We will build a home that is compassionate to all,
full of respect and honor for others and each other.
May our home be forever filled with peace, love, and happiness.
When we said these words at our humanist wedding ceremony thirteen years ago, we didn’t even know if we would have children. Now that we have twin daughters, this vow has taken on a whole new importance.
Yes, Lyra and Sophia have changed our lives, but not our values.
We are raising our children in an explicitly humanist family. Chambers Pocket Dictionary defines humanism as “seeking, without religion, the best in, and for, human beings.” That’s really how we see our job as parents: seeking to bring out the best in our children so that they can have the best in life.
The humanist tradition in the West has its roots in the ancient Greek ideal of cultivating human excellence. There are many principles needed to bring out the best in people. But there is one value mentioned in our wedding vows that keeps coming up in our discussions of how to raise good kids: respect.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T is more than an Aretha Franklin song. It means treating the world around us—and everyone in it—as valuable. It also means self-respect, or pride. We want to raise our girls to respect themselves, their surroundings, their pets; to value families, friends, and neighbors. And we don’t just mean an attitude of respect, but respectful behavior; we see too many people who boast all the tolerant opinions required in liberal society but don’t actually accomplish much with their lives.
Perhaps most challenging of all will be teaching respect for people who have different values—even people with beliefs we think are daft and behaviors we fear as dangerous.
Philosophically, respect is at the heart of the major systems of morality: from the Golden Rule (treating others with the same respect with which we would want them to treat us) to Kant’s categorical imperative (that we must always treat people as ends in themselves and not merely as means to our own ends). But philosophy won’t cut it with our infant girls. Even though they can’t speak a word yet, their big blue eyes are constantly watching and learning from us. What matters to them is not the philosophy we preach but how we practice those lofty principles.
To teach them respect, we need to model the right behavior. “Do what I say, not what I do” is not only unfair but just doesn’t work. Sooner or later, children see through hypocrisy and will lose their respect for you or copy your hypocrisy—or both.
All of this sounds good on paper, but in reality it can be hard. That’s why as parents we work on respect every day. It’s in the little things. It’s when we volunteer for social justice groups or do the shopping for an elderly neighbor. It’s when we’re waiting in line and see an opening to cut ahead of others. Even though the girls may be too young to realize it, we do the right thing and wait our turn—though waiting in line with twins gives you both motive and excuse to jump ahead.
And it’s in the big things. It’s having their mother create a successful public relations business that allows her to work at home while helping other women pursue their business goals. This shows the girls that with hard work, women have choices—many choices. And they can choose the options that work for them.
It’s making the choice to live in an urban—not suburban—neighborhood, where diversity reigns and people of all races, beliefs, classes, and sexual preferences live together. When we sit on our stoop with our girls—along with the cats and dog—we talk with everyone, including the men living in the halfway house, the politicians, the families, the old, the young, and the homeless.
The girls will realize early on that living downtown isn’t always an episode from Sesame Street. Seeing disrespect out in public will open the door to interesting conversations around the dinner table about how we feel it was wrong and what we can do. And, yes, having dinner together, with conversation, is another of our family goals.
Modeling respect means that we need to set a high standard for ourselves as parents. But we’re only human, not saints or superheroes. So when we screw up, we will need to admit it, apologize to everyone affected by it, and correct the situation to the best of our ability.
We believe that the best foundation for respecting others is respect for oneself. Once the girls value themselves, it’s easier to teach them to respect their possessions, family, friends, and the world around them. We want our daughters to have compassion, courage, and creativity, but to do that the girls need to develop a fourth c: confidence.
The ancient Greeks taught that pride was a virtue; indeed, Aristotle said it was the crown of all the virtues. Yet many religions treat pride as a sin—especially for women and girls—and this attitude has seeped deep into our everyday culture. Maybe that’s why educators and parenting books use long-winded synonyms for pride, such as self-confidence and self-esteem. Pride may be the virtue that dare not speak its name, but all the children’s experts agree that self-esteem has been grievously neglected in our society.
Raising confident girls means encouraging them to explore their potential. Fulfilling their potential will take ambition, hard work, and deferred gratification; it requires self-discipline. We expect confident children to enjoy their accomplishments; they will have earned it. This kind of justified pride is very different from hubris or arrogance, with its overconfidence and disrespect for others.
The recipe for instilling self-confidence is well known. Every day we give our girls opportunities for success and then praise them when they achieve it—though it’s important to respond with genuine appreciation, rather than just rote flattery. When they struggle, we help them face their challenges. When they fail, we help them cope with their defeats and learn from them.
In reading about how to raise children with strong self-esteem, we’ve noticed that humanist values are emphasized again and again. For example, teaching children to critically examine their options, and giving them the freedom and responsibility to act on their choices, are among the best ways to build self-esteem.
Again, modeling plays a role as well; as parents, we celebrate our individual successes and when faced with a problem help each other find a way to get through it. After all, it’s what a family is really about.
We also model both independence and collaboration. While pursuing separate careers we try to find ways to work together—like writing this essay.
We have been focusing on the positive, but we know we will face some tough issues as a secular family in a predominantly religious society.
Perhaps one of the first situations our girls will face is how to deal with the Pledge of Allegiance when they go to school. If they are not comfortable using the phrase “under God,” how will they deal with the ever-present peer pressure when their classmates say it and they don’t? And if they do say it, will we (perhaps unconsciously) pressure them not to?
While we want to raise our children to have the courage of their convictions, it’s a lot to ask from a five-year-old.
One of the biggest challenges we will face as the girls get older is teaching respect for those who not only have different beliefs but actually hold opposing values. Unlike most other nonreligious families, our beliefs are at the forefront of our lives, since one of us runs an international humanist organization, the Institute for Humanist Studies. We cannot hide this—nor should we, because that would teach our girls that we don’t respect our own beliefs and values.
Fortunately, we live in a very diverse and liberal neighborhood in one of the most progressive corners of the country. Still, our children are going to meet a lot of people who don’t like their father’s work. Even in the most friendly of environments, they are likely to find themselves explaining what humanism is far more than most kids. So they will find themselves discussing why their parents don’t believe in God and other charged issues—like the interesting news that Lyra is named after a fictional hero who overthrows God to establish a Republic of Heaven.*
Let’s be honest here. We want our daughters to be intelligent, discerning individuals who are willing to demand answers to their questions and not afraid to criticize bad ideas.
We don’t believe that all ideas have equal merit. Some are right, some are wrong. Some are good and some are bad. So we cannot say that we want our children to respect all beliefs equally.
And yet we do want them to treat all believers with respect and dignity, just as we want everyone to treat our daughters with respect, even if they disagree with our family values. How do we teach our children to respect others whose values they disagree with?
We don’t claim to have the perfect, pat answer to this. We do know, however, that we are able to do this, for the most part, in our own lives.
The girls’ mother has parents who consciously brought their children to different religious events—from a Jewish seder to a Muslim wedding, as well as the family’s own Catholic ceremonies—to help them appreciate diversity. We hope to be able to involve our daughters in such events as well, so they can appreciate others’ traditions and points of view.
We don’t believe that all ideas have equal merit . . . so we cannot say that we want our children to respect all beliefs equally. And yet we do want them to treat all believers with respect and dignity . . . even if they disagree with our family values.
Their father serves as the president of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which works with hundreds of groups, both religious and secular, to defend the United Nations’ agreements on freedom of conscience. This models the idea that even when you disagree profoundly on major issues, you can still find common ground to work together respectfully.
It won’t always be easy, especially as humanists in such a religious society. We want our children to respect others, but we won’t let our daughters’ self-esteem be damaged by asking them to defer to people who openly disrespect them or their family’s values.
These issues may not arise until the girls are older. We hope the foundation of pride and respect that we’re building will empower our daughters to rise to these challenges.
We started this essay with vows and are ending it with uncertain hopes and unanswered questions. Yet as humanists, we relish questions to which we haven’t worked out all the answers. If we do a decent job raising Sophia and Lyra, we expect they will work out answers for themselves, as well as pose questions that never occurred to us. We can respect that. In fact, it would make us proud.
MATT CHERRY is the executive director of Death Penalty Focus. He served three terms as president of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, five years as executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and eight years as executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies.
SHANNON CHERRY, APR, MA, is the founder of ShannonCherry.com—Savvy Strategies for Smart Entrepreneurs and coauthor of Trust Your Heart: Building Relationships That Build Your Business. She lives with her partner, Matt, and daughters, Sophia and Lyra.
* See James Herrick’s essay “Parenting and the Arts” at the end of chapter 6 for more on the character Lyra.