January 21, 2016

Atheist Mama: My 10 Commandments of Atheist Parenting

I was recently forwarded this piece from PBS Newshour, published last March: 10 Commandments for talking to your kids about religion, by Wendy Thomas Russell.

I solidly related when Russell said this:

What many of us lack, however, is a clear path for how to get there. We can’t always rely on what we were told as children. We can’t always trust ourselves to handle things gracefully. Where our parents or grandparents were guided by the well-defined teachings of their faith — whether it be Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, folk religions, or the great wide panoply of Christianity — we are left to chart a new course for our families.

"We are left to chart a new course..." That's exactly how I feel as a first generation atheist parent.

As I read Russell's piece, I wondered what I would list as my own 10 Commandments of Secular Parenting. Here's what I came up with.

1. Respect yourself.

Good parenting starts with you, yourself, the parent. If you're conflicted over your own values, it shows in your parenting. I learned this the hard way, during my "lazy parenting" phase when I was just parenting the way I'd seen adults in my life parent, and this has brought me more regrets than anything else to date as a parent.

Respect yourself, your mental space, the importance of your role as parent, and your own humanity and shortcomings. Give yourself the room to make mistakes. Forgive yourself when you inevitably do.

2. Respect your children.

"Respect has to be earned." It's a mantra that was repeated over and over as I was growing up, and to an extent, I agree. Respect in some cases has to be earned.

But there is a certain respect that we owe just by virtue of being sentient beings. There's a respect that we accord each other as we pass on the street or the bus or the subway, in supermarkets and department stores and parks.

There are instances where children have to earn respect. I respect my nine year old enough to allow him to play outside on his own with his friends. He's earned this respect; he's followed our boundaries, listened to the rules, and been respectful and courteous to his friends and neighbors.

But there's also a respect that I accord him just because he is. He has his own thoughts, dreams, feelings, motivations. When I parent, I have to respect that. There are times that his motivations and mine will conflict. I can't just write off his motivation because it is inconvenient for mine. It has to be factored in, and that means that parenting can sometimes be more of a negotiation than I experienced growing up.

3. Give reasons.

"Because I said so" doesn't cut it when you're trying to raise rational beings. They need to understand your thinking.

I don't take this to an extreme. There's an understanding that sometimes, we have to make decisions as parents and they have to accept those decisions as children. But when I have the time, I try to explain. "No, you can't play on your Kindle right now. It's time to work your brain in other ways. You can play outside or read or play with toys. Those activities will exercise your brain differently."

4. Explore options.

Thought experiments are fun. Learning is fun. We're preprogrammed to learn. It's pleasurable for us.

Exploring options covers so many different circumstances. Explore different religions. Read different mythologies. Look at different cultures.

Think through the potential consequences of actions. Ask, "If you do that, what happens next?" Ask, "What might have happened if it had been done differently?"

This is one of my favorite commandments, because it gives kids a chance to show their creativity and imagination.

5. Follow your questions.

This is one of the easiest ways to learn. Find something that makes you go, "I want to know more about that...", and then read about it.

And kids are great at it. They'll ask a million questions. Luckily for 21st century parents, we've usually got the entire cumulative knowledge of our species in our pockets, at our fingertips.

Don't shy away from the questions. Answer them together.

6. Tell the truth.

Tell the truth. Be honest. I struggle with this sometimes, because I know that 1) my kids know that our family is different, especially the older children, and 2) anything I say can and probably will be used against me when talking to grandmothers and other family members.

So there have been times when it's been tempting to fudge the truth. "Mom, do you believe in heaven?" It'd be great to come back with an answer that is more in line with what they've heard from other family members...but the truth is important. It's one of our fundamental values.

And sometimes, it's comforting. We were recently talking about Alexander Hamilton being buried at Trinity Church, and my older son said, "Well, great, we can never go see that." When we asked why, it became clear that he was convinced that because I am an atheist, I will never go to church--which is funny, as just the week before, I'd attended service at our local Unitarian Universalist congregation. In that case, telling the truth--that I don't mind going to church sometimes even though I don't believe in a god--was soothing.

7. Give the benefit of a doubt.

To yourself, to your children, to everyone. Take them at their word unless you can't. Don't assign motives; trust them to voice their thoughts and feelings honestly.

8. Challenge each other.

The best defense is a good offense: don't wait until someone else challenges your values or beliefs...challenge each other to defend what you say. Ask for evidence from each other, in love and friendship.

My spouse is amazing at this. He'll challenge me in ways that make me think about things entirely different. And I find challenging the children does an excellent job of convincing them to think about things different.

9. Admit what you don't know.

By the time I finish this series (if it ever finishes...), I suspect you'll be tired of me touting the amazing phrase "I don't know," but I'm going to do so again anyway.

Say, "I don't know," when you don't know. Say, "Let's find out together."

It reminds me of a quote from Carl Sagan, something he wrote in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

The method of science, as strodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.

He's, of course, speaking of science in particular, but in today's world, it's applicable to all forms of knowledge. Knowing isn't as important as being able to find out. A mind-blowing number of people have what in the past would have passed for supercomputers...in their pockets. In their phones.

And that's why "I don't know" is so useful and so powerful.

10. Remember that this is it.

This is it. This is the only life we have to live. Pick your battles. Appreciate each other. Love like you won't have a chance to again.


This is a very preliminary list--just a (you may have guessed it) thought experiment. I'm definitely going to be thinking on it and refining it.

What about you? What are your parenting commandments?

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