March 26, 2015

Atheist Mama: Secular parenting does it better?

Back in January, Phil Zuckerman wrote a piece for the LA Times titled "How Secular Family Values Stack Up." It was an op-ed, and it was a great read. It made me excited for Living the Secular Life, Zuckerman's book that is currently lounging on my "To Read" shelf.

Essentially, the piece looked at the findings of the Longitudinal Study of Generations, which in 2013 began including secular families and studying them too.

Zuckerman relates this:

For nearly 40 years, Bengston has overseen the Longitudinal Study of Generations, which has become the largest study of religion and family life conducted across several generational cohorts in the United States. When Bengston noticed the growth of nonreligious Americans becoming increasingly pronounced, he decided in 2013 to add secular families to his study in an attempt to understand how family life and intergenerational influences play out among the religionless. 
He was surprised by what he found: High levels of family solidarity and emotional closeness between parents and nonreligious youth, and strong ethical standards and moral values that had been clearly articulated as they were imparted to the next generation. 
“Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious' parents in our study,” Bengston told me. “The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”

I am personally always skeptical of things that seem to confirm biases that I already have. In this case, my bias is that raising children in a secular or pluralistic fashion is better than raising them in a strictly religious fashion. This is based on my own life experiences, though, and not much else.

So today, I'd like to talk about what I feel secular parenting does better.

These are not things that are exclusive to secular parenting in the slightest. Indeed, for some of them, I draw on my own parents, who were most certainly not secular parents (but both had degrees in education and were familiar with child development). These aren't some kind of atheist indoctrination techniques; they are techniques that can be applied by any parent, regardless of religious background, in my opinion. And, I have to say, I think families will be the better for it.

1. Talk about what you believe and why--and if you are religious, don't stop with, "Because God says so."

It's easy to just go with, "Because I said so," when we are giving kids direction--even when we know that's not the best way to handle it. And maybe it's not so important when giving a task, but when it comes to beliefs, I think it's paramount.

This is something that my religious upbringing did quite well. For most of our beliefs, we had verses and biblical passages we could point to and say, "This is why I believe."

For my secular family today, I do the same thing, minus the scriptures. When we talk about what I believe, I am careful to explain why. When the kids have a situation, we talk through it and examine it from different angles. It involves a lot of questions.

Religious families may be tempted to do just like my parents did--and I don't fault you for it. But I do caution you to think about what could happen if your child loses or doubts that faith as they grow. Giving a more secular basis for beliefs is a great way to make sure that the morals you impart stick with them regardless of any bumps later in life, and I don't think that it has to be done exclusive of the religious component--there are many ways the two approaches can fit together and complement each other.

2. Focus on empathy.

Growing up, I learned that I should be kind to people because of God. I consider myself a kind person, so it must have worked.

But there's a darker side too. My fundamentalist indoctrination gave me a fear of people that are different from me. In some ways, it bolstered the idea that I was morally superior to them. These are ideas that I have to combat daily. I have to constantly guard my thought processes against them. It's gotten better over time, but they are still there, lurking.

That fundamentalist emphasis on, "We are right, we know absolute truth, everyone else is wrong and does not," is problematic. It causes a xenophobic view of the world, a myopic understanding of the individuals around us.

Empathy does the opposite. Empathy doesn't care that we are different; it wants me to step into your shoes and think about how you might see the world. It makes me care about your pain, in part by remembering how my own pains feel.

Empathy is a solid, respectful basis for dealing with the world around us, and the emphasis that secular parenting puts on developing empathy is an incredible strength.

3. Explore religion.

There is always some debate on how atheist and other nonbelieving parents should approach religion. Should we let our own disdain show through? Should we approach it with an open-mind? What materials should we use? Should we sugarcoat the bad stuff in order to give religion a fair shake?

For my part, I think personally compromise between all of the above. I feel like understanding religion--developing religious literacy, to throw out a buzzword--is important for kids who are growing up in a society that is still quite religion, and in a world that has thousands of religions globally. I feel like it is important for them to explore, to understand the basic tenets, and to reach their own conclusions. I feel like this is important not only for their own wellbeing, but for them to have a more empathetic understanding of where other people come from.

However--I also think that it's important for them to know, in age appropriate ways, the downfalls of religion. Even if my children are some day believers, I want them to be the kind of believers that approach situations with empathy and understanding and that try to make their religions better and kinder.

4. Talk about science and rational thinking.

Of course, I can't speak for all secular parents, but in our household, science is incredibly important. We watch documentaries and shows, we do experiments, we talk about news, we read books.  We place a huge emphasis on thinking in ways that are conducive to a scientific process.

The biggest reason we do this is that it teaches us to reconsider our initial impulses and perceptions. We think about what we are thinking and whether there is evidence to support it.

5. Talk a lot...listen even more.

One of my very favorite parts of being a parent has always been the conversations. From the baby talk cooing to the toddler tripping over words to where we are today, where they can pretty well articulate just about whatever they are thinking, it's an amazing, magical experience, in my opinion.

I carry that over from before I considered myself a secular parent, so again, it's not something that is unique to this experience--but I must say, I was elated to find that it has a home, front and center, in the secular parenting guides I've read so far.

These conversations do so much more than we even realize in the moment, I think. They give our children a chance to see that their voices are important and that people want to hear them.


Is secular parenting better? In some ways, yes, and compared to some parenting styles, abso-fucking-lutely. But I'd like to close out this piece with part of a comment I left on a post Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism did recently:

Take this with a grain of salt, because I have personally always subscribed to the parenting methods that I fondly refer to as Adapt and Survive™ and Don't Let Them Smell Your Fear™, but... 
I don't think there's a right way to parent. I think there are most assuredly WRONG ways to parent, and I try to avoid those. But at the end of the day, what it takes to create a confident, secure, functional adult out of the child you give birth to is going to depend heavily on who you are and who THEY are.

At the end of the day, it really is about finding out what works for you, and what works for your child or children. It's about maintaining a focus on bringing up a child to be a functional adult, someone who is whole emotionally.

That's often easier said than done. We all come into this parenting journey with our own loads of baggage, because the simple truth is, no parent can do it 100% right. No matter what you do, you will make mistakes. My advice to new parents is nearly always the same: The sooner you accept that you will screw your child up somehow, the better off you will be.

It's not that we can't be good parents; we can. But even good parents will make mistakes from time to time, and if you don't come to terms with that, you'll be so focused on the mistakes that you'll forget to notice all the good you do for your children. And for most of us, the good will far outweigh those mistakes.

So it's not that I think secular parenting is better; it's that I know that secular parenting is what works for me, given my baggage, and my children. But there are most definitely things we can learn from this parenting reality, like we can from most.

What works for you might be different, and I'd love to hear about it.

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