March 05, 2015

Atheist Mama: A parenting breakthrough in un-indoctrination

We have a total of four children--my two stepdaughters, who live with their mother, and our sons, who are eight and four.

Our youngest son was born during my backslidden years--the time period when I still identified as a Christian, albeit a pretty bad one according to the standards I'd been raised with. He has rarely set foot inside a church, and has never done so for a regular service. At some point, he will, but for now, he has very little interest in it anyway.

Our older son, though, remembers a time when he and I went to church regularly with the rest of my family. He was raised as a Christian for the first few years of his life, and it has left an impression. It probably didn't help that his best friend is a very fire-and-brimstone Christian--I well remember sitting around the dinner table one evening and my son breaking down in tears, only to explain that we were going to hell because we were bad people. Why were we bad people? Because good people go to church.

That's the level of indoctrination he'd experienced.

As a parent, I was terrified. My spouse and I had several deep conversations. Should we just fake it? The very thought struck me with absolute panic, but our child was obviously experiencing severe distress.

Before committing myself back into a religion--this time knowing full-well that I didn't believe it at all--I tried to come up with some other techniques we could try.

Here's how we have tried to un-indoctrinate our child.


We make a weekly trip to the library.


Every week, we trek to the library. It's one of the highlights of our week.

The boys each pick out a book of their own, usually fiction, and we pick out a nonfiction book that we read together.

We've done a wide variety of subjects. We covered fossils, apache helicopters, lunar cycle, the life cycle of trees, and many, many more.

We started this tradition for a few reasons. One, our state has been under the Common Core State Standards Initiative for the past three years that our older son has been in school. The CCSSI places more focus on nonfiction reading than on fiction, and we wanted to reflect that in our reading at home too--but we aren't made of money. We couldn't afford to invest in a ton of new books.

The library is also a perspective tool. When you walk in and see rows and rows of books, it has an effect, and we wanted the kids to experience that perspective. We all know that there's more information on Google than almost any library, but you can't see it. You can't see how much there is to know by looking at a computer screen. The visual effect of seeing even a fraction of that knowledge, bound and in one place, is an amazing experience.

We model inquisitive behavior.


My spouse and I are naturally curious people. We love a good debate, and we often engage in friendly debates around the kids. We discuss politics, science, and even religion. If you were to peek into our window at night (please don't, I have a terrible fear of people looking in windows at night due to traumatic experiences as a child :)), you'd often see my spouse and I with our feet up, reading. Our kids see that too--and it's crucial.

We are not unlike other animals; our young learn by watching our behavior more so than they even do by listening to what we say. I know this isn't news to the parents following this blog.

From the moment they are born, our children are modeling our behavior--our facial expressions, our words, our gestures.

We've used modeling in a few ways. Recently, we started a family game, movie and pizza night. Every Friday night, we make pizza together, start a movie, and play some boardgames. We quickly realized that our older son had a problem. He was a terrible sport. The slightest change in his luck would send him into a rage.

But here's the thing: looking at his behavior, I could see that winning was the most important thing to him. It wasn't even about enjoying the game. And when we reflected on our own behavior, my spouse and I saw a disturbing trend. We weren't poor sports, but we could definitely see how our ribbing of each other and sometimes ruthlessness could create that attitude in our younguns.

So we instituted a new rule: We would celebrate each other's successes.

And it had to start with us. When we started it, within a single evening of games, we noticed a change--and the change spread. It wasn't just on family game night. It was every day, a significant change in our kids' attitudes towards us and each other. And that was totally unexpected.

Modeling overall is a truly important part of our parenting, and that has made it a key aspect of our un-indoctrination effort.

We ask questions instead of providing answers.


This is actually a relatively new move on our part. I did it based on advice from Dale McGowan in Raising Freethinkers.

When we first started our un-indoctrination, I was determined to have all the answers. If my kids asked a question, I would look it up. I would tell them what I knew. I would give them the answer.

But reading McGowan's work, I had a thought. Was what I really wanted to give them answers, or was my goal to teach them to ask questions? For me, the answer was decidedly the latter--and my technique was decidedly lacking.

So I decided to add seven words to my parenting lexicon: "I don't know. What do you think?"

Sometimes, they would have an answer. Sometimes it would be right, sometimes it would be wrong, but the most important part was that they were asking questions and thinking about the answers for themselves. Sometimes, they ask me to help them find the answer. Sometimes, they even ask my opinion on it, and bounce the question back to me: "I think XYZ, Mom, what do you think?"

Last weekend, we were driving through Charlottte and our route took us by the airport. You could see planes coming in from all directions, and one looked like it was hoovering in mid-air, completely still. My kids were fascinated, and my older son asked, "Why does it look like it is still?"

And I said: "I don't know. I think it has something to do with drag, maybe? What do you think?"

And he said: "I think that it's slowing down because it's getting ready to land. We're going pretty fast, and it's slowing down, and that's what makes it look like it is standing still. If it were really still, it would fall down, because there wouldn't be any air moving to hold it up."

I have no idea if he was right or wrong, but his thought process floored me. If I'd tried to give him the answer, as I had done in the past, I never would have heard it.

We study different religions.


We don't do church (currently) because of the level of emotional trauma it caused me and my older son, in different ways. Eventually, the kids will be free to go with friends, or we may join a local Unitarian Universalist congregation we've been loosely involved with.

But that doesn't mean that religion plays no part in our life. While I'm a pretty militant atheist, bordering on an antitheist in some cases when religion comes boiling over into public life, I don't want to pass those attitudes on to my children. I want them to come to their own conclusions about what they believe.

To do that, they need accurate and unbiased information. So we read about religions. We recently finished What Do You Believe? and we're waiting for Humanism: What's That? from Amazon. I'm looking for different titles geared towards kids on different religions. Our older son in particular is really interested in Buddhism.

As they get older, I'm looking forward to seeing if we can attend different religious ceremonies around town. It's a delicate balance, because I don't want the adherents to feel like we are voyeurs--I just want the kids to have a glimpse of different cultures and beliefs.

We talk. A lot.

We talk a lot. I know, it's pretty much common sense. But it's been incredibly important during this journey, because our children have to feel comfortable talking to us about our beliefs--and theirs. It's important to me that they understand that they are free to believe or not to believe. I have faith in their ability to eventually make the best decisions for themselves.

It's my job to provide them with the best tools to do so. It's my job to talk to them about what I believe and why, to impress upon them that difference in belief is okay. These are responsibilities that I take incredibly seriously.

How's It Working Out?


In the intro, I left my kid crying at the dinner table because we were all going to hell. That was at the end of last summer, and we've been following our un-indoctrination techniques ever since.

So how's it worked out?

Last week, we wrapped up What Do You Believe? and at the end, I was asking our older son what he thought about the book, and he said, "It was cool to see what people believe. I don't know what I believe, or if I believe any of it, but it was cool to see."

He was positive, and happy with that assertion. I reassured him that it's fine to take your time figuring out what you believe--he's eight and still has a long time. Not only is there time to figure it out, but our beliefs change and grow as we do.

And it felt good. Really good. A parenting breakthrough.

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