How To Raise Rational Children In An Irrational World
I am a non-theist ex-Christian single parent who raised two children, in Alabama, one of the most conservative and pervasively Bible believing states in the U.S. I got divorced and gained custody of my children when my daughter was 3 years old and my son was 9. My parents were unable to help me because they had serious health problems. I was almost completely alone, had a full time job and had chronic health problems of my own. My children and I were in surrounded by an irrational culture, outnumbered, with limited resources.
Nevertheless, my two children, who are now adults, consistently think rationally, are healthy and happy, are compassionate towards others, feel good about themselves, have many high-quality relationships with good people, have high personal integrity, are well educated, are not interested in any religion and are doing important things with their lives. My son is an attorney who works full-time representing people with disabilities, and my daughter is a hospital pharmacist with a Doctor of Pharmacy degree.
Here's how we did it (footnote 1) ...................
The most important concept: Do not give in to discouragement, no matter how overwhelming your circumstances appear to be.
Non-religious parents often face daunting challenges, especially if they live in areas where a large percentage of the population is conservatively Christian. Their children's other parent may still cling to harmful beliefs. Grandparents, uncles, cousins, other relatives and their children's friends may intensely believe that it is God's will for them to force their faith on their children. Teachers, principals and other authority figures may use their power to promote and legitimize beliefs which are diametrically opposed to education's most important function: teaching young people to think.
I believe that the most serious threat to your children is deeper and more insidious than any of these. In pervasively Christian cultures, practically no one knows how to think for themselves. Simple acts of rationality - seeing facts as they are instead of as you want them to be, evaluating those facts and using them to draw logical conclusions, then acting consistently with those facts - are simply beyond the ability of people and cultures who have spent their entire lives "taking every thought captive to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).
How can any child learn to think when the vast majority of people in their world don't even know that actual "thinking" exists? (And if they did know, they would be openly hostile to it.)
It's actually worse than that. Since Christ does not exist, "every thought" cannot possibly be "captive" to Christ. The captors - thought controllers - are the Christian leaders who promote themselves as God's authorized mouthpieces. I am convinced that the vast majority of ministers, preachers, priests and other Christian leaders know full well that many very important parts of the beliefs that they sell are completely false. These "servants of God" are narcissistic, lazy, manipulative, lying, sociopathic con artists. They are to mental health what Typhoid Mary was to physical health, except that they are shrewder than Mary, because they extract money from many of those they infect. But even if a Christian leader is sincere, they are promoting a system of beliefs that is overwhelmed with internal contradictions, factual errors and self-destructive behaviors; a system of belief that demands that every detail of your child's life be micromanaged by an obsessively controlling deity who does not exist.
Trying to be a rational child in a pervasively Christian environment is like trying to swim in a blender. Their developing, inexperienced minds are trying to make sense of an environment which is a constantly shifting maelstrom that is filled with contradictory expectations, impossible demands, double standards, hypocrisy and intentional deceit, all of which are enforced as "absolute truth" by Christian leaders.
For an ex-Christian parent, this can feel overwhelming and even hopeless. The attacks come from so many different directions, from so many different attackers, that it is like being trapped in a closet with a hive of angry hornets, where there is no way to escape. Except the hornets have been rehearsing their attacks and improving their skills for the past 2,000 years.
But you have overwhelmingly powerful weapons in your arsenal, weapons which your opponents cannot even comprehend: reason, wisdom, an overwhelming mass of facts substantiated by trillions of hours of scientific research, and the power of human minds that have been sharpened by a billion years of evolution in a biosphere where survival depended on making fact-based decisions. You have gargantuan advantages, but you must use them wisely.
Fighting this fight is an enormous amount of work, but it is based on a few simple concepts and behaviors. These concepts and behaviors are simple but not easy.
The first simple, non-easy step is to commit yourself to raising your children rationally. This sounds simplistic, but it is not, because it is not a one-time decision, it is a continuous commitment. This decision will be tested thousands of times, often when you are exhausted, discouraged and just worn-out. You will not always make the right decisions, you will make mistakes, you may lose your self-confidence and you may even question whether you are up to the challenge. It is during the most difficult times when you will have to continually re-commit to this decision, and it is during those times when this commitment will make the most difference.
I'm a big fan of Winston Churchill. Although he was certainly not a perfect person, he was an excellent communicator and a tenacious leader. During the darkest time of World War 2, he made the following statement, which I wrote on an index card, taped to the side of my computer monitor and silently repeated to myself whenever my parenting duties became especially difficult:
"... we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on ... we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender..." (footnote 2)
This really is a fight and you're going to have to treat it like a fight. The Dark Side certainly views it as a fight (Ephesians 6:12-18). But your weapons are very different from theirs and your behavior is going to have to be different from theirs. Their weapons include controlling behaviors, manipulation, anger, inappropriate guilt, all-or-none functioning, dysfunctional histrionic/melodramatic emotions, deliberate deceit and the demonstrably untrue belief that their god exists and wants to control people's lives. Your weapons are rationality, facts, logic, the ability to think about the interactions of complimentary or contradictory ideas, the ability to control your emotions in ways that maximize your effectiveness, the power that comes from seeing things as they are, and many more.
The second simple, non-easy step is to heal your own emotional baggage.
It will be impossible for you to teach your children how to be rational if your own mind is dominated by dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors. Although becoming an ex-Christian is an important step in your enlightenment, it does not make Christianity's emotional problems and counterproductive thought processes automatically disappear. If you are a new ex-Christian, and/or you have not made much progress in healing the damage that your former beliefs inflicted upon your body and mind, you may have the doubly difficult task of healing yourself at the same time that you are trying to create a loving, rational environment for your children.
This is not an impossible task. I know many ex-Christians who have done it, including me. But it does mean that you are going to have to work extra hard to succeed.
Dumping my Christianized dysfunctional emotions and thought processes turned out to be every bit as much work as I thought it would be, but, paradoxically, it was not as intimidating or overwhelming as I had feared. My healing process was an energizing, joyful, complex, intellectually challenging pilgrimage of self-discovery.
The real "burden" was hanging on to feelings that were bad for me. Metaphorically, dealing with each dysfunction felt like carrying a huge bundle of trash to a garbage dumpster, which was accessible only at the end of a ten-mile long foot path. The difficult part was carrying the garbage. After a long journey with a heavy, stinking burden, I could feel the enormous relief that came from finally throwing away my encumbrance and saying, "I'm done with that".
Dealing with your own Christian baggage will not only enable you to be a more rational parent, it will also free up all of the energy that you used to waste on Christianisms that were draining your strength and wasting your mental powers.
It is not possible to over-estimate the importance of dealing with your own problems when you are trying to raise emotionally healthy, rational children. That is one reason why I gave an entire section of this book to this subject (footnote 3). So make this one of your top priorities. Your children's futures depend on it.
Step 3: Teach your children the meaning of true love by your words and example.
Many Christian groups and leaders use Christian "love" as an emotional bait-and-switch. It is simply a lie that these people use to manipulate and exploit their flocks. This lie has been spectacularly successful, as evidenced by the enormous wealth and power that Christendom has acquired over the past 2,000 years, and continues to acquire and narcissistically squander today. This self-serving "love" can appear in many forms, and it works just as well for a small group as it does for a megachurch. Although this faux "love" can be quite dangerous, especially to children, there is another kind of "Christian love" that may present even more of a risk to your children.
This other kind of "Christian love" is much more nuanced and complex, and therefore requires a much more carefully planned response. Ironically, this "Christian love" can be extremely damaging because it is sincere, which may prevent your children from realizing that it is seriously, sometimes dangerously, flawed.
This "love" comes from Christians who are close friends and relatives. These Christians often have good intentions. You and your children may genuinely love these Christians, and you may have valid, rational reasons for wanting them to be a part of your lives.
Despite their sincerity, these Christians' "love" can be fatally flawed in many ways, because their faith requires that this "love" originate from, and be modeled after, a god who has never loved anyone because he has never existed. To fill this vacuum, these Christians have created a pantheon of beliefs about "love" which may vary from relatively benign to profoundly abusive, with each believer sincerely convinced that their particular form of "love" is the only divinely approved expression of the "perfect love" of Christ.
Many of the most troubling self-contradictions of Christian beliefs are reflected in its various forms of "love". God loves everyone but sends the vast majority of humanity ro burn forever in Hell (John 3:16-18). God loves Christians, but he allows or even causes them to suffer terrible physical and emotional tragedies (the entire book of Job) and commands them to be happy about it (James 1:2-4). Christian theology promises that Jesus answers prayers but blames the Christian when a non-existent Christ fails to keep his promises (Matthew 17:20, James 4:3). Jesus promises peace but the Bible says that the Christian god often commanded the most extreme forms of cruelty and violence (Deuteronomy 20:16). It was not a sin to commit these acts of violence, it was a sin not to (1 Samuel Chapter 15). Christianity demands absolute perfection (Matthew 5:48) and imposes enormous guilt when the believer fails to achieve this impossible standard (Romans 7:18), while simultaneously excusing even the most horrific behaviors if the believer "sincerely repents" (2 Samuel chapters 11-12). Christ commands his followers to hate themselves and their children (Luke 14:26). Physical beatings will save children's souls (Proverbs 23:13-14, 22:15, 13:24). Ad infinitum.
This is compounded by Christians' fear that your children will burn forever in Hell if they don't baptize themselves in this emotional septic tank. And Christians believe that many of your most powerful and compassionate parenting tools - reason, science, thinking for yourself, factual evaluation of beliefs, humanism, etc. - are tools of Satan.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the "love" given by many Christians is itself fraught with arbitrariness, self-contradictions and practices that are harmful no matter how well-intentioned they may be.
How do you protect your children from the dysfunctional aspects of the many versions of Christian "love", while still maintaining good relationships with sincere but misguided Christian friends and relatives? There are many things that you may have to do: monitoring, setting limits, explaining differences in beliefs, etc.
But most importantly, you must give your children a foundation that will empower them to determine for themselves which forms of love are healthy. You must teach your children the meaning of true love, by your words and example.
How do you do this? First of all, don't underestimate the competition. From a child's point of view, it is difficult to discern "real love" in a world where they are confronted with many forms of love - your love (based on reason and humanism), the smothering Christianized "love" of friends/relatives, and the hyped "love" of religious charlatans - which are quite different from each other. In fact, it is quite common for givers of dysfunctional "love" to shower the objects of their "love" with gifts, attention and affection. These provide tangible, visible evidence of "love", from the child's point of view, even though that "love" may be dysfunctional.
Teaching them to tell the difference between healthy, true love and the many forms of dysfunctional love is going to take a large amount of your time. Although telling your children that you love them is very important, showing them that you love them is even more important. It is sometimes said that it is not the quantity of time that you spend with your children, it is the quality that counts. This is a dangerous half-truth. The fact is that showing your children that you love them requires large amounts of high quality time. Children are not like microwave dinners. You cannot spend only 5 minutes with them every day and expect them to grow up right.
The day after I got divorced, I remember telling myself, "This means that I am not going to have time to do anything for the next two decades, except raise my children, work to provide an income, and take care of my own basic needs like eating, sleeping and dumping my Christian emotional crap." I am not a prophet, but this self-advice turned out to be mostly true.
Raising my children required an enormous amount of effort and sacrifice. But it did not feel like work because it was a labor of love, and I did not feel like I was "sacrificing" anything because I enjoyed making my children happy and I could see that my investment in them was working out well. (This was a profound contrast to the "sacrificial giving" that my Christian former leaders had taught me, because they wasted what I gave them.)
You must come up with creative ways to spend quality time with your children. This should include activities that interest both of you, involvement in their school and extracurricular activities, and simply spending time together. If you have difficulty finding activities that are equally interesting to both of you, then activities that interest your child are more important than activities that interest you. For example, my 3-year old son fell in love with a video named "Scuffy The Tugboat". We watched it together hundreds of times, at his request.
We had at least one family meal together almost every day. I tucked them into bed, with a bedtime book and/or story and kissed them good night every night they were with me. We enjoyed horseback riding, karate, scuba diving and Boy Scouts. I was a soccer coach and a marching band volunteer parent. Was it inconvenient and often exhausting? Yes. But it was worth every ounce of energy and minute of time.
I've lived long enough to observe the methods used by many parents, and the kinds of adults their children grew up to be. Although I have never seen research on this, in my opinion, there is one single biggest determining factor in whether or not a child grew up to be a happy, mentally healthy adult. That factor was the amount of high-quality time that they received, as babies, children and adolescents, from rational, loving, responsible adults.
Every minute of the time that I shared with my children showed them what true love meant and tacitly said, "I love you" . But it was also necessary for my children to hear me say that I loved them and I was proud of them. I made a point of saying these things every day. Even when we were apart, I told them by phone, mail or email. Telling your children that you love them and you are proud of them is enormously, almost infinitely, important. Although your actions will speak louder than your words, your words have great power too. Never miss an opportunity to say, "I love you and I am proud of you".
It is also important for you to get to know your children extremely well - their habits, and their favorite objects, foods and things to do. Then use that knowledge to help them understand that they are important to you. I made it into a kind of game, a challenge, for me to see what I could come up with that would make them happy, while spending very little (preferably zero) money, such as making their favorite snack or making toys out of paper or other inexpensive materials. Numerous small actions, each one telling my children that I cared about them enough to understand them very well and that I was willing demonstrate my caring with thoughtful deeds, added up to a big boost for their rational self concepts. It sounds like a lot of work and it was, but it didn't feel like work because it was a labor of love.
It is also important for your children to understand that there are important differences between your love and various forms of dysfunctional "love". Usually, actions speak louder than words. When I got divorced, a mutual friend told me, "You are not going to have to say anything bad about your ex and her family [who were all hyper-conservative Christians], because they themselves will do it for you".
Christian "love" is frequently very conditional, manipulative, arbitrary, neurotic, fickle, judgmental, self-centered on the one giving the "love", demeaning, controlling and/or disrespectful of the child's own abilities and self-worth. True love is very different. After a foundation of true love had been established, the differences between healthy love and "Christian love" were blatantly obvious to my children even when they were very young. I rarely had to say anything, and in those rare occasions when I did, discussions as simple as, "How do you feel about what they did/said?" enabled them to clarify their thoughts and feelings, come to rational, psychologically healthy conclusions, and draw healthy boundaries around their relationships with their Christian friends and relatives.
Step 4: Teach your children that they are to respect respectable people, and that they are entitled to receive respect in return.
Christianity is inherently disrespectful and dehumanizing. "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh" (Romans 7:18), "The wicked are estranged from the womb, they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies" (Psalm 58:3), etc.
Humanism presents a profoundly different concept of humanity. "All men [people] are created equal, they are endowed by their creator (footnote 4) with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" (The Declaration of Independence).
From a very young age, I taught my children that they deserved to be respected and that anyone who disrespected them was just plain wrong. They deserved to have their opinions listened to, even if those opinions were incorrect or incomplete, and if it was necessary to correct their thought processes or opinions, they deserved for the correction to be done factually and logically in ways that did not devalue them as persons. Being wrong was a mistake, not a sin. Disagreements can be discussed respectfully, whether or not you ever reach an agreement. Whenever I told them to do something, they had a right to ask me why and get an honest, factual answer. (Personal safety was an exception. My children knew that I had a certain tone of voice that meant, "Do what I say and there is no time for questions", although they also knew that they had the right to ask for an explanation afterwards.)
Respect must go both ways. My children knew that they deserved respect, and they were expected to respect other people. Although it is generally assumed that every person deserved respect, any person could lose some or all of that respectability if their behavior showed that they did not deserve it.
This was surprisingly powerful. Humans inherently dislike being disrespected. When they have learned that they deserve to be respected, and learned to identify disrespectful behaviors, the response to being disrespected is almost instinctive and simultaneously invokes the emotions, intellect and will to empower the individual to respond effectively. This response may be a well-reasoned defense of their own respectability, or they may simply decide to ignore the disrespectful person or group.
I also taught my children, beginning at a very young age, when and how to challenge authority: (a) make sure that your facts are correct beforehand, (b) be respectful, and (c) don't back down when you know you are right. This was taught by using a large number of small interactions. They knew that they always had the right to ask me why I had an particular opinion or did things the way I did. Sometimes we would even play little games. For example, I would point to a teddy bear and tell my 3 year old daughter that it was a fish. She would reply that it was not a fish, it was a bear. I would point out that it had eyes and a mouth, and tell her that fish had eyes and mouths. Then she would have to present arguments that proved it was a bear. These rationalist "games" became more sophisticated as they got older, and were eventually replaced by rational discussions of issues that interested them. The influence of each interaction was small, but the sum of a large number of these interactions had a very large, positive effect. They knew how to defend their rational mind, and they had the tools to identify when an authority figure was behaving unreasonably.
The concept of respect was also our foundation for our system of morality. A complete discussion of this would be much too long for this article. Basically, I taught my children that, if you respect other living things, then you should treat them the way that you would want them to treat you, and you have the right to expect them to do the same for you. Themes such as honesty, responsibility, working hard to earn what you have, and accepting the consequences of your actions, flowed very logically from the concept of respect, in ways that were very easy for them to understand and explain to others. Using the standard of mutual/reciprocal respectful behaviors enabled them to easily identify when anyone was behaving immorally, and to explain why that behavior was immoral. This standard also provided a stark contrast to Christian "morality", which is inherently disrespectful of the individual person, and is overwhelmed with duplicious, hypocritical, manipulative, irrational and constantly shifting "absolute moral values".
Step 5: Begin teaching rational thinking to your children when they are very young, in ways that are brief, practical, simple and age-appropriate.
The human mind has a strong bias towards fact-based, rational thought. This is because our minds are the product of a billion years of evolution, which often rewarded organisms that made fact-based decisions and brutally punished those that did not. Like everything else that has evolved, this is not perfect and has limitations. But it does tilt the odds strongly in your favor, because religionists have to make their converts un-learn this pre-programming in order to infect them with the religionists' self-contradictory, nonsensical, dysfunctional beliefs.
What is the best way to teach rational thinking to children? I have a tendency towards long, philosophical discussions. As a parent, I quickly learned that this was a very bad way to teach rational thinking to children. It was far more effective to teach brief bytes of rationality when the opportunities arose. If you are alert to these opportunities, you will see that they occur frequently, often many times in a single day.
One obvious place to start is with your own example. It is often easy to use everyday activities to teach rational thought by simply explaining why you do what you do. If you are grocery shopping, you may ask your young child whether it makes more sense to buy the extra large size of something, which has the lowest unit cost, or buy a smaller size, which is less likely to spoil before it is used up. Let them tell you how they make their decision, and guide them only when they are very far off course. Usually, I would buy what they recommended, and let them see the consequences of their actions. An occasional rotten orange or prematurely empty carton of milk was well worth the object lesson that it taught. (It is important that these mistakes not be allowed to make the child lose confidence in their decision making. It is only an orange or a little milk, after all. Everyone makes mistakes. Making a mis-calculation does not make you a bad person.)
When my daughter was 5 years old, we were vacationing at Disney World in Florida. It was a brutally hot afternoon, and the line for her favorite ride was almost an hour long. After a half-hour of waiting, she became tired and frustrated. So I gave her a choice. I told her that she could continue to wait in line and eventually ride that ride, or we could leave the line and ride another ride, which meant that she would probably not have the opportunity to ride her favorite ride that day. Another parent, standing next to us, said, "Do you really think that kind of reasoning will work on such a small child?" I replied, "Yes, just watch". My daughter took a few seconds to think things through, and made a fact-based decision to stay in line. The other parent was amazed.
You should help your children begin learning rational decision making at a very early age. Even when they are 3-4 years old, they can make some decisions if you empower them to, and you set appropriate limits. For very young children, clothing and food are good examples. When my daughter started pre-school, I lowered the clothing rack in her closet so that she could pick her own clothes. We had rules for this: clothing had to be consistent with the school dress code, reasonably modest, appropriate for the weather, no violent imagery, etc. Within those limits, however, it was her decision. Sometimes that meant she wore the same favorite outfit every day for a week. (I would be sure to wash & dry it and return it to the clothing rack every evening.) That was her decision. Food is another good example. Their choices had to be good nutrition, and had to be something that I could prepare without too much trouble. But if they chose to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with an apple for dessert, for lunch every day, or a hamburger and a green vegetable with milk to drink, every night for supper, that was their decision. As they grew older, I allowed them to make more complex decisions, such as how to schedule their activities so that they could complete their homework and still have some recreational time. And their food choices expanded if they offered to prepare their own meals.
Letting children suffer the consequences of their actions, within limits, can be very enlightening. When my son and I were in the Boy Scouts (footnote 5), I taught him how to safely use a pocket knife and a small, folding hand saw. This was a rational, fact-based process, which I had taught to literally hundreds of other Scouts when I was on Summer Camp Staff. When my 11-year old son ignored this rational process, he had to go to the First Aid Tent and learned an unforgettable lesson. (Obviously, limits are VERY important where personal safety is involved. That is why I did not buy him an axe until he was 16 years old.)
As they got older, I looked for opportunities that required more complex thought because they were more abstract and/or involved more variables. These involved interpersonal relationships, historical examples, current events, politics or anything else that they were interested in. Once again, it was their thought processes that were most important. A "successful" result was one where they had evaluated many different factors and had come to a rational conclusion or insight. It was not important for them to reach the same conclusion that I did, so long as their conclusions were factual, rational and defensible. The key to making this work was doing it often enough to get them into the habit of using those thought processes, and choosing topics that they were interested in.
In summary, the key to teaching rational thinking to children is to (a) give them strong foundations as described in Steps 1-4 above and Steps 6-10 below, (b) "chunk it down" into small, age appropriate bytes that are interesting, practical and simple enough to be readily digested, (c) consistently and frequently use opportunities that arise in everyday life to teach practical ways to use rational thought and decision making and (d) realize that this will require a significant effort from you, often at inconvenient times.
Step 6: Locate your residence in a diverse community
One of the most effective ways to disprove the claims of bigotry is for people to get to know people who are different from themselves, especially if those people are members of groups that are condemned by bigots.
This is particularly true for children. If children have friends and neighbors who are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Unitarians, members of liberal Christian denominations, or are simply not religious, those children get to know them and will realize that they are human beings who have value, and in many cases are "better" people than the conservative Christians who look down on them.
This is a major factor in the popularity of Christian schools, because Christian parents realize that these people are walking, breathing proof that many of conservative Christianity's most important claims are demonstrably false.
I live in the Birmingham, Alabama, metropolitan area. This is one of the most segregated and non-diverse regions in one of the most segregated and non-diverse states in the U.S. Even in this area, however, there are places that are relatively diverse. My current home, where my children grew up, is located in a suburb that is south of the central city. Although most of the neighborhood is white, we have neighbors who are from Haiti, Korea, Pakistan and India, at least one lesbian couple and several African American families. If I moved 10 miles in almost any direction, I would be in a far less diverse area. But my point is, even if you live in a highly non-diverse area, it may be possible to find islands of diversity if you look hard enough.
Obviously, this may involve large financial costs, and may not always be possible. In that case, you may be able to partially compensate by involving your children in activities that involve diverse groups, such as sports, hobbies or charitable work.
Step 7: Live in a well-educated community, send your children to the best non-sectarian schools that you can afford, and be personally involved in their education.
High quality education is one of the most effective ways to teach your children to be rational and factual and to think for themselves.
Sadly, many communities and cultures simply do not value education. This is particularly true in the Bible Belt of the United States, where I live. In many areas, quality non-sectarian elementary, high school and even college education is simply not available.
The best indicator that a community supports high-quality education is the average level of education of the adults who live and work in the community. (This is true even if you plan to send your children to a private non-sectarian school.) If you are moving into a community, find yourself a few PhD scientists and engineers who live there, and ask them where the good schools are.
My children were fortunate because there were several good public school districts in the metro area where we lived, and several high quality non-sectarian private schools that I could afford. When I got divorced, I made sure that the divorce decree clearly stated that I alone had the power to decide what schools they attended.
I have a strong preference for public schools, because they provide a more diverse student body, and because well-educated voters are essential to democracy. Although I did send my children to a private school for several years(6), I eventually decided that the public schools were best for them. My son attended a public magnet school that specialized in math and science; they did an excellent job. My daughter wanted to be involved in a large number of extracurricular activities, so she attended a regular, public middle and high school. Although my son received a more rigorous education, my daughter and I are convinced, with the benefit of hindsight, that we made the right decisions about her education.
No matter where your children attend school, it is also important for you to be involved in their education. One of the most important things that you can do is to teach your children to love reading. The best way to do this is to teach them to read at a very young age, then read age-appropriate books to them, and with them, every day. (Our favorites were science, history, Greek/Roman mythology and Dr Seuss.)
You also need to involve yourself in their school in ways that will enable you to know very thoroughly what is going on at their school and in their classroom. Usually, you can do this through volunteering. It is also important for you to talk with your children frequently and deeply about what they are doing in school, review their assignments, etc.
This kind of involvement is extremely important, because it gives you access to information that you will not get any other way. Are you child's teachers doing a good job? Who are the problem teachers? Who are the problem students, what kinds of problems are they causing, and how is the school dealing with it? What religious groups are proselytizing on campus? What kinds of drug problems do other students have, and what do you need to warn your children about? What are other parents saying about the school, its teachers and students? You're not going to find any of this on the school web site. You will have to dig for this essential data.
If you are unfortunate enough to live in an education-deprived area, you may be able to partially compensate by supplemental instruction, tutoring or on-line teaching. You may also be able to use some highly creative solutions, such as summer camps like "science camp" or "computer camp". If such camps aren't available, you can partner with other parents and create some yourself during the summer. When your children are in high school, they may be able to start taking college courses early, while they are still in high school, if you believe that they are capable of that level of work. I've never done home schooling, but for some people it may be an option.
Unfortunately, there are some school situations that are simply not salvageable. In those cases, you may have to face the emotionally and financially difficult decision to relocate, or send your children to live with a (non-Christian!) family member, so that they can get the education that they need. This can be, obviously, a gut-wrenching decision.
Step 8: Always base your parental rules and discipline on facts, reason and mutual respect. When possible, use consensus to negotiate rules with your children. When punishment is necessary, the child should participate in the choice of a reasonable punishment when possible.
I think that my approach to the "rules" for my children was unusual, compared to other parents that I know. What we did worked for me and my children. You should apply the principles of facts, reason and respect to your parent-child relationships, but my family's approach to "rules" may require some tweaking if your children require more structure and need more explicitly stated boundaries.
We actually had very few "rules" while my children were growing up. But we did have several overriding principles that guided our behavior - theirs and mine. Briefly and simplistically, these principles were:
(a) You are responsible for yourself and your personal needs. We will help each other to fulfill those needs, but overall, taking care of yourself is your responsiblity. That means practicing good hygeine, nutrition, education, sleep habits, safety, social relationships, etc.
(b) As far as possible, our behavior is to be governed by reason and mutual respect.
That was it. Obviously, I set some boundaries. I wouldn't let a 3 year old play in the yard by themselves even if they wanted to. But, from a very young age, my children and I agreed that they would be responsible for figuring out what were the factual, reasonable and respectful things for them to do. If they were unsure about what they should do, they knew that they were responsible for discussing their actions with me beforehand, or we could discuss it afterwards. Honest mistakes in a child's judgement were "learning experiences", and were handled much more leniently than open rebellion (which rarely happened).
Personal safety was the biggest exception. I had many more years of life experience than they did, so if I identified a risk that they had overlooked, I would make them aware of the risk and set some limits. If time allowed, they knew that they were entitled to a reasonable explanation. (Although my word was "law" where safety was concerned, and safety was not negotiable.) In practice, this was rarely necessary.
The result was that my children developed the ability to determine almost all of their own age-appropriate behaviors, even when they were just 3-4 years old and even when they were teenagers. This worked so well that even I was surprised. We rarely had serious disagreements about important things.
Maybe my children were just genetically predisposed to be well-behaved, but discipline problems were very rare. In those rare cases, I found that it was most effective to discuss the bad behavior with the child, help them understand why that behavior was unacceptable, and then tell my child that it was my responsibility to help them remember that they should not do this, so punishment was necessary. Then I would ask my child what they thought was an appropriate punishment. Invariably, the child would prescribe a punishment that was harsher than anything I wanted to do, so I would lighten the punishment, much to the child's relief. This made me look very reasonable and made the punishment easier to enforce, because it was the child's own idea.
(BTW, I am not opposed to an occasional spanking. I got spanked a few times when I was a child, and it did me no harm. But, just as soon as my children outgrew the 2-year old "slap their hand so they won't touch a hot stove" phase, it became very clear to me that corporal punishment was not appropriate for them. It did not fit into our negotiation process for punishment, and there were other forms of punishment that were more effective in teaching the lessons that I wanted to teach.)
I was very careful not to impose, or even discuss, punishment when I was angry, because the child has to understand that punishment is a rational act designed to help them learn, not the result of a reaction in the heat of the moment. It was actually pretty rare for me to become angry about a behavior problem, because my children usually behaved rationally. There were, however, a few situations where I told them to go to their room for a while, and that we would discuss punishment later.
I'll close this Step with a case study. When my daughter was in Elementary school and my son was in Middle school, we began to have problems getting everyone ready for school in the mornings. This resulted in very rushed, stressful mornings, which often made them late to school and made me late to work. I reached my "last straw" when I backed the car into the garage door, breaking it, because I was in such a hurry that I had not allowed the electric garage door opener enough time to open before I put the car into gear. I gave myself all day to calm down, so that my children would know that I was no longer angry by the time we negotiated a solution.
That evening, I called a family conference, where I outlined what the problem was and described why it was important. I asked them what they thought we should do about it, then I stopped talking. Their first solution was "just try harder", which I rejected because we had been doing that for months and it had not worked. After about a half hour of discussion, they decided that the solution was for them to go to bed an hour earlier, at 9 PM, on school nights. So we tried this and it worked well for about 4-5 years.
This solution quit working when my daughter was in middle school and my son was in high school, because they both wanted to watch TV until it was too late to get their homework done by their bed time. We tried many different negotiations, without success. It was not unusual for them to wait to start working on their homework until after 10 PM, which was an hour after our previously negotiated bed time. The allure of evening TV was just too great. Warnings, threats, bribes, etc., were powerless to get them, especially my daughter, to turn off the TV. Even my threats of cancelling the TV cable were ignored. This had been a chronic problem for months, had been the cause of disputes almost every school night, and interfered with our overriding principles that they must practice good sleep habits and work hard at getting a good education. This problem demanded that I unilaterally impose a non-negotiated solution.
I've never watched much TV, so I neither needed nor wanted TV cable. (This was in the early 2000's, before we had broadband internet.) So I warned them one more time, and a few minutes later, when my daughter refused to turn off her TV, I went into the attic, disconnected the cable for the whole house, then called the cable company and told them to cancel the service.
I was not angry. It was very important for my children to understand that this was not the result of an angry decision. It was a rational, carefully planned, reasonable solution to their own behaviors that were causing problems for them. I wasn't trying to punish anyone. I just wanted to remove a distraction which was harming their health and education.
I knew that if I simply cancelled the cable, it would start a family feud which would probably never end. To mitigate this problem, I also raised my children's weekly financial allowance by the amount that I had been paying to the cable company. This was about $40 per month, an increase of $5 per child per week. My son was very happy about this, and my daughter soon decided that she would enjoy having more money to spend, even if it meant that she had to live without her beloved TV cable. (They still had dozens of computer games, dial-up internet, hundreds of VHS videocassettes and an uncountably huge number of books and toys.) I was "revenue neutral" on the deal, so I was happy too.
We lived harmoniously without cable TV until my daughter went to college, about 5-6 years later. We never missed it.
Step 9: Be alert to the effects of religious friends and family. Intervene diplomatically and rationally when necessary.
We lived in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, so there was no way to ignore the effects of fundamentalist Christianity. Many of my children's friends were Christians who attended various conservative Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal or "Independent Bible" churches.
In addition, the divorce decree required my children to spend some time with their mother (my ex-wife), who took them to her conservative Baptist church on Sundays. There were also numerous para-church groups that targeted public schools and enthusiastically violated the U.S. Constitution and numerous court decrees, with the tacit assent, and sometimes assistance, of teachers and school administrators.
When my children were very young, they enjoyed Bible stories like Noah's Ark and Daniel in the Lion's Den. These stories always came from their mother, her family and her church, never from me. As they became older, they lost interest in these stories.
I always made sure to tell each of my children a "bedtime story", or read an age-appropriate book to them, every night. My stories included science, history and Greek mythology, and we also had several age-appropriate, beautifully illustrated books on science, history and mythology. Some of our books were just for fun, e.g., Dr Seuss. They liked the stories that I told them, and the books that we read together, much better than Bible stories.
I never discussed the Bible with them unless they asked me directly. We rarely discussed the Bible, because, frankly, everything else in our lives was more interesting than the Bible. On the rare occasion when they did ask a question about the Bible, I answered honestly and factually, but my answer was designed to make them think about the Bible in ways that they would never hear from Christians. For example, our family always has pet dogs, whom we dearly love. So, when my children were very young, if they asked about Noah's Ark, I might reply "What happened to all of the dogs that were not in the Ark?". When they got older, I might use their question about the Noah's Ark story as an opportunity to tell them about the re-filling of the Black Sea at the end of the last Ice Age (footnote 7).
Occasionally, one of their friends would invite them to go to their church. If they wanted to go and I knew the friend's parents, I let them go. I felt that this was the best approach because I had prepared them to rationally evaluate other people's claims, and observing these religious practices first-hand would provide them with better data than just listening to what their friends said about their churches. I even went with my daughter to a Pentecostal church service, and to a para-church group meeting at her school, when she asked me to. These visits never caused a problem because my children were completely turned off by hyper-Christianism. In several cases, they told me that the worship service was "creepy".
By the time they were in Middle School (grades 6-8, about 11-13 years old), their mother and her family began pressuring them to make a "profession of faith" and join their conservative Baptist church.
My son resisted this pressure, because, he told me, "Christians are not any better than anyone else". By the time he was 16, he had completely quit going to any church. (We actually had the divorce decree legally modified so he would not have to go to any church unless he wanted to.)
When my daughter was about 12 years old, she told me that she wanted to join her mother's church. I replied that she had the right to join any church she wanted to, because we have religious freedom in the U.S. But then I asked her,
"Baptists believe the Bible is 100% true, don't they?"
"Yes", she replied.
"Have you read the Bible?" I asked.
"Only parts of it," she replied.
"Would it be a good idea for you to read the Bible before you said that you believed in it?" I asked.
She agreed that it would be a good idea to read the Bible before she committed herself to believing it. So I gave her a modern translation of the Bible and suggested that she start reading either in Genesis or Matthew. (If you ever give a Bible to your child, it is very important to be sure it is a real Bible, not a "Children's Bible", or a paraphrase like the Living Bible. You want them to understand what it really says, not some sanitized version of what some Christians want it to say. I gave my daughter a New American Standard translation.)
That was the last time she ever mentioned to me that she wanted to join any church. Apparently, the Infallible Holy Word of Omnipotent God is no match for the mind of a thinking pre-teen girl.
Step 10: Lighten up and have fun
Being a parent can be the most joyful and meaningful thing that you will ever do. Every day as a parent is a precious treasure, so enjoy every minute as best you can. Your children won't be children forever.
Obviously, this is nowhere near a complete guide. It is just a start, a "priming the pump". These are ideas that worked for me and my children. I hope that some of them are useful to you.
The important thing is to be rational yourself, and also be consistent and diligent in helping your children train their minds to support their innate tendency towards fact-based mental processing, learning to habitually think in rational, nuanced, complex terms. Your consistent efforts, thousands of practical mini-lessons and "leading by example" over the long term, are most important - more important than any individual thing that you say or do.
There is tremendous power in being able to see things as they are, and to have the self-respect necessary to trust your own ability to do so.
For me, giving the gift of Reason to my children was an enormous amount of work. But it is one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done.
(1) I said "we" here, because my children deserve some of the credit.
(2) Winston Churchill, speech before the House of Commons, June 4, 1940.
Winston Churchill was one of those rare individuals who made an enormous difference in the course of human history. It is no exaggeration to say that your own life would be much worse, even today, if Churchill had not done what he did in World War 2, even if the Allies had eventually won the war, which would have been much more difficult without his dogged determination.
One of my hobbies is studying the lives of interesting historical figures. Some of these lives have provided wisdom that I use every day. Others provide bad examples, and we can use their lives to learn how not to make similar mistakes. If you need an occasional recreation, it would be a good idea to stop by the library and pick up some books. It's a very enlightening, relaxing and enjoyable hobby, and it won't cost you anything but your time.
(3) As I have previously stated, this article is part of a book that I am writing for ex-Christians. I am still writing the chapter that provides practical strategies for ex-Christians to heal the emotional destruction that Christianity inflicts on its followers.
(4) "Creator" in this context, is the deist god, not the Christian god. We know this because it was written by Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist. Personally, I think that this passage is even more powerful if "creator" is interpreted to mean "humanity" or "human intelligence and wisdom". It seems to me that there is little difference between this and the deistic god, who is largely impersonal and rarely if ever intervenes in human affairs. But the historical context of the Declaration of Independence supports the deistic interpretation.
(5) My son wanted to participate in the Cub and Boy Scouts, so we had to come up with an intellectually honest way of dealing with the Boy Scouts of America's religious requirement. This requirement is actually very vague. All that the national Scout organization requires is that you believe in some kind of god. It can be any god - Deist, Pantheist, nature-is-god, etc. I am an Agnostic, so I didn't have any problem with the possibility that such a god might exist, although I personally thought he didn't.
This requirement was not a problem when my son and I were in Cub Scouts, because I was the leader of the Cub Scout Pack and I did not enforce it. For Boy Scouts, we carefully selected a Troop that was sponsored by a liberal church, who did not enforce this requirement either. These troops were not difficult to find; there are many of them, even in Alabama. In fact, the leaders of our troop thought the religious requirement was stupid because they wanted non-believing boys to join the troop, because it was an outreach ministry of the church.
Just in case anyone asked my son about his beliefs, he and I worked together to produce a response that was consistent with his own Agnosticism. Since my son loved science, we decided that he would say, "I believe in the same God that Albert Einstein believed in". We figured that this answer would be enough to avoid any more questioning. If pressed further, he could reply that it was basically an impersonal "god is nature and nature is god". He never had to use this explanation because, in 12 years of Scouting, not one person ever asked him about his beliefs.
(6) I sent my children to private school for several years because I am a big believer in the Montessori system of education, and that was only available in my area in private schools. The problem with Montessori, however, is that there is no overall Montessori governing organization that can certify whether a particular school's claim to be "Montessori" is valid. It takes two years of intense training to train a "Montessori Directress", and most Directresses get several years of teaching experience, after this training, before they actually try to start or lead their own Montessori school. Because of administrative problems at the particular private school that my children attended, all of the Montessori trained teachers left, and there was no longer any meaningful Montessori education taking place there. So, I eventually transferred my children to public schools.
(7) See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Sea_deluge_hypothesis