September 25, 2014

Atheist Mama: How do you teach your children about morality?



Today I read a great piece by Libby Anne over at Love, Joy, Feminism, titled "Obedience, Empathy, and the Laundry Hamper" that talked about the differences in values in secular and religious (conservative religious, mostly) homes.

We've talked some about family values differences here too--or the lack thereof, in some instances.

Libby Anne's piece got me thinking about a common objection I hear to secular parenting: morality. How do you raise moral children without a god?

It's a good question in a place where so many people come from a religious background, and don't understand nonbelief, and one that I think Libby Anne touches on, at least as it manifests in our family.

We don't believe in morality based on obedience. We practice a morality based on empathy.

And we like it that way.


What does a morality based on empathy look like? Well, I like to look at it as fostering a wide variety of character traits in my kiddos. They need to be creative to find solutions. They need to reason, and consider their options. They need to problem-solve and compromise. They need to be able to communicate what they need and deduce what others need. They need to be able to encourage dialogue.

It all begins with pride and respect. Pride is often a no-no in Christian backgrounds, but as I've come into my secular worldview, I've adopted it as a key part of parenting. It's not to be confused with arrogance, which is not something that I think anyone wants to encourage in their children.

But I do want my kids to be proud of themselves. I want them to have pride in their abilities and their accomplishments. I want them to have pride in the way that they speak, the things that they read, the activities that they participate in. You'll often hear this expressed in other terms--"self-confidence", for instance, is a popular one. So is "self-esteem". But these are just rebrandings of the same concept--pride:

a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired

Pride is a starting point, because I truly believe that seeing the worth in yourself is a key part to having a healthy relationship with those around you.

Respect is the second aspect I mentioned above. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

We look at respect in a variety of lights. On the one hand, beings garner a certain amount of baseline respect just by virtue of existing, in my opinion. It's why we outlaw things like "cruel and unusual punishments", for instance--there's a level of respect there. It's why I support humane and sustainable farming and ranching--living beings of all types deserve respect.

Certain beings/people will garner respect from us at higher levels. They will "earn" it. Certain positions garner respect too--while it's okay to question a teacher, for instance, I'd never be okay with my child blatantly disrespecting one. You can respectfully articulate differences, and that's another key to having healthy relationships.

So how do these concepts come together to form the basis for a secular code of morality to raise my children with?

Well, pride gives an aspect of "you are worthy" while respect adds an aspect of "they are worthy". Instead of an "us and them", you have a concept of "everyone is worthy of respect". I find it a very complementary basis to the concept of natural rights, which I also strongly believe in.

Empathy chimes in with a "we are not so different really". It's a key outgrowth of respect.

When you look at the world, as a person who is worthy, you are able to make decisions that are good for you. You aren't going to allow yourself to be used or abused, and I think this is part of morality--part of it should be standing up for yourself.

When you look around you and see others as worthy, you have created a level playing ground for moral decision making. When you factor in empathy, you want what's best for the people around you too.

If I were to sum up our secular moral code, then, into a single statement, it would look like this:

Make the world better for yourself and for those around you.

Sometimes, it's easier said than done, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't give it our best go anyway.

I'll finish this post off with a brief anecdote and then I promise, I'm done! ;)

Last year, my eldest came home from school in tears. When I asked him what was wrong, he explained that his friends were picking on a classmate who was eating boogers.

When I asked him what he said in return, he said, "I told them that eating boogers is no big deal. It's no reason to be mean. I eat my boogers too!"

While gross, I was pleased to see that his empathy informed his moral decision--he felt compassion and was moved to speak up. When we talked about how he could support his friend who was being picked on, he came up with some great ideas. Eating with her at lunch. Talking to the teacher if he thought she was going to be hurt or was feeling really sad by it. But mostly just being her friend.

This has been one of the biggest shifts of my post-religious life--this change in parenting--but I have never been happier, or more sure, than in that moment.

You can raise moral children without God...and they can still surprise you with their depths of empathy, compassion and courage.

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