October 08, 2015

Atheist Mama: How Atheism Fundamentally Shifted My Parenting

I never intended to become a parent. When it happened, I was terrified, anxious, and completely convinced that I would definitely, without a question, screw it up royally. I was sure.

What I never gave much thought to was exactly how I would parent. Indeed, I read my very first parenting book last year. Since parenting magazines left me feeling inadequate and nearly suicidal (and that's only slight hyperbole), I avoided them too. I always figured that I turned out okay, so I would parent like my parents did.

My parents were both raised as Baptists. My dad was an American Baptist, my mom a member of the independent fundamentalist Baptist movement. We were raised, after my parents' rededication, in an independent fundamentalist Baptist lifestyle. We were several degrees removed from the Duggars in practice, but many of our very basic doctrinal tenets were the same.

When it came to child-rearing, the doctrines were pretty consistent. Corporal punishment. Unquestioning submission and obedience. No backtalk, no sass, no explanations or arguments. There was a heavy reliance on verses like this one, Proverbs 22:6:

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

I can remember a conversation discussing this verse when one of the children in our church--a teenager by then--"strayed". My mother kindly pointed out to his mother that the verse doesn't say a child will always follow the way, but implies that when he is older, he will cling to it. It was comforting, I'm sure, for the worried mother in question.

Another verse, of course, is Proverbs 13:24:

He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

This verse is purportedly misconstrued; I had the unexpected pleasure once of discussing it with an actual shepherd, who explained that the typical interpretation is, in a word, moronic. According to her, no one strikes their sheep and never has--a rod was used not for threatening, but for guidance, to gently urge sheep in the direction they should go.

Most of us, though, have heard the saying used in connection with the idea that failing to punish a child is actually detrimental. The idea is that disciplining a child is the only way for them to learn obedience.

We could go on all day about why this form of parenting isn't necessarily the best. We could talk about the research that shows that the fear of punishment actually shuts down parts of the brain that are key for processing concepts necessary to consider an action and learn from a mistake. We could talk about a wealth of research that shows next to no (if any) positive outcomes from spanking.

For me, these were facets of my childhood that I didn't question as I came into my own parenting experience. I call this my "lazy parenting"--most certainly not out of any sense of disrespect for my own parents, who I love and cherish dearly, or for other parents that parent in this fashion. For me, "lazy parenting" refers to the fact that I didn't think twice about it. For me, I didn't decide to do this consciously; rather, I fell into it because I never thought twice about any other options. Thus, lazy parenting (for me).

Recently, this was called to mind by three separate but intertwined news items: First, Mikki Willis, the "Mermaid Dad", posted a video of his son selecting an unorthodox toy that went viral. Then, Joshua Feurstein made a response video that was just kind of frightening, even for me as someone that owns firearms. Finally, a clip of both men appearing on The Doctors, which is apparently a television show that requires its hosts to sit around in scrubs and discuss things. Who knew?

Mikki Willis said something in the Doctors' segment, though, that made me reflect on the most fundamental way that atheism shifted my parenting. Here's what he said, first:

The fundamental differences between you and I, the way I see it ,is that is that I believe all people are born good, and you believe that all people are born sinners, and I think that that simple idea has us lose trust in the children to actually choose their highest choice, and so when we don't give the children the freedom to actually step up and exercise and cultivate their innate intuition and intelligence...they end up being followers in the system and that's where trouble begins.

And I agree. That's a fundamental difference in the way these two men parent. As I look at it, though, it's like a before-and-after moment for me, personally, as a parent.

I started my parenting believing that all children are born sinners and need saving. I am now at a point, though, where I believe very differently. I think most humans are a complex bundle of good and bad, and, usually, we try to do good.

This changed my parenting. When I was parenting from the position of "this child is born a sinner", there was very little room for me to trust my children to make good decisions. My parenting was about preventing bad behavior. I thought a lot like the second dad in the red ball cap:

Since when do kids make good choices? We live in a society that thinks that kids are supposed to make choices like that, and that we’re not supposed to choose for them, we’re supposed to let them express themselves. Seriously? Since when do kids make good choices?

The shift in my parenting began in a number of ways. The most basic was realizing that focusing on my kids' behaviors was obscuring the person underneath the behavior. I was losing sight of who my kids were in favor of turning them into who I wanted them to be, and when I looked at it from that angle...it was really sad. Here are these magnificently fascinating little beings, and all I could think about was how to keep them from doing what I didn't want them to do.

Another basic shift was realizing that my ultimate purpose for parenting wasn't to raise obedient children. Obedience, which had been the focus of my parenting for nigh on seven years, was suddenly mostly irrelevant. Our moral code was no longer based on obedience to a deity or certain religious principles; instead, it is based on empathy and respect for other living beings. That changes what you emphasize as a parent.

I've referenced before that leaving religion helped my mental health (sidenote: I am fully aware that this isn't the case for anyone, and I am definitely not cured of my depressive disorder) because it changed the way that I thought about things. It also changed the way that I thought about my children, and that has made me, in many ways, a better parent. "Bad" behavior is becoming a puzzle that we solve together, rather than a symptom of a sin nature that I can do nothing about but bully into control.

Back in March, I talked about how I don't think secular parenting is necessarily superior to religious parenting, but that I think there are things we can learn from most any type of parenting. I think this holds true here too; I don't think it's that secular parenting is inherently superior. In fact, I know that it isn't--I see many progressive Christian friends who parent in ways that are pretty much indistinguishable from my own parenting.

But there are very damaging doctrines that exist, that children are subjected to because their parents don't know any better or reject any evidence to the contrary. Those are doctrines that it's important to call out, to refute with the evidence that there is a better way.

Leaving my faith changed my parenting for the better--indisputably--and I am truly grateful for the experience.

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