I grew up in the WWCG from 1976–1994. I am now 34 and I have children of my own. I “fell away” from the church at 19 and I find myself living in the “bible belt” of all places! My kids are 5 and 7 and they have started picking up things from their little friends like, “Did you know that God made us?” or even worse “Jesus loves us”. I am freaking out about it and I do not want to damage my children the way that I was. I just do not know how to explain to them that it is all just a messed up fairy tale. Both kids are being asked to go to church by their friends and I have actually had to explain to one of the more persistent parents the reason I do not believe as she does. She said she does not understand why that would affect my belief in God. Any advice? I have told my children that people go to church to learn how to be good people and that my husband I are good people already and we are teaching them the same. Does anyone else have near panic attacks at the mere thought of walking into a church?
I have two boys, 8 and 4, and my wife still attends WCG, and takes them along. Of course, WCG is not what it once was, but the kids (especially the older) are well aware of the issue of religion, and they ask questions. I think the first step is to realize that ultimately your children will be responsible for what they believe, and that the most important thing you can do is to let them know that you’ll love them no matter what they end up believing about God and religion.
The second step is to understand that right now is when you have the most influence over their mental development. By the time they are in their teens, peer groups become a much stronger influence than parents. But notice that I’m talking in terms of influence. Just as your kids will be responsible for what they believe, no-one— not you, not their peers, and not society— can dictate their beliefs to them, or “protect” them from ideas of which you do not approve.
So how can a freethinking parent best use their influence to raise freethinking children despite the conformist pressures all around them? Here are some ideas.
Educate yourself on critical thinking
The best way to teach your kids is to be an example to them. There are many great books and web sites on matters of interest to freethinkers, so become familiar with them and use them as ongoing resources for your own understanding.
Take your kids to museums and cultural experiences
I was shocked to learn that a friend of mine who grew up in the Bible Belt had never been to a science museum in her entire life. I think frequent trips to science museums should be part of every kid’s upbringing. But all sorts of other museums are good too: museums and galleries of art, natural history, culture, and children’s museums. When you go on family vacations, make a point of finding local museums to visit.
Read your kids challenging books
Ask your librarian to recommend books for your kids’ age-level that contain ideas that challenge artificial social “norms.” Even many of Dr. Seuss’ classics contain “subversive” ideas that help kids learn to understand different points of view and think for themselves.
Get books for kids that specifically teach critical thinking
I recommend Dan Barkers’ children’s books:
There is also a good children’s book on critical thinking about religion written in German, but the artwork thumbnails and English text are available online: “Which is the Way to God, Please,” Little Piglet Asked.
The Foundation for Critical Thinking also offers free downloads of their Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking for Children.
Build a library of DVDs on nature and science
There are many wonderful nature documentaries you can buy online or find in your library. Kids love these and watch them over and over again, and they’re a great way to learn about the diversity of nature as understood by science.
Point out the need for critical thought in every day life
Every time you shop, watch TV, or have family discussions there will be opportunities to dialog not only about what you and your kids think, but why you think it. For instance, on the rare occasions my kids get to watch television (usually in a motel room when we’re traveling) I will point out when commercials come on and ask them to figure out what they’re trying to sell— it’s not always obvious, but the kids enjoy the game of ferreting out the advertisers’ agenda.
Acknowledge the role the Bible and religion plays in our culture
Even if you don’t subscribe to particular theological interpretations of the Bible, it’s undeniable that it has played a huge role in shaping our Western language and culture. Furthermore, making any subject taboo only increases its mystique. So don’t shy away from opportunities for your kids to hear Bible stories or study the Bible as a document of historical, cultural, and literary significance. If you help them understand that the Bible is just one part of a rich human tradition of folk literature, then they’ll have a much better framework for understanding its true significance.
Point out that people have many differing beliefs
When growing up in an area where one sect of one religion dominates, it’s easy for kids to think that they need to do what “everyone” does. But it’s not too difficult to show them that everyone doesn’t think the same way about God and religion: there are many different kinds of Christian churches— who often don’t agree on critical issues; there are synagogues, mosques, and various sorts of temples in most cities, and there are also universities and science research facilities that often give tours. Show your kids that they don’t live in a monoculture of religion, but indeed, they live in a true “marketplace of ideas.”
Know what you believe and why, and be frank about your beliefs
My kids know I’m an atheist, and they also know their Mom believes in God. She and I explain our beliefs to our kids, and we don’t require them to choose between us. In fact, when my son starts talking about “being an atheist like Dad,” I tell him that he’s not old enough to decide what he is yet, and that he needs to relax and listen to what lots of people tell him, and make up his mind when he’s older.
Let your kids know it’s OK to not know everything, and freely admit that you don’t
I think this is one of the major points of distinction between religious believers and freethinkers: the former think they have “Truth” tied up in a package with a bow, and the latter will usually admit that even with the great discoveries of science, our questions about the universe far outnumber our answers. If you show your kids that you are comfortable with the “great unknowns” in the universe, then they are more likely to grow up comfortable with them as well.
Do you have additional ideas on raising freethinking kids? Leave your comments below!