many friends who genuinely chose religion instead of needing it. And lo and behold, these folks tend to end up in more liberal expressions, doing little harm and a lot of good. They aren’t hostages to their innate fears. In fact, they have a lot more in common with me than with the people hyperventilating and clinging to Jesus in the deep end.

I really don’t care if my kids end up identifying with religion so long as it’s a choice, not a need. And the best way I can ensure that is by using these 6,000 days to give them not just knowledge but also confidence and security.

Turns out we know how to do this. You start with a sensitive, responsive, and consistent home life. Build a strong attachment with parents and other significant adults. Don’t hit or humiliate them or let others do so. Encourage them to challenge authority, including your own. Make them comfortable with difference. Use knowledge to drive out fear. Build a sense of curiosity and wonder that will keep them self-educating for life. Let them know that your love and support are unconditional. Teach and expect responsibility and maturity. Encourage self-reliance. Help them find and develop “flow” activities and lose themselves in them.

These aren’t off the top of my head, you know — they’re straight out of the best child development research, which strongly supports attachment theory and authoritative parenting, about which more later. Bottom line, the best practices for nonreligious parenting are in sync with the best practices for…parenting.

Now isn’t THAT nice.

We may have to contend with a lot of noise in our culture and even our own extended families, but when it comes to raising “confidently independent, mentally healthy” kids, the best current knowledge is on our side. And our additional hope of keeping our kids in charge of their own worldview decisions comes along in the bargain.

Conservative religious parents have to close their eyes and swim hard upstream against this research consensus, following James Dobson et al. back to the Paleolithic. But liberal religious parents, who share most of my parenting goals, have the same advantage I do. They can even claim one of the foremost advocates of attachment theory as their own — William Sears, a sane and sensible Christian parenting author who opposes almost every major parenting position of James Dobson.

I bang on and on about how and why to let our kids intersect with religion. They’re good and important questions. But every one of those questions rests on the much more fundamental question of confidence and security. Build that foundation first, and the rest is icing.