Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

I think most nonreligious parents would really enjoy the first two chapters of The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (“Childhood” and “Adolescence”). Among other things, this section recounts his transition from a Christian upbringing to agnostic atheism.

Bertrand Russell portrait by Memnoch-Plopk, Deviantart

But another passage much later in the book would have been worth reading the whole thing just to find:

Ever since puberty I have believed in the value of two things: kindness and clear thinking. At first these two remained more or less distinct; when I felt triumphant I believed most in clear thinking, and in the opposite mood I believed most in kindness. (vol 2, p. 232)

Nonreligious folks are not unkind. Many are the gentlest and kindest people I know. But in our meetings and conferences and blogs and social media, we sometimes overlook the topic of human emotional needs. We focus instead on the need for clear thinking — until we are feeling “the opposite of triumphant” and find ourselves, as individuals, hoping for a kind word or thought or deed. Russell’s first value rushes in.

As a parent, I find myself more upset by the unkindnesses my children do than by any fuzziness of thought. And I find it harder to forgive my own lapses in the former than in the latter.

Kurt Vonnegut circled around the same idea in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. The protagonist is asked to say a few words for the baptism of his neighbor’s twins. What do you say to welcome new lives into the world? Here’s what Vonnegut found fitting:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

 

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.

A Bump in the Fence Line: One Step Further from Bigotry

I love finding out that a concept I’ve had in my head for years has a name.

Example: Someone dislikes all gays, then learns that his brother is gay. Instead of dropping the prejudice altogether, he will often grant an exception: “I don’t like gays, but Kevin’s okay.”

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell call this the Aunt Susan principle. Even people in relatively homogeneous families and social groups often (and increasingly) have an Aunt Susan or a “pal Al” who is different from the rest — a Jew among Christians, gay among straights, atheist among believers — and still a good egg. Granting the exception can be a first step toward dismantling assumptions and stereotypes.

Multiple studies have shown that support for same-sex marriage is strongly linked to having close friends or family who are gay. It’s less a comprehensive change-of-heart than a willingness to accommodate someone in your own circle.

I learned from Dr. Brittany Shoots-Reinhard  that social psychologists have an even better name for this kind of exception-making. It’s called re-fencing. Instead of tearing down the fence that separates us from a disliked or distrusted group, we build a little bump in the fence line to accommodate the one we know and love.

It’s not always a positive thing. Re-fencing can also be a way of resisting that bigger step, a form of “stereotype maintenance” rather than stereotype change.

But it can be a start. The key to helping someone move past this middle step, to encourage a more complete dismantling of the prejudice, Shoots-Reinhard says, is to “confront people with multiple instances of disconfirmation, like multiple friends coming out as atheist.”

In time, hopefully, the fence becomes too curvy to stand.

Checking in on FBB

Foundation Beyond Belief, the humanist giving community I first announced on this blog, is continuing to grow, and I realized recently I haven’t been keeping Meming of Life readers in the loop very well. Bad Dad.

We now have over 1,300 contributing members and have raised over three-quarters of a million dollars for more than 100 charities since our 2010 launch. Volunteers Beyond Belief now includes teams of humanist volunteers in 23 cities across the U.S., and we’re launching our first international affiliates in Canada and Australia later this year.

Here’s a peek at our current slate of beneficiaries:

Now why not join up?

Just do it?

(First appeared May 13, 2010)

“My heart goes out to the man…who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it… ”
from A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard

We — and by “we” I mean we humans, we trousered apes — love us some unquestioning obedience.

garciaThe passage above is from a modern version of the unquestioning hero — A Message to Garcia. Published in 1899, this essay tells the story of Andrew Summers Rowan, an American military officer who took a difficult order in the run-up to the Spanish-American War and carried it out without asking (as the author put it) “any idiotic questions.” The order: Deliver a message from President William McKinley to rebel leader Calixto Garcia enlisting Garcia’s help against the Spanish. Rowan did so, impressing posterity in a way that probably surprised even him.

Never mind that the Spanish-American War is seen by the consensus of historians as one of the more shameful and cynical military adventures in U.S. history — quite an achievement if you think of the competition. The value of the story doesn’t depend much on the setting. I’m not even mostly interested in Rowan’s act (though Rowan, writing years later, was plenty impressed with himself). I’m interested in what our drooling admiration of the unquestioning obedience in the story says about us.

“No man, who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man–the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it,” Hubbard says in his essay. Among the questions that count as “idiotic” to Hubbard is any attempt to clarify an assignment. The greatest felony, though, is asking why.

In the Foreword to a later edition of the essay, Hubbard recounts with astonished glee the instant demand for copies in the millions. “A copy of the booklet [was] given to every railroad employee in Russia,” he says, as well as every Russian soldier who went to the front in the Russo-Japanese War. Then “the Japanese, finding the booklets in possession of the Russian prisoners, concluded it must be a good thing, and accordingly translated it into Japanese,” after which “a copy was given to every man in the employ of the Japanese Government, soldier or civilian. Over forty million copies of A Message To Garcia have been printed. This is said to be a larger circulation than any other literary venture has ever attained during the lifetime of an author, in all history,” Hubbard crows, “thanks to a series of lucky accidents.”

Like the accidental fact that it strokes our delight in an orderly world.

It’s easy to see why the powerful call unquestioning obedience a virtue. Garcia is supposedly assigned by U.S. military brass as required reading for the enlisted, for example, and I get that. CEOs buy copies in the thousands for their employees. But why do those of us at lower pay grades find encouragement and comfort in the idea of shutting up and doing what you’re told when it mostly ends up applying to us?

Same reason: The human fear of disorder. It’s an equal opportunity terror. Order means safety. The idea that someone somewhere has a handle on the variables and infinite wisdom offers a much more fundamental reassurance than the messy process of discourse, Natural selection has given us a fear of disorder, and questions bring disorder with them, so the confident following of the orders of superiors gets our slathering vote.

But what if the superior is wrong? What if the order is immoral? Look at those bent, disorderly punctuation marks, each one a curving road to hell. Just do it, and teach your kids the same — if you don’t mind having them follow a straight-road exclamation mark to the very dark side once in a while.

If on the other hand you want to raise powerfully ethical kids, teach them to ask those “idiotic” questions — and to insist on knowing the reasons behind what they are told to be and do.

Full text of Message to Garcia, with Author’s Foreword

See also:
Best Practices 2: Encourage active moral reasoning
When good people say (really, really) bad things

On being awake

To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

From Walden by Henry David Thoreau

A question on the Parenting Beyond Belief Facebook page brought this post to mind from August 2008:

I had just been interviewed for the satellite radio program “About Our Kids,” a production of Doctor Radio and the NYU Child Study Center, on the topic of Children and Spirituality. Also on the program was the editor of Beliefnet, whom I irritated only once that I could tell. Heh.

“Spirituality” has wildly different meanings to different people. When a Christian friend asked several years ago how we achieved spirituality in our home without religion, I asked if she would first define the term as she understood it.

“Well…spirituality,” she said. “You know—having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and accepting him into your life as Lord and Savior.”

Erp. Yes, doing that without religion would be a neat trick.

So when the interviewer asked me if children need spirituality, I said sure, but offered a more helpful definition—one that doesn’t exclude 91 percent of the people who have ever lived. Spirituality is about being awake. It’s the attempt to transcend the mundane, sleepwalking experience of life we all fall into, to tap into the wonder of being a conscious and grateful thing in the midst of an astonishing universe. It doesn’t require religion. In fact, religion can and often does blunt our awareness by substituting false and frankly inferior wonders for real ones. It’s a fine joke on ourselves that most of what we call spirituality is actually about putting ourselves to sleep.

For maximum clarity, instead of “spiritual but not religious,” those so inclined could say “not religious–just awake.”

I didn’t say all that on the program, of course. That’s just between you, me, and the Internet. But I did offer as an example my children’s fascination with personal improbability — thinking about the billions of things that had to go just so for them to exist — and contrasted it with predestinationism, the idea that God works it all out for us, something most orthodox traditions embrace in one way or another. Personal improbability has transported my kids out of the everyday more than anything else so far.

Evolution is another. Taking a walk in woods over which you have been granted dominion is one kind of spirituality, I guess. But I find walking among squirrels, mosses, and redwoods that are my literal relatives to be a bit more foundation-rattling.

Another world-shaker is mortality itself. This is often presented as a problem for the nonreligious, but in terms of rocking my world, it’s more of a solution. Spirituality is about transforming your perspective, transcending the everyday, right? One of my most profound ongoing “spiritual” influences is the lifelong contemplation of my life’s limits, the fact that it won’t go on forever. That fact grabs me by the collar and lifts me out of traffic more effectively than any religious idea I’ve ever heard. A different spiritual meat, to be sure, but no less powerful.

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.

Missing church

Quick coda to yesterday’s post.

Peer-reviewed research is great when you can get it, but a lot of the questions at the heart of my work fall in the remaining gaps between studies. Until those gaps fill in, I have to find other ways of ferreting out the answers.

I’ve long been interested in what people get out of going to church. I attended long enough myself and know enough churchgoers to know that one common answer — “they go to stay out of hell” — is a cartoon. True for some, but not for most of the churchgoers I know.

To find out, you can ask them directly, and I do. But in the category of You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone, you can sometimes get even better answers by asking former churchgoers what they miss about church. Sometimes I do this in person; sometimes I turn to the Goog.

A search for quoted phrases like “I miss about church,” “I miss most about church,” “I miss from church,” “I liked most about church,” and so on doesn’t turn up a lot of people missing the idea of God or heaven. Some, sure. But mostly they’re missing exactly what the Wisconsin/Harvard study said they were getting out of it in the first place: community, connection, purpose, inspiration, personal growth, support.

Listen:

What I miss about church is the feeling of community

I always left feeling inspired to be a better person

The only thing about church I miss is the instant community support 

I miss the opportunity to have a good sing

I miss joining with others to do good

I miss the feeling of belonging that I had

I miss the feeling of connection and common purpose

I miss feeling a part of something greater than myself

The fellowship and feeling of community is about the only thing I miss about church

Volunteering gives me the same satisfaction I once derived from church, a feeling of connectedness to my fellow man

Not all of us miss all of those things equally, and some of us don’t miss any of them one bit. Tom Flynn’s recent piece titled “Why Seculars Don’t Sing” gives articulate voice to the latter, even as its title overreaches on two counts, and by miles. (More on that in an upcoming post.) But a lot of entirely secular people do feel a certain sense of loss when they leave church, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with God or worship.

As a movement, we often act as if church is about God, period. If we can just pry people away from that delusion, goes the reasoning, they’ll walk away whistling. When we grasp that it’s mostly about something else and start building meaningful secular alternatives that go waaaaay beyond the intellectual, I think we’ll be amazed at how quickly God takes a powder. Until then, we really don’t deserve a bigger slice of the cultural pie. Fortunately there’s all sorts of recent action in this area, from Volunteers Beyond Belief to the Humanist Community Project at Harvard and an ever-greater focus on community and mutual support among local groups.

So if you were once a churchgoer: What if anything do you miss, and have you found good secular alternatives? What do you see as the greatest need?

The Social Network

One of the real pleasures of being neck-deep in the freethought movement at the moment is how quickly the conversation is growing up. Not that it isn’t still fun and worthwhile to throw tomatoes at bad religion. But we’re also talking a lot more about building our own community, including — psst, here’s the grown-up part — learning from what religion has done well.

If religion did nothing but scare people into giving money or doing as they’re told, or comfort them with fables, or validate innate hatreds, I wouldn’t bother looking for anything to borrow. But we’re getting beyond these half-answers to recognize benefits that might actually be worth a good think.

One such benefit came out in a Harvard/Wisconsin study in the December 2010 issue of American Sociological Review. Other studies had suggested that churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers by several life-satisfaction indicators, but this one actually dug in to ask why that might be.

Turns out there’s another essential variable: Churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers only if they have significant friendships in the congregation. As the number and significance of the friendships increase, so does life satisfaction. And those who attend church regularly but have no strong connections to others in the congregation show less life satisfaction than non-churchgoers.

Now there’s something worth noticing. Chaeyoon Lim, one of the lead researchers, put it this way:

[Life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect,” said UW Madison’s Chaeyoon Lim, one of the lead researchers. “People are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church because they build a social network within their congregation….We think it has to do with the fact that you meet a group of close friends on a regular basis and participate in certain activities that are meaningful to the group. At the same time, they share a certain social identity…The sense of belonging seems to be the key to the relationship between church attendance and life satisfaction.

Brings to mind a poll cited by Amanda Metskas in Raising Freethinkers:

[T]heology is less important to most churchgoers than a number of other benefits. In many cases, they attend despite the theology. It is telling that only 27 percent of churchgoing US respondents to a 2007 Gallup poll even mentioned God when asked for the main reason they attend church. Most people go for personal growth, for guidance in their lives, to be encouraged, to be inspired—or for the community and fellowship of other members. These, not worship, are the primary needs fulfilled by churches. (p. 206)

God is the frame in which many people hang their most deeply felt human needs. One of the best things we can do as a movement is think about how best to reframe that legitimate human picture.

Group Hug image CC BY 2.0

6000 days

Part 3 of 3.
Go to Part 1
or Part 2.

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.