by Terri Mandell
HALA Board Member, AHA national board member, Humanist Minister
What's the scariest thing about raising children?
Answer: That they believe everything you tell them.
Children trust us because they have no choice. It's what they have to do to stay alive. That's what makes the responsibility of parenthood so incredible, and that's why having only wanted children, and learning how to respect and love them is the answer to just about every social problem in our country. While all children need the basic things &endash; love and security, food and shelter, education and socialization &endash; the children of non-theist parents need something more... the ability to think critically, to fearlessly question authority, and to dare to be different.
To best illustrate a long list of points about raising children without religion, I need to describe my own unique situation as a parent raising two part-time kids.
The first child is my 6 year-old son Danny. His dad and I are divorced, but we're close friends and agree on almost everything concerning parenting. Neither one of us has any interest in religion. We're both technically Jewish, but we don't pay any attention to it at all, except that dad thinks it's important for Danny to know that he has "Jewish roots." This has been a constant source of disagreement between us for years.
Here's what makes it so interesting... Danny is adopted. His birth mother is not Jewish, so according to Jewish law, that mean's Danny's not either. The conversation goes something like this:
Dad: Our child is automatically Jewish because we are.
Mom: Why? What is it exactly that makes us Jewish? It's not genetic. It doesn't get passed on in the DNA like being black or Chinese. And even if it is genetically inherited, he doesn't have our genes anyway.
Dad: But we're Jewish! We come from the Jewish people (because the bible tells us so?)
Mom: Even if we do, Danny doesn't. So if he's not "genetically" Jewish, then he can only be Jewish by choosing to identify with the Jewish dogma and traditions. And as far as I can tell, this little toddler sticking Cheerios in his nose hasn't made that choice yet.
It's an on-going debate, and a damn interesting question. So, as I often do, I turn to Danny for the answer. I love to quote him on these issues because he's a wise little sage and a great spiritual advisor. When someone (like Dad or Grandma) tells Danny that he's Jewish, he says things like, "I'm half Darwin and half Jewish." Did I mention that he's a leading authority on evolution? He says a Darwin fish can eat a Christian fish.
The other child in my life is the daughter of my new husband, Mark. She's my step daughter Sara, and she's five. She lives primarily with her mother, Mark's ex-wife Diana, and we have Sara with us on a ragged little visitation schedule controlled with an iron hand by Diana and her lawyer. Diana, an executive with a very large income, wanted to send Sara to a Jewish school that has intense religious indoctrination (and costs $12,000 per year). Of course Mark and I objected strenuously. Mark and Diana have joint legal custody, which means they're supposed to agree on issues like education, medical care and religion. Technically, one parent is not supposed to be able to overrule the other. However, Diana has the financial means to take Mark to court anytime she likes, and she did just that about the school issue. She won a court order allowing Sara to attend the Jewish school despite Mark's objections. There was nothing we could do. We even contacted an AHA lawyer.
Religious Education: Deer Hunting With An Uzi
Sara's school curriculum booklet has the section on bible study listed adjacent to the section on science. What a juxtaposition! The question of evolution vs. creation screams from the page. Mark and I asked several of her teachers about this conflict, but none gave us a straight answer. Most of the teachers and administrators told us the school's philosophy is to teach the bible stuff in kindergarten and first grade, and to ease up on it at second grade when the kids are old enough to start questioning things. In other words, they feed them Genesis, Noah's Ark and a mean scary God who kills people who don't do what he says, and then hope the kids will get over it later.
What a cheap trick! A child under the age of seven hasn't developed critical thinking skills yet. They'll believe anything you tell them. To give kids a real chance to make up their own minds about something, it makes more sense to keep their minds free and clear in the early years, and start presenting heavy philosophical questions later, when they can evaluate and rationalize. Doing it the other, way, when a child is defenseless against easy-to-believe fairy tales, is like deer hunting with an Uzi. The poor little creatures don't stand a chance.
"I Go to Everything School"
The first week of school this year was an interesting study in diversity. Danny bopped around in public school with a great mix of kids... all races, all religions, all economic levels, the children of movie stars and plastic surgeons alongside the children of ditch diggers and trash truck drivers. By contrast, Sara put on her blue & white uniform and went to the Jewish school in the hills of Bel Air, where the kids are car-pooled in Mercedes and Range Rovers (driven either by expensively-dressed moms or Hispanic housekeepers). That Saturday, there was a picnic for her school, and we all went. I told Danny, "Sara goes to a Jewish school." He said, "I go to an everything school."
Around the third day of school, Sara announced that she'd learned that God made the light. Mark and I were miserable. We quickly ran out and bought a book on the big bang theory for kids. The next week Sara showed us all the songs she'd learned in school. They were in Hebrew (all in a minor key). We realized that we were going to have to work twice as hard to counter everything she learns on a daily basis. It's a full time job.
Hypocrisy in Action
Our task with Sara is not so much to tell her that everything she's learning in school is bunk, but to teach her not to be a hypocrite. She sees hypocrisy all around her, as do many children raised in religious households. Here's an example.
Sara's mom, Diana, as is typical of many modern American Jews, feels that it's important to go through the motions of being religious, even though she doesn't really believe the dogma or live according to the rules of the religion. During one of her many arguments with Mark over Sara's visitation schedule on the Jewish holidays, Diana said, "I don't drive on the holidays unless it's to go to and from temple." This restriction on driving is an ultra-conservative ideal practiced mostly by Orthodox Jews. However, when the day in question arrived, Diana called with a sudden change of plans. She'd been invited to lunch at the home of her good friend, a world-famous restaurant owner who's clients are the superstars and mega-moguls of the entertainment industry. She needed to adjust the afternoon's schedule so Sara could go with her. Apparently driving to her lunch date with the Hollywood elite was exempt from her religious taboos (I joked that a sale at Bloomingdales would have been just as effective at leading her from the path of righteousness).
Diana also keeps two sets of dishes in the house, which is a traditional Kosher practice -- they believe that meat and milk should not be eaten together, and they keep separate plates, flatware and sometimes even two dishwashers. But in Diana's daily eating habits, she doesn't observe anything remotely kosher. She doesn't' think twice about eating a turkey and cheese sandwich . She even eats bacon (but only at restaurants). Her religious convictions are just for show.
The point of all this is when you're raising Humanist children, you teach them to live their ideals. Not to fake it. I would have just as little respect for someone who calls herself a Humanist but still baptizes her children (just in case?). An ethical person lives his or her ideals. Period. There is no middle ground. No exceptions. No half way. This is one of the most important lessons that humanist children should be taught.
Religion in Schools
I'm not going to talk about the ways that religion infiltrates the public school system because we already know about that. We know about the attempts of the religious right to put prayer in schools. We know about the flag salute and the ways that public schools celebrate the holidays. We know about the voucher system, which is designed to help poor people send their kids to private schools on the condition that the schools are religious. The other day I learned that 80 percent of private schools in this country are parochial schools. The voucher system is a thin mask for getting more kids into these schools. Most humanists parents are well aware of all this.
If you are a parent who lives your ideals, you have a responsibility to get involved in your child's school when it comes to these issues (any issues actually). I've taught my son that he can say the flag salute and replace the words under god with "one nation under the sky." I've also discussed this with his teacher (who agrees with me, but can't really do much to change it). I'd like to see the children taught that the words "under god" are optional. Some teachers do this. Others are not willing to take the risk. An open discussion with the kids is one way to approach the subject without creating too much of a stir. Teachers have a responsibility to teach kids about current issues as they apply to their lives. The issue of religion in schools is a great topic for discussion for a 5th grade social studies class.
My son had the good fortune to attend a pre-school and kindergarten run by closet Humanists. Each year, the teachers and children put on a "Spring" show and a "Winter" show (they don't call it Easter and Christmas because the school's demographic make-up is so ethnically and culturally diverse). So even though in the Winter show Santa Claus makes an appearance and the kids sing Jingle Bells, the presentation also includes selected children and their parents coming to the stage to talk about their own cultural links to the season. A Chinese girl and her mother tell the audience about Chinese New Year. A Jewish girl and her father make a presentation about Chanukah. An African-American family tells the audience about Kwanzaa. And my son and I got on stage every year and talked about Winter Solstice, which is our family's official winter holiday. I'm a fanatic gardener, and I'm very attuned to seasonal cycles. I happen to love the idea of Winter Solstice.
"We have friends and family over for dinner, and we decorate our solstice tree with stars, bells, ribbons, beads, ornaments and popcorn strands," I told the curious audience. "There's a wreath on our front door made of pine and winter berries, and we exchange gifts. To us, the celebration is about the sun and the light coming closer to the earth, the recycling and rebirth process that occurs. Solstice is about surviving through winter. It's about gathering the community together and acknowledging those who survive each winter with us."
I then went on to explain how these ancient meanings were eclipsed by Christian symbols (Jesus was born in the Spring, not in the Winter). I told the assemblage about how Christians superimposed his "birthday" on the Solstice celebration to make it convenient, to make the transition from nature-based religion a little less traumatic. And how the Hebrews celebrated Solstice 10,000 years ago by lighting bonfires on each of eight hills that surrounded their community as a way to "warm up the sun" and bring it closer to earth. These eight lights eventually became a symbol of the menorah on Hanukah, which also falls near the Winter Solstice.
I explained how modern Solstice symbols include an evergreen tree, which is cut down and brought into the house for its ability to survive through winter. Other typical Christmas scenes, like the cozy snow-covered cottage with the fire burning in the fireplace and warm cookies on the table, are symbols of comfort, warmth and survival through the cold months. And finally, I revealed who St. Nicklaus really was... a guy who lived in about 300 AD who freed enslaved children as part of a political movement. Thus his giving of "gifts" to little ones.
I fully expected to be lynched by an angry mob at the conclusion of the program, but to my amazement, half the parents in the group came up to me glowing with inspiration and said, "What great stuff! I've been looking for that kind of information. We need an alternative. Thank you for sharing that with us."
This is one way that a school can work toward free thought. It's not offensive to anybody. All it takes is a parent presenting an idea to the school officials, and a willingness for that parent to volunteer to orchestrate the event.
Other Ways To Teach Humanism
There are other ways as well. One year I was volunteering for an AIDS group, Project Angel Food. I had the older kids decorate hot lunch containers to deliver to the AIDS patients. The kids wrote things on the containers like "get well soon" and "we love you." This prompted class discussion about AIDS.
This same school, as a means of promoting itself in the community, hosted monthly seminars on controversial topics for families, such as alternative family groups, dealing with divorce, telling your kids about AIDS, sex education, etc.
And one teacher, on my suggestion, even changed the flag salute to "one nation under the sky."
What grandparents can do:
It's a tough situation for Humanist grandparents. If you're a grandparent and your children are raising their children with religious hypocrisy, there' s not much you can do other than to set an example in your home. Let your grandchildren work in your garden with you, and explain how seeds sprout and dead bugs decompose and the plants need sun, water and soil. Teach them that nature randomly decides which flowers live and which ones die, and there's no judgment involved in the process (natural selection). Or invite the whole family to a Solstice celebration at your house. Do the tree, the gifts and the other stuff, and share your wisdom.
For parents, grandparents, friends and others who care about raising children with critical thinking skills and a rational view of the universe, remember to be gentle, not judemental with your teachings. Many of us have anger about the pain caused by our own religious upbringings, and that anger can really get in the way of many experiences and relationships. I advise you not to use tags and labels, such as the word, "atheist." You don't have to tell kids that god doesn't exist. All you have to do is tell them that God can be anything they want it to be, because it's an idea that comes from the imagination.
And then let them figure out the rest for themselves.