© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Kids’ behavior baffles secular dad

Help me out with this one.

My kids have been showing a pattern of behavior lately. Well, truthfully, it’s nothing new. They’ve been this way for years. But it’s only lately that I’ve come to recognize it as a pattern, and I just can’t figure out where it comes from.

My worldview is completely nontheistic, so as you know I choose my morals at random every Monday morning and teach my kids to do the same. Connor chooses his each week from a fancy wheel-of-fortune gizmo. Erin uses a dartboard. I guess I’m old-fashioned: I draw my morals out of a hat.

Which is why this pattern of behavior in my kids has me scratching my head.

Let me start with my oldest. Connor, 11, can’t stand to see an animal hurt, even spiders, even insects. When a bat got into his grandmother’s house, evangelical Grandma wanted to get a tennis racket and whack it straight to Jesus. But Connor (then eight) insisted on catch-and-release — and, to our astonishment, managed it himself.

This was easy enough to explain. “Be kind to other living things” must have come up when he’d spun the wheel that week. It’s right there between “trip blind people” and “pee in the lemonade when nobody’s looking.”

He has three jars for his money. No, not JOY (Jesus, Others, Yourself), but SOY (Savings, Others, Yourself). But here’s the weird thing: He splits his allowance evenly among the jars. I first noticed this shortly after we’d seen a homeless man under a bridge on Regent’s Canal in London. Connor was deeply affected by this. He wrote a poem about that man and we talked at length about how fortunate we are. The very next week I noticed that the money in the jar for “others” was even with the one for himself. I just can’t figure out why. Even when his spending jar is tapped out, it never occurs to him to go into the one reserved for others. To date, he has saved several acres of rainforest and sent food to hurricane victims with that jar.

It gets weirder. He wanted a MySpace page. We looked into it a bit and decided, ah, no — especially when we learned that he would have to lie about his age to register. I had chosen “don’t lie” from the hat that week, so the MySpace page was out of the question. He agreed, grudgingly, so I’m guessing “don’t lie” had come up on his wheel that week as well. A funny coincidence.

When we offered instead to allow Connor to set up his own website, he leapt at the chance. I thought he might include game links, photos of himself, maybe a blog about football or Green Day, and some sketches of his inventions. But no. Instead, he immediately hit on the idea of a website that would feature one worthy cause per month, with articles and links about that cause. Connor will write to celebrities each month, encouraging them to donate money through the site to that cause. The top donor each month will be interviewed by Connor for the site.

“How much of the money will you keep for yourself?” I asked.

He looked at me, puzzled. “None. Why?”

“Why? Jeez, I dunno,” I said sheepishly. “I can’t remember where I put my list.”

See the pattern? Don’t kill, don’t lie, take care of others — it seems, in some odd way I can’t place, to be a non-random list.

I consulted friends of various worldviews — a Buddhist, a Jew, a Humanist, a Utilitarian, a Christian, a Jain — and learned that there is a name for this pattern. They all called it “goodness.” Somehow, inexplicably, even in the absence of belief in a god, my son happens to have selected values that add up to something known as “goodness.”

I just can’t figure why that would be.

He doesn’t go to church or Sunday School and does not believe God is watching him. He thinks The Ten Commandments is a thrash metal group. Yet he gravitates toward behaviors that are undeniably — lemme see, what would the adjective be? — “goodnessful.”

His sisters seem headed down the same path — showing “kindness,” expressing “empathy” for those less fortunate, hating “injustice,” planning a life of “service to others.” Stuff like that. One begins to suspect that our family’s random, blind process of moral selection is in fact…non-random.

Now I must admit, they aren’t consistent in this pattern. Last Saturday, Connor lay in wait for his sisters at the edge of the porch roof with cold water balloons and pelted them mercilessly, even when they asked him to stop. We called him inside and asked how he would feel if someone did that to him. Later he apologized to the girls. Grudgingly. We insisted on it. Not sure why, but we did.

Yesterday was Monday morning, and my curiosity about the pattern began to overwhelm me. I tiptoed to Connor’s door and quietly peeked into the room while he was spinning the wheel for the week. It slowed to a stop on “Steal and cheat.” He looked around — fortunately he didn’t see me — and then did something I simply can’t explain. He shook his head and spun the wheel again and again, until it landed on “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

That one he wrote on his list for the week.

Any ideas for how to restore moral chaos to our home will be gratefully received.



This was written on Tuesday, 22. May 2007 at 09:57 and was filed under morality, 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. I don’t know about restoring moral chaos at your home, unless to offer exchange of kids 😀 but I have an urge to say something about what you wrote.

    I was born in Yugoslavia, at the time strictly communist country, where word God was the target of comedies (such as the sentence of the partizan Nikoletina Bursac coming from war telling his mother “Mother, from now on, God doesn’t exist anymore” “What on Earth you are saying???” “Commissar said so: there is no God anymore!”). Well, my father found some more on Earth explanations “Look, Tanja, people had to believe in something, they didn’t have science to explain, so they had God. Besides, church was the only source of literacy, but today it is old-fashioned, and religion should stay in history books as the means of culture” And so I did take that for granted. It was easy. As the proof, my Dad told me event from his childhood that convinced him in attitude he had: in Serbia (Orthodox), our family has St John as saint patronate – it is more of family event, sort of reunion, rather than religious event. It is more about what you will eat and have fun. But my Grandpa was strict and very religious man. He never skipped fasting when it was supposed to be, so just in fasting time (no meat, eggs etc), he send my Dad to the priest to bring something. My Dad went, knock at the priest’s house, and this one invited him inside. As it was breakfast time, he also invited my Dad to join him. And the breakfast itself was something that shocked my Dad big time! Bacon and eggs!!! In the middle of the strict fast time!!! So my Dad asked for explanation of the “holly” man, and he sure got one: “Look, son, that fasting rule was made so people would spare some food for the time when they need it the most: fast is in winter, when there is no field work, and in the early spring, when you need strong food for ploughing, other food is not ready yet!”

    Well, this explanation at the time my Dad learned (age about 12) and I was told (around similar age), worked for me really good.

    Another very important person in my life is my Grandma Nana. She had unique attitude about religion: she had the deepest respect for nature I have ever seen! And yet again, she consider that religion: she was illiterate, but she knew all the letters – she was the one who taught me to read and write; she never went to bed until first pray in her own way “Thank you, Sun, for the light and warmth, thank you, Earth, for the goods provided, thank you, God, for the health of my family and myself” Hmm…. one would tell she was deeply religious. Well, you should hear her swearing and cussing out loud – that one would never get out from the mouth of the religious person.

    I’ve learned from both of them one thing: call it God, or Earth, or Nature or whatever you want, there is something we should deeply respect: simply Man is too small to got it all. Another one my Dad taught me was this one: “Tanja, you have to know one thing: single Man knows NOTHING, but all the people in this world gathered know EVERYTHING” and the Golden Rule was something they both learned in their own way, learning from mistakes they made. Both of them cleverly saw through church people: they learned people practicing and preaching religion are the same human as we are – prone to mistakes, wanting power… there was not a single reason to be in their service.

    After blood shed in tearing apart Yugoslavia, where many “holly men” had their input in each side involved, I am even more convinced that church can be as dangerous place as any other totalitarian gathering spot. But on the other hand, life taught me to be far more humble and to stay open for certain things in life that are not so readily described with up to date science.

    My attitude about it is just like with ultrasound or X-rays: by mid 50ties one of the routine exams for pregnant women was to send them to X-ray to check out the position of the baby!!!! I’ve learned this from regular Medical University book I came upon in Belgrade (printed in 1953). Again, yes, none of us is able to hear ultrasound, but it is stupid to deny the existence of it. From what I know, worse than ignorance is apriori denial.

    I really don’t know how the Bible was written… I didn’t even read it but few parts. I don’t even know commandments by heart, and confession to anyone but my own friends I consider lurking into someone’s privacy, not welcome at all! But if you take a look from the other side, isn’t it that the most of rules written there something that on the long run can be considered as evolutionary stable strategy?

    I know far more people acting according to the golden rule and commandments amongst atheists, rather than religious people. On the contrary: the worst characters I’ve ever met were amongst religious fanatics – I was always puzzled how come they are so blind? Like Simon and Garfunkel are singing “Havens holds the place for those who pray, yeah yeah yea…” the same are those people: doing all sorts of awful acts but with one lit candle and fast and donation to the church, they “rinse” the sin and are feeling great! The heck with them!

    I prefer having clear conscience and stick to the golden rule. I do forgive people who hurt me, not for reserving place in heaven, yet for to set free my RAM for something that will produce more epinefrin and burst my immune system consequently. I have been in situation to hate or feel hurt by someone’s actions, and it brought my own misery – so I chose not to give them my own energy and attention, was it called forgiveness???

    And at the end: taking care of other people, not to mention the overall effect on biosphere, is ultimately selfish in my opinion (I do admit I am selfish in that one immensely!): I simply feel good when I help someone and that someone feels good due to that action. I suspect that is the result of being surrounded with animals all of my life, and they trained me to read their behavior and eyes instead of listen to their talk. So I learned.

    I don’t know if this helped you – it helped me 😉

    My best wishes to all of you 😀


    Comment: Tanja Sova – 22. May 2007 @ 12:50 pm

  2. My goodness, that was fascinating! Thanks for that.

    Comment: Dale – 22. May 2007 @ 1:31 pm

  3. Great post. Let us know when he gets his site up! 🙂

    Speaking of non-believers sharing the wealth: http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=51344

    Comment: Mike Horn – 24. May 2007 @ 1:25 pm

  4. I found this blog a few days ago, shortly after getting your book (PBB), I love the way you write. The humor and reason is great. Very engaging.

    Your son sounds wonderful – and if you ever chose to disclose his website address, I will hook my kids up to it and maybe we’ll donate to his cause of the month.

    I have a 10 year old boy, and a 5 year old boy myself. We also don’t go to church or preach the 10 commandments to them. And yet, as you described, they are very VERY good kids. Most of our church-going friends think we are doing them a great dis-service by not bringing them up in the church – but, even they can’t help but comment frequently about what GOOD kids they are.

    My father was an atheist… my mother a religious nut. Ask me where I learned most of my own personal good morals from? Who do you think was it that my brothers and I turned to for really good advice? Who taught us and SHOWED us about the golden rule and about doing the right thing…. about enjoying family and what was really important in life? About goodness, if you will?? (Hint – It wasn’t my mom).

    I know that church and religion, or even the belief in God, don’t make a person “good”. It must be all in the luck of the draw for the morals that week. 😉


    Comment: samanthamj – 16. June 2007 @ 8:53 am

  5. How to restore moral chaos? Simple. Introduce religion! Hand them all bibles, and tell them they must adhere to everything that “God” says. They’ll be asking for slaves, smiting those who work on the Sabbath, and having strange moral problems with eating shellfish in no time.

    Comment: Richard – 17. June 2007 @ 10:32 am

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