Communicating Skepticism with Your Kids

July 25, 2011

For this entry, I went to a favorite resource, Mr. Dale McGowan, co-author and editor of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. In addition to the advice that he gives below, I’d recommend focusing on science and critical thinking (what we do believe) and less on the non-existence of Bigfoot, extra-terrestrials, and psychics (what we don’t believe).

1.  Build self-confidence. The best way to instill confidence is to encourage autonomy. We often intervene too much to spare our kids a moment’s frustration, uncertainty, or failure. An infant crawls under the legs of the dining room chair and becomes momentarily uncertain how to get out. She cries, and Mom leaps to her feet, ushering the baby into the open. A first grader struggles with his seat belt—Dad clicks it into place. A middle schooler gives up on a math problem after thirty seconds, asks for help, and gets it. These rescues add up, and eventually the child sees a moment’s frustration as a brick wall and looks to someone else for help. Who can blame him if he never had the opportunity to struggle and sweat and muscle through those walls on his own?

Skeptical inquiry is the act of a confident, autonomous mind.  It’s the act of someone who believes she can break through the walls between ignorance and knowledge.  If you want inquiring kids, work on confidence—and confidence starts with autonomy.

2. Instill a ravenous curiosity. No one asks questions if he isn’t curious about the answers. Indifference overtakes us soon enough.  Nurture curiosity while it’s natural and wild. The best way to do that is by showing your own ravenous curiosity with “I wonder how” statements — even if you know the answer.
3. Help create not a knower, but a questioner. It seems obvious that the best thing to do when asked a question is to answer it.  But when it comes to encouraging inquiry, it’s actually one of the least helpful things a parent can do: “Mom, how far away is the sun?” “Ninety-three million miles.” Clunk!  The inquiry is closed!  Elvis has left the building!
Many skeptical parents I’ve talked to seem to want to fill their kids’ heads with as many right answers as quickly as possible, as if that will keep incoming nonsense from squeezing into the elevator:  “Sorry, all full of true stuff. Take the next child.” But the idea is not to pack them with answers, but to make questioning itself a pleasurable habit. By focusing on making the process itself positive, you will virtually guarantee the next question. And the next.

4.  Use the language of “aspiring rationalism.” Don’t pretend that perfect rational skepticism is ever achievable. We all inherited a brain that is a layered mess of separately-evolved structures, as well as a high degree of ego-centric and socio-centric biases that make skepticism an uphill battle. It’s delusional to think we can entirely walk away from this mess that’s balancing atop our necks. Giving our kids the impression that we can sets them up for failure. Better to see ourselves as aspiring rationalists, doing our best to  think clearly and well despite the odds. It also gives some much-needed empathy for those who fall prey to their own biases.

5.  Encourage an unconditional love of reality.  The conditional love of reality is at play whenever a healthy, well-fed, well-educated person looks me in the eye and says, “Without God, life would be hopeless, pointless, devoid of meaning and beauty,” or “I am only happy because,” or “Life is only bearable if…”

I want my kids to see the universe as an astonishing, thrilling place to be no matter what, whether God exists or does not exist, whether we are permanent or temporary.  I want them to feel unconditional love and joy at being alive, conscious and wondering. Like the passionate love of anything, an unconditional love of reality breeds a voracious hunger to experience it directly, to embrace it, whatever form it may take.

Children with that exciting combination of love and hunger will not stand for anything that gets in the way of that clarity. Their minds become thirsty for genuine understanding, and the best we can do is stand back. If religious ideas seem to illuminate reality, kids with that combination will embrace those ideas. If instead such ideas seem to obscure reality, kids with that love and hunger will bat the damn things aside.


Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers

Parenting Beyond Belief – LIVE!

September 20, 2008

A few weeks ago, I recommended the book Parenting Beyond Belief, a compilation of essays on secular/atheist parenting edited by Dale McGowan.  Well, I just came back from a Cincinnati seminar by Mr. McGowan himself, and I’m so glad I went.  Dale offered up a really practical and accessible workshop on how to respectfully raise good children in a religious world.

I want to focus on Dale’s recommendation for secular parents on how to relate to evangelical family members, the kind who are judgmental or fearful of the influence of atheism.  I’m personally lucky to be raised by semi-secular parents who are both accepting and open to my lack of belief.  But there are some out there who feel as if they are rowing upstream against the current of their christian families.  Some of you even have a religious spouse or religious children.

Dale gave a great suggestion… don’t fight the current.  Traditional wisdom says that when being pulled into an undercurrent, you should just swim with it.  Religious tolerance works the same way.  Atheist parents should be open to allowing their religious relatives to respectfully share their spiritual beliefs in the appropriate context.  Quoted below is one of the examples from the seminar on how to approach an eager in-law who is having trouble accepting secular parenting:

I wanted to sit down and talk this over with you because you are so important to us.  I can see that you want what’s best for the kids, and I appreciate that more than you know.

I know your religious faith is a big part of your life.  If I were in your position, I’d feel just the way you do – worried that this important part of who I am wouldn’t be shared with my grandchildren.

I want you to know that it will be shared with them.  Even though we’re not going to church, it’s really important to us that the kids learn about religion.  Otherwise how can they really make a choice for themselves?

We need you to help us teach the kids by telling them what you believe.  There’s no better way to learn about religious belief than from people who know and love it as well as you do.  Let’s set up a time for you and Amanda to have a cup of hot chocolate and talk about your faith.

Dale is quick to point out that you should make clear to your fundamentalist next-of-kin what is non-negotiable.  For instance, tell them that you are strongly against the use of fear tactics (hell), guilt, or aggressive persuasion.  Just let them know that they are welcome to share their beliefs at an appropriate time agreed upon by both parties… not every time they visit or at every interaction.

On dealing with your religious spouse (a much trickier subject), Dale recommends having a respectful dialogue to talk about ways to negotiate spiritual parenting.  Atheist parents tend to have competitive personalities when it comes to spiritual issues; they have a desire to be right, to win the contest against God and his “true believers”.  An atheist parent should just relax in a spiritually tense family and make qualifying statements such as, “Well, you know your mother thinks differently, but this is what I believe.”   Try to be respectful of your religious family.  Don’t judge your spouse or children for their choice to believe.  Try not to correct them or harass them.  Just be honest about your own convictions and why you don’t believe, and let everyone else make informed decisions.  Attempting to convert your family away from religion will only create more problems, but that should be obvious.

Well, that’s about all I want to say on the subject.  My next post will be about meeting the reigning king and queen of atheism, the founders of Answers in Atheism and Camp Quest.  My lunch with Dale McGowan and the local Free Inquiry Group was quite interesting and worth it’s own post.

Thanks to Dale McGowan for an excellent seminar.  I regret that circumstances made me late.  I hope Dale can “forgive me” (to borrow a phrase).