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RAISING FREETHINKERS

BY DALE McGOWAN

Check out this excerpt from Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide to Parenting Beyond Belief.

Raising Freethinkers is a practical sequel to Parenting Beyond Belief, providing specific answers to common questions and more than 100 activities for parents and their children. Raising Freethinkers covers every topic nonreligious parents need to know to help their children with their own moral, intellectual, and emotional development, including sound advice on religious-extended-family issues, death and life, secular celebrations, wondering and questioning, and more.

image CHAPTER 1 image

The Inquiring Mind

Dale McGowan

How does white milk come from a red cow?

Why doesn’t the sun fall down?

How is it that all rivers flow into the ocean without ever filling it?

These questions, which could have come from any child today, are from the Rig Veda, a 3000-year-old Hindu text—and wondering and questioning are surely much older still. Early Homo sapiens, endowed with the same cranial capacity as your Aunt Diane,1 had to be asking similar questions 125,000 years ago. And once oral language developed sufficiently to share these thoughts, parents and others around a child would have had to respond, one way or another, to the endless stream of questions.

It’s the human impulse to wonder and ask questions that eventually gave birth to both religion and science, two different ways of responding to the same challenge: an overdeveloped neocortex hungry for answers.

In preparing to write this book, I plunged into the current parenting literature from many perspectives, including religious parenting books. Some are very sound, like the well-grounded work of Christian parenting author Dr. William Sears. Some are mixed, including (to my admitted surprise) James Dobson, who serves up some solid parenting advice along with his unfortunate enthusiasm for corporal punishment, gender stereotypes, and homophobia.

But if book sales and general prominence are any measure, one parenting author has had more to say about questioning and the life of the mind than any other: author and televangelist Joyce Meyer. Meyer has sold over a million copies of a book called Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind, for which this passage can serve as an encapsulation:

I once asked the Lord why so many people are confused and He said to me, “Tell them to stop trying to figure everything out, and they will stop being confused.” I have found it to be absolutely true. Reasoning and confusion go together.

imageWhen University of Texas sociologists John P. Bartkowski and Christopher G. Ellison compared dozens of secular parenting books with conservative Protestant parenting manuals, they found that a literal interpretation of the Bible’s childrearing advice contributed directly to a worship of authority in all spheres of life, including the political. . . . They also found that conservative evangelical parenting gurus disagreed with mainstream counterparts on virtually every issue. According to their study, secular, science-based parenting advice emphasizes personality adjustment, empathy, cooperation, creativity, curiosity, egalitarian relations between parents, nonviolent discipline, and self-direction. Conservative Protestants, on the other hand, stress a tightly hierarchical family structure and a gendered division of labor, with a breadwinning father at the top of the pyramid and children at the bottom.image

—Jeremy Adam Smith, senior editor, Greater Good magazine2

In 2006, Meyer issued a version of Battlefield of the Mind for teens, including passages like this:

I was totally confused about everything, and I didn’t know why. One thing that added to my confusion was too much reasoning.

This mantra comes back again and again in her advice, in millions of books and throughout her broadcasting empire: Don’t even start thinking. Most troubling of all is the attempt to make kids fear their own thoughts—right at the age they should be challenging and questioning in order to become autonomous adults:

Ask yourself, continually, “WWJT?” [What Would Jesus Think?] Remember, if He wouldn’t think about something, you shouldn’t either. . . . By keeping continual watch over your thoughts, you can ensure that no damaging enemy thoughts creep into your mind. (from Battlefield of the Mind for Teens)

Many progressive religious parents are outraged by Meyer’s “fearthought” approach. But even those of us who don’t consciously sign on to this kind of thinking must look it squarely in the eye—because it’s in our cultural blood. Most of us were raised in homes that were religious to some degree, and many of us carry remnants of these fearful ideologies into our own parenting. Whether we are religious or nonreligious, our attitudes toward questioning and moral development too often include some undercurrent of anxiety and mistrust, the unspoken feeling that our primary job as parents is to stave off a bubbling depravity that lurks just below the surface of our children.

imageFear believes—courage doubts. Fear falls upon the earth and prays—courage stands erect and thinks. Fear is barbarism—courage is civilization. Fear believes in witchcraft, in devils and in ghosts. Fear is religion, courage is science.image

—Robert Ingersoll, nineteenth-century U.S. orator

In this chapter, I hope to make the case that this trembling view of human nature is simply not borne out by the best of our knowledge. We will focus on the moment of the question, a moment that is the foundation of freethought parenting, encouraging an approach that holds no question unaskable and no thought unthinkable.

I want the idea that questions can be feared because of the answers they might produce to baffle my kids. I want them to find hilariously silly the idea that certain lines of thought cannot even be pursued, lest they be caught. That requires a certain amount of parental self-discipline. It requires the ability, for example, to not paint the far wall with soup when the 5-year-old asks if monkeys have vaginas, or why black people have big lips, or who will put her blankie on her grave when she dies—all three of which have come up at our dinner table. It requires a firm conviction that there is no rock that can’t be upended if you think there might be something under it. And, of course, there always, always might.

Let’s begin with a conversation about wonder and curiosity, the incentives that drive questioning, then dive into the art, science, and joy of questioning itself.

Questions and Answers

Q: I remember my own childhood as a time of wonder, but I sometimes worry that my own children are missing out on that. How can I instill a sense of wonder in my kids?

A: Ideally, it isn’t something to be instilled from the outside. What a parent can do is facilitate natural wonder by simply removing obstacles to it.

The tendency toward wonder comes prepackaged. But like many other developmental windows that are open wide during childhood—languages, musical abilities, and more—a sense of wonder usually diminishes over time, until we begin to see things like spiderwebs, telephones, and our own bodies as everyday objects instead of the wonders they are.

Developing and keeping a sense of wonder requires time, opportunity, and practice. Some tips:

1. Allow unstructured time. Most people today are the victims of wall-to-wall structure. Wondering, creativity, independence, and a host of other assets require regular opportunities for completely unstructured time. That’s time with no instructions, no screen of any kind (expect maybe sunscreen), and no script.

If you’re starting late, and your kids are accustomed to constant structure, the lack of a script will lead to an immediate and familiar protest: “I’m bored!” Lead them not into the TV room or yet another group sport, but deliver them from structure. Depending on the age of the child, you can point them to a box of sidewalk chalk, a sandbox, a patch of woods, a magnifying glass, a microscope, a telescope, an aquarium, a tidepool, the sky—all of which are invitations for kids to engage their own creativity, reflection, and wonder.

One of the best opportunities for unstructured wondering is the family car trip. For the love of wonder, DO NOT turn on the DVD player! One philosopher I know credits staring out the window on long car trips as her first invitation to philosophical wondering.

2. Choose wonder-inducing family activities. The occasional trip to the zoo, the aquarium, the science museum, the planetarium, or even a simple walk in the woods can provide an unparalleled opportunity to ponder things beyond the everyday. It’s in places like these that kids can learn to see the world in a wholly different way.

3. Shake up the familiar. Help kids shake themselves free of numbing familiarity by changing one or more points of reference in time or space. Zoom in on the everyday with a microscope, turning salt into boulders and a drop of water into an aquarium of life. Zoom out from the roof of your own house and into space with Google Earth or with a telescope or binoculars. Search the phrases “slow motion” and “time lapse” on YouTube to see how changing the speed of time reveals the incredible natural processes around us.

imageI can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know the answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.image

—Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics

4. Point out the wonder in the everyday. You don’t have to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon or go skydiving to experience wonder. You don’t even have to pick up a microscope or a time-lapse camera. Everyday things get more wonderfully strange the more you look and learn. Watch a hummingbird at a feeder. Stay up late for a meteor shower. Get yourself a Venus flytrap. Magazines like National Geographic Kids and programs like Nova and the Discovery Channel lineup can provide a peek behind the curtain of the natural world.

Take opportunities to add wonder-inducing information to an everyday moment. Referring to a beautiful sunset as a “beautiful earthturn” or telling kids to put on starblock before they go out in the starshine can further shake up the familiar. While looking at the night sky, mention that light takes one second to get to our eyes from the moon, eight minutes from the sun, and over four years from the nearest star. To underline our ancestry, my family sometimes refers to our dog as “the wolf” and ourselves as her monkeys. These are all ways to transform the everyday.

Once kids get a taste of the wonder that’s just below the surface of the everyday world, you won’t have to prompt them a bit—they’ll lead the way. But parents have to get the ball rolling by giving them the three things they need—time, opportunity, and practice.

Q: How can I encourage ravenous curiosity in my kids?

A: Think of curiosity as the link between wonder and understanding. Wonder is the “wow” moment: “Wow, look at all the stars!” “Wow, look at the way that chameleon changes colors!” Curiosity is the next step—the desire to understand: “How do the stars keep burning?” “How many stars are there?” “How does the chameleon do that?”

imageI have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.image

—J.B.S. Haldane, in Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927)

If curiosity is what you’re after, your main goal in responding to a question shouldn’t be giving the answer. In some cases, an immediate answer can even extinguish curiosity. What you want is to keep the questions coming, day after day, year after year. To do that, you want first and foremost to make the child feel that questioning itself is a fun and rewarding thing to do. Adding some appropriate praise—“What a great question!”—makes it clear that you see questioning itself as a neat thing to do.

If you don’t know the answer, leap on the opportunity to say so! In so doing, you can join the child in the search for an answer, modeling curiosity at every step. Tell her that you’d like to know the answer yourself. Ask if she has any guesses and offer some of your own before you look it up.

Best of all, model your own curiosity: “I wonder if fish sleep.” “I wonder why light goes faster than sound.” “I wonder what it’s like outside of the universe.” Doesn’t matter whether you have the answers or even whether there are answers. Just let your kids catch you being curious and they’ll surely follow your lead.

(See the Activities section of this chapter for some specific curiosity boosters.)

imageMy practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.image

—J.B.S. Haldane, in Fact and Faith (1934)

Q: I want to encourage my kids to be critical thinkers, but not cynics. Where is the line between healthy skepticism and unhealthy cynicism?

A: Even healthy skeptics will often hear the accusation that they are, as Spiro Agnew put it, nothing more than “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Kids need to know that they’ll hear this kind of accusation often, especially from those whose favorite ideas are squirming under the microscope.

Skepticism—the simple request for reasoning or evidence before accepting a proposition—is a virtue to treasure and cultivate in our kids. But cynicism3 is something quite different. A cynical position makes negative assumptions as a matter of course, not as a result of the evidence, so a cynic is as uncritical as a dewy-eyed believer. One accepts without thinking; the other rejects without thinking. Both postures are obstacles to critical thinking, and both should be actively avoided.

The key to avoiding cynicism is to teach the value of critical thinking from a very young age. If you begin to see a pattern of unthinking cynicism, this value can be called upon to place a child’s developing inquiry back on track.

Whenever you hear the too-confident, cynical dismissal of an idea, play devil’s advocate, articulating the best arguments on the other side or asking your child to do so. It’s easy to build a confident house of cards if you don’t bother to hear the best of the other side. (We’ve all been on both sides of that one, eh?) Seeking out the most reasonable advocates of opposing viewpoints is one of the “best practices” for critical thinking.

And oh, let’s not forget the old peek in the mirror. If you’ve been known to strike a fashionably cynical pose once in a while, don’t be surprised to see the kids trying it out.

imageThe process of acceptance [of a new idea] will pass through the usual four stages:

(1) this is worthless nonsense;

(2) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view;

(3) this is true, but quite unimportant;

(4) I always said so.image

—J.B.S. Haldane, writing in Journal of Genetics (1963)

Q: I want my kids to be fearless inquirers, willing to overturn assumptions and to challenge ideas and beliefs in their search for the truth. But I also want to teach them to be respectful. These two things often seem to be in conflict. How do I help my children learn to balance the search for truth with the need to respect others?

A: The respect question is another that strikes at the heart of critical thinking—especially when the topic is religion. The key is to distinguish between several different categories of respect. Respect for individuals and respect for their ideas are quite different and must be separated.

People are inherently deserving of respect as human beings, and no one can be faulted for shutting you out if you declare disrespect for their very personhood. Ideas are another matter. I feel too much respect for the idea of respect to grant it automatically to all ideas.

imageEver since puberty I have believed in the value of two things: kindness and clear thinking. At first these two remained more or less distinct; when I felt triumphant I believed most in clear thinking, and in the opposite mood I believed most in kindness.image

—Bertrand Russell, philosopher, from his Autobiography (v. 2, p. 232)

Even if I disagree with it, I can respect an opinion if it is founded on something meaningful, like rational argument or careful, repeatable observation. The other person may have interpreted the information differently, but I can still respect the way she’s going about it. Suppose on the other hand that someone says Elvis and JFK are working at a laundromat in Fargo and offers a dream or tea leaves or a palm reading as evidence. It would render the word “respect” meaningless to say I respect that opinion. I both disagree with it and withhold my respect for it. And that’s okay. No need to degrade the other person. I know all sorts of lovely, respectable people who hold a silly belief or two—including myself, no doubt—and wouldn’t think of judging them, or me, less respectable for it.

If your kids develop critical thinking as an active habit, they need to learn and practice this distinction and be able to explain it to others. It makes the path of the critical thinker smoother to disentangle the respect question—though never completely smooth.

Q: When it comes to free inquiry, is anything “sacred”?

A: Yes and no. Don’t you just hate that answer?

The word “sacred” has two different major meanings. Sacred is used to denote specialness, to mark something as awe-inspiring, worthy of veneration or deserving of respect. In this first sense, the nonreligious tend to hold many things sacred—life, integrity, knowledge, love, a sense of purpose, freedom of conscience, and much more. One might even hold sacred our right and duty to reject the second meaning of sacred: something inviolable, unquestionable, immune from challenge.

This second definition of sacredness is much like the concept of hell—it exists primarily as a thoughtstopper. As such, it has no place in a home energized by freethought. One of the most sacred (def. 1) principles of freethought is that no question is unaskable. Encouraging reckless inquiry in your kids means laughing the second definition of “sacred” straight out the door.

Given that understanding of the dual meaning of sacredness, it should now make sense that I consider it a sacred duty to hold nothing sacred.

Q: If you were to choose one story from children’s literature that our kids should hear to encourage independent thinking, what would it be?

A: There are so many—Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, for example, or Huck Finn—but it’s hard to beat the power and message of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s easy to lose sight of the unique power of a story as familiar as this one, so it’s worth retelling:

An emperor, overly obsessed with clothes, hires a pair of tailors who promise to make him the finest clothes imaginable from a bolt of magic cloth. The tailors—who are actually just a couple of swindlers—claim the cloth cannot be seen by anyone who is stupid or unworthy of his position. In fact, there is no cloth at all.

The emperor sends his courtiers one by one to see the work in progress. Each sees nothing on the loom but is too terrified to say so for fear of proving himself stupid or unworthy and so praises the beauty of it to the emperor. At last the tailors bring the “finished” suit to the emperor, who (unable to admit to not seeing something his underlings have seen) immediately dons the clothes for a parade through town, during which the crowd pretends to marvel at the clothes. Suddenly a young child, unhindered by the nonsense that ties the tongues of the adults, blurts out, “But he has nothing on at all!” The crowd, validated in their own perceptions by the child’s honesty, laughs the naked emperor back to his palace.

In a few short pages, the story satirizes vanity, power, conformity, self-doubt, and human gullibility while praising evidence, courage, and honest dissent. If you can find a tale that more neatly captures the values of freethought, I’ll eat my miter.

Q: What are the attributes that encourage an inquiring mind, and how are they developed?

A: I think there are three main requirements for an inquiring mind: (1) self-confidence, (2) curiosity, and (3) an unconditional love of reality.

1. Self-confidence. The best way to instill confidence is to encourage autonomy. We parents 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 30 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?

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. Curiosity. The value of curiosity is addressed elsewhere in this chapter, but it’s important to underline the link here to the inquiring mind. No one asks questions if he isn’t curious about the answers. The parent of a ravenously curious little boy once told me that the boy’s grandmother, exasperated at the child’s endless questions, once said, “You don’t have to know everything!” Yes, it’s sometimes hard to stay patient and engaged, but you might want to avoid such sentiments. Indifference overtakes us soon enough. Nurture curiosity while it’s natural and wild.

imageDoubt everything. Find your own light.image

—Last words of Gautama Buddha, in Theravada tradition

3. The 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.” Whenever I hear someone say, “I am only happy because . . .” or “Life is only bearable if . . . ,” I want to take a white riding glove, strike him across the face, and challenge him to a duel in the name of reality.

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.

Q: My son is described as “offbeat” or “weird” because he likes to think outside the box and often holds opinions that are different from his peers’. I like this about him but am afraid that he will get beaten down. Am I right to encourage this in him, or am I just making things more difficult for him?

A: Robert Heinlein once said, “Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.” Sometimes making things easier is the wrong thing for parents to do.

One of the most soul-crushing pressures on our kids is the pressure to conform. Clothes, posture, speech, attitudes—everything seems to go into the sausage grinder at some point as kids flock to conform to their peers. And that herd mentality is not only sad—it’s dangerous. I’m not just talking about the dangers of sex and drugs here—those are serious concerns, of course, and a nonconformist spirit can help kids resist these pressures as well. But there’s also damage done on a much larger scale when teenage sheep become adult sheep, and “United We Stand” becomes a way of life.

Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass Sunstein lays out a solid defense of dissent and nonconformity as genuine assets. Organizations and nations are historically much more likely to prosper if they welcome dissent and promote openness. When dissent is silenced, both the good and bad ideas of the majority survive unchallenged. But when dissent is allowed to thrive, bad ideas stand some chance of being found out and eliminated.

Research, including the Solomon Asch studies (in which many subjects ignored the clear evidence in a simple perception test to conform to the incorrect majority) and the frightening Milgram experiments (in which everyday folks showed a willingness to inflict pain or even death on an innocent person if they were ordered to do so by an authority figure), powerfully demonstrates the tragic consequences of the love of conformity.

A variation in the design of the Asch study provides a profound lesson about dissent. The same study was run with groups of various sizes. In each group, a single confederate served as a lone dissenter, identifying the correct line segment against as many as twelve others giving the wrong answer. In these cases, the presence of that lone dissenter reduced the error rates of subjects by 75 percent. This is a crucial realization: If a group is embarking on an unfortunate course of action, a lone dissenter may turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members to join the dissent instead of following the crowd into error. Think of Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men. Think of the Bay of Pigs and what might have been accomplished by a single dissenter.

Talk to your kids about valuing nonconformity/diversity, the outright dangers of conformity, the importance of dissent. Offer nonconformist role models like Copernicus, Mandela, Darwin, Gandhi, and King. And Jesus, for that matter. To bring the message home another way, sing Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes” as a lullaby.

Q: I want to encourage my daughter to ask a lot of questions, but I can’t figure out how. She asks a question, I answer, and we’re done! How can I get her to ask the next question, and the next, and the next?

A: 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 nonreligious 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.”

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.

Q: So if I’m not supposed to answer her questions, what am I supposed to do?

A: First of all, it’s fine to give a straightforward answer much of the time. Just mix it up with some of these:

INVITE A GUESS

KID: “How far away is the sun?”

MOM: “What would you guess?”

KID: “100 miles!”

MOM: “Good guess! That’s what people thought a long time ago. They thought it was attached to the sky about 100 miles away, but now we know it’s a star out in space. Okay now. Grandma’s house is 700 miles away. Do you think the sun is closer than that?”

FIND OUT TOGETHER

“How far away is the sun?”

“I dunno. Let’s get a tape measure and find out!”

“Dad!! You’re such a dork.”

“Well, how can we find out then, smarty pants?”

“Google it!”

(After Googling it . . .) “Now I wonder how they figured that out without a tape measure?”

THE OBVIOUS FIB

“How far away is the sun?”

“About 20 feet.”

“No, it isn’t!”

“I’m pretty sure it is. Maybe 21.”

“It’s MUCH more than that!”

“Well, how far do YOU think it is?”

VALUE-ADDED ANSWER

“How far away is the sun?”

“93 million miles.”

“Wow, that’s far!”

“Wouldn’t want to walk it. Hey, you know how they figured that out? It’s the most amazing story . . .”4

THE QUESTION CHAIN

Eventually, the child will pick up the rhythm herself and provide the next question herself:

“How far away is the sun?”

“93 million miles.”

“Wow, that’s far! How did they figure that out?”

“You know, it’s the most amazing story . . .”

I’ve used an empirical question here—one for which there is a single verifiable answer—but the same techniques work to keep nonempirical or “values” questions going.

If you want to encourage a child to continue asking questions, the single biggest mistake you can make is something freethought parents do way too much: Offer uninvited corrections. If a 6-year-old child makes a guess that’s wrong, resist as often as possible the urge to correct it. This advice galls many freethinkers: “Let a wrong answer go unchallenged?! But, but, but . . . What if it gets stuck in there?”

Relax. Remember, you want questioning itself to be pleasurable, and constant correction at an early age does not achieve this. If you are teaching critical thinking as a value, the child will quickly develop the urge to self-correct and to invite your help.

A sample conversation with a 6-year-old:

KID: I think Bowser can read my mind.

DAD: Oh? Why do you think that?

KID: I was gonna give her a crust of bread, and she started wagging her tail as soon as I thought of it!

(Here’s the moment we typically wind up the correction machine, making sure the child knows that there’s a nonparanormal explanation. Resist!)

DAD: Hmm. Well, we better watch what we’re thinking, then!

Good Dad! I’m so proud of you. You didn’t say it was true or false, and she didn’t ask you to (yet). You simply made her feel good for thinking and guessing and inquiring about the world. There’s plenty of time for insisting on the right answers. First, we need to build the desire and the tools to find them on her own.

There comes a time (generally age 8 to 10) when the child will recognize that you have not weighed in on a hypothesis and begin inviting you to do so:

DAD: Hmm. Well, we better watch what we’re thinking, then!

KID: So do you think she can really read our minds?

(Now instead of stomping on it, draw out her own thinking . . .)

DAD: I don’t know. . . . Can you think of any other explanation?

Around age 13, kids will generally stop inviting you to weigh in—a natural part of finding their own identity. But if you established yourself as a facilitator of thinking instead of The Guy with the Big Red Pen, you just may be invited to continue the inquiries together after all.

Q: I’m uneasy with the “obvious fib.” We must never lie to our children.

A: I’ve heard this assertion that “we must never lie to our children” from many nonreligious parents, always intoned in the kind of hushed voice usually reserved for sacred pronouncements. Although I don’t advocate outright lying, the playful fib can work wonders for the development of critical thinking.

Many nonreligious parents, in the admirable name of high integrity, set themselves up as infallible authorities. And since (like it or not) we are the first and most potent authority figures in our kids’ lives, turning ourselves into benevolent oracles of truth can teach our kids to passively receive the pronouncements of authority. I would rather, in a low-key and fun fashion, encourage them to constantly take whatever I say and run it through the baloney meter.

I tell them “The sun is twenty feet away” precisely so they will look at me and say, “Dad, you dork!!” When they ask what’s for dinner, I say, “Monkey lungs, go wash up.” When the fourth grader doing her homework asks what 7 times 7 is, I say 47, because she should (a) know that on her own by now and, equally important, (b) know the wrong answer when she hears it.

Yes, I make sure they end up with the right answer when it matters, and no, I don’t do this all the time. They’d kill me. But pulling our kids’ legs once in a while is more than just fun and games. Knowing that Dad sometimes talks nonsense can prepare them to expect and challenge the occasional bit of nonsense, intentional or otherwise, from peers, ministers, and presidents.

Q: You suggested letting our children “run with ideas” instead of making constant corrections. But what about religious questions? I don’t want to force my views on my child, but at the same time I feel the need to be a little more proactive in that area. I can’t sit still while she runs with some religious notion, can I?

A: Depends. Are you trying to get her head full of the right answers, or trying to raise a powerful, autonomous thinker? “With questions of belief,” someone once said, “you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation–or teach the child to fish.”5

Religion has no magical powers to seduce our children. Yes, it comes with emotional lures that can subvert reasoning, but the proper response is to strengthen reasoning by building critical thinking skills, not hide the lures. Religion loses its power to emotionally hijack the mind when you take it out of the singular and into the plural. If a child is raised hearing only one religious perspective—orthodox Islam, let’s say, or Hasidic Judaism, or evangelical Christianity—the potential for emotional hijacking is very real. But if the child is allowed to consider several different possibilities without fear, each one loses any emotional monopoly, and the child can turn to reason to sort it out.

Ideally, your kids will try on many different religious hats along the way. My daughter Delaney came to me at age 4 and announced that she had finally figured out, as she put it, “the God and Jesus thing.” Jesus, she said, made all the good things in the world, and God made all the bad and scary things.

Few religious parents would be able to let this rest, to let their child sleep on the hypothesis that God is the source of all evil. But many nonreligious parents do little better when they say, “No, no—God isn’t real.” In the process, both sets of parents will have substituted their authority for the child’s autonomous thought. I’ve always preferred to praise the independent thought and let the child run with it. It’s good practice. “Cool,” I said to Delaney. “I never thought of it like that.”

The next week, she had a new theology: God, she said, makes all the things for grownups, and Jesus makes the things for kids. My favorite example: God made the deep end of the pool, and Jesus made the shallow end, for her.

I hugged her. “So God for me and Jesus for you, eh?”

“I guess so,” she said. “I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about it.”

And that’s all I ask. More recently she’s been trying on the glasses of secular humanism, but I fully expect her to continue trying on spectacles, going back and forth, back and forth, until she finds the pair that makes the most sense. So let your child hypothesize about the world without constraints and without fear in all areas, including religion.

Q: I still worry that the natural gullibility of childhood will do its work, and my child will end up unable to tell fantasy from reality unless I am vigilant.

A: It’s very common to see our kids as suckers for a good fantasy, but there’s increasingly strong evidence that we needn’t be quite so concerned. A 2006 study in the journal Child Development suggests that young children, although certainly impressionable, are less gullible than many parents fear.

By age 4, children make consistent use of context to decide whether a new piece of information is likely to be fact or fantasy. In three separate studies, children between the ages of 3 and 6 were given information either in scientific terms (“Doctors use surnits to make medicine”) or in fantastical terms (“Fairies use hercs to make fairy dust”). Children’s ability to use contextual cues to decide the likely truth of a given statement proved higher than had previously been supposed and increases significantly between the ages of 3 and 5.

University of Texas professor Jacqueline Woolley, the lead author of the studies, put it this way: “It is clear from the present studies that young children do not believe everything they hear, and that they can use the context surrounding the presentation of a new entity to make inferences about the real versus fantastical nature of that entity.”6

This is good news for parents wishing to protect their children from religious indoctrination and may partly explain why religion has found it necessary to back up even the most attractive religious claims with threats of hell. To counter a child’s natural ability to use context to discriminate between reality and fantasy, religious indoctrination must construct multiple barriers and safeguards. Freethought simply requires the removal of these barriers and the encouragement of skills already present in the child.

Q: My 6-year-old is fascinated by the natural world. I’ve tried to introduce her to the idea of evolution, but when I say, “A long time ago, apes turned into humans,” she squinches her face—and I know she’s picturing something pretty funny. How can I help her understand the long, slow, fascinating process of evolution?

A: By teaching it the same way evolution happens—in small steps over many years:

1. Draw her attention to adaptations. If I’m out on a walk in the woods with my own daughter and we see a deer with protective coloration, I’ll often say, “Look—you can barely see it! What if I was an animal trying to find a deer to eat? That one wouldn’t be very easy to find. And its babies would have the same coloring, so I’ll bet they’d be hard to find, too.”

2. Imagine a poor adaptation. “Hey, what if it was bright pink? I think I’d have a pink one for supper every night, they’d be so easy to catch.” I step on a twig and the deer bolts away. “Ooh, fast too! I’ll bet I’d have to eat slow pink ones every night. Soon there wouldn’t be any slow pink ones left because I’d have eaten them all!”

3. Move to natural selection, using a nonhuman example and a shortened timescale. Evolution itself requires thousands of generations and a massive timescale, so above the microbial level we can’t see it in action. But we can study natural selection, the mechanism by which evolution occurs. Once natural selection is understood, evolution is an inevitable consequence of the passage of time. And one creature in particular is just waiting in the wings, so to speak, to explain natural selection to our kids: the peppered moth.7 See the Activities section of this chapter for the story of the peppered moth, then tell it to your kids on your next walk in the woods.

4. Use analogy to teach the otherwise unimaginable timescale. Analogies can be difficult for very young kids, but once your child is able to handle that level of abstraction, there’s no better way to render the inconceivable conceivable. Saying a million Earths would fit inside the sun is fine, but saying “If the sun were a soccer ball, Earth would be a peppercorn”—now I get it. Same goes for time. Use either Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar or Dawkin’s armspan analogy, both of which are described in the Activities section of this chapter.

Q: I want to try to answer all of my child’s amazing and wonderful questions, but often my scientific literacy isn’t good enough. I don’t know why the sky is blue, but I know there is a reason! Are there good resources for parents like me that have kid-friendly answers to these questions?

A: Yes, there are, and you’ll find several in the Resources section of the chapter—but that’s a secondary concern. When it comes to encouraging wondering and questioning in children, remember that knowing the answers is the least important quality for a parent to have. Caring about the answer and caring even more about the process is much more important than the answer itself.

In The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson put it this way: “If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” I honestly feel sorry for the child who has never heard a parent say “Jeez, I don’t know!” then drop everything in the excited rush to find out. Give your child the gift of seeing that knowledge is never complete, not even for Mom or Dad, and that a ravenous curiosity is always a thrilling bird to feed.

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Freeing Our Kids from “Fearthought”

My daughter Erin went through a brief period at age 8 when she would literally dissolve into tears at bedtime but was unwilling to discuss it. The morning after one such nighttime session, we were lying on the trampoline together, looking at the sky, and I asked if she would tell me what was troubling her.

“Did you do something you feel bad about, or hurt somebody’s feelings at school?” I asked. “There’s always a way to fix that, you know.”

“No,” she said. “It isn’t something I did.”

“Something somebody else did? Did somebody hurt your feelings?”

“No.” A long silence. I watched the clouds for awhile, knowing it would come.

At last she spoke. “It isn’t anything I did. It’s something . . . I thought.”

I turned to look at her. She was crying again.

“Something you thought? What is it, sweetie?”

“I don’t want to say.”

“That’s OK, you don’t have to say. But what’s the problem with thinking this thing?”

“It’s more than one thing.” She looked at me with a worried forehead. “It’s bad thoughts. I think about saying things or doing things that are bad. Like . . .”

I waited.

“Like bad words. That’s one thing.”

“You want to say bad words?”

“NO!!” she said, horrified. “I don’t at ALL!! But I can’t get my brain to stop thinking about this word I heard somebody say at school. It’s a really nasty word and I don’t like it. But it keeps popping into my brain, no matter what I do, and it makes me feel really, really bad!!”

She cried harder, and I hugged her. “Listen to me, Erin. You are never bad just for thinking about something. Never.”

“What? But . . . if it’s bad to say a bad word, then it’s bad to think it!”

“But how can you decide whether it’s bad if you don’t even let yourself think it?”

She stopped crying in a single wet inhale, and furrowed her brow. “Then . . . It’s OK to think bad things?”

“Yes. It is. It’s fine. Erin, you can’t stop your brain from thinking—especially a huge brain like yours. And you’ll make yourself crazy if you even try.”

“That’s what I’m doing! I’m making myself crazy!”

“Well, don’t. Listen to me now.” We went forehead to forehead. “It is never bad to think something. You have permission to think about everything in the world. What comes after thinking is deciding whether to keep that thought or to throw it away. That’s called your judgment. A lot of times it’s wrong to act on certain thoughts, but it is never, ever wrong to let yourself think them.” I pointed to her head. “That’s your courtroom in there, and you’re the judge.”

The next morning she woke up excitedly and gave me a high-speed hug. Once she had permission to think the bad word, she said, it just went away. She was genuinely relieved.

Imagine if instead I had saddled her with traditional ideas of mind-policing, the insane practice of paralyzing guilt for what you cannot control—your very thoughts. Instead, I taught her what freethought really means.

In the years since that day, Erin has often mentioned that moment. She has said it’s the best thing I ever did for her. As with most such moments, I had no idea at the time that I was giving her anything beyond the moment itself. I just wanted her to stop crying, to stop beating up on herself. But in the process, it seems, I genuinely set her free.

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Activities

There are scads of terrific published activities to promote curiosity, wonder, and questioning. I’ve chosen to highlight a few particular favorites of nonreligious parents, including some that have been kid-tested at Camp Quest and elsewhere. The Resources section includes books and sites that are brimming with more still more activities, ideas, and resources.

Analogy 1: The Cosmic Calendar

Ages 8+

Next time your child floats a question about the dinosaurs, or the age of the earth, or the Big Bang, or has a homework assignment that touches on deep time—try this simple, engaging activity.

Materials: blank twelve-month calendar for each child (download free calendars at www.office.microsoft.com > templates > calendars)

Analogies can help kids grasp immense timescales. Carl Sagan suggested compressing the history of the universe to date into a single year.8 On a blank calendar, write BIG BANG on January 1, and NOW in the lower right corner of December 31.

Somewhere between the Big Bang and today, all sorts of things happened. Everything, in fact. Ask your kids to estimate when on the compressed calendar you would put:

• The first dinosaurs

• The first plants

• The extinction of the dinosaurs

• The formation of the Milky Way galaxy

• The first humans

• Roman Empire

• The formation of the earth

• The formation of Earth’s oxygen atmosphere

• The voyages of Columbus

Ask the questions out of order so kids can think about which had to come first, and next, and next (e.g., Milky Way before Earth, dinosaurs come and go before humans, plants before oxygen).

When I was a kid, I would probably have put the Milky Way somewhere in February, Earth in March, dinos in April, people in May—something like that. A certain kind of kid will be gobsmacked by the actual answers:

Milky Way forms:

May 1

Earth forms:

September 14

First (photosynthetic) plants:

November 12

Oxygen atmosphere:

December 1

Dinosaurs:

December 24

Extinction of dinosaurs:

December 28

First humans:

December 31 at 10:30 p.m.

Roman Empire:

Four seconds ago

Columbus:

One second ago

Analogy 2: The Span of Life

Ages 8+

Richard Dawkins created another spectacular time-grasping analogy that focuses on the last quarter of universal history: the history of life on Earth.

Materials: arms (human)

Stretch your arms out to represent the span of the history of life on Earth. From your left fingertip all the way across your middle to well past your right shoulder, life consists of nothing but bacteria. At your right wrist, the most complex form of life on Earth is worms. The dinosaurs appear in the middle of your right palm and go extinct around your last finger joint. The whole story of Homo sapiens is contained in the thickness of one slim fingernail clipping.

As for recorded history—the Sumerians and Babylonians, the Pharoahs of Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, Jesus, Napoleon and Hitler, the Beatles and Britney Spears—they and everyone else who has lived since the dawn of recorded history are blown away in the dust from one light stroke of a nail-file.

Simply knowing that 99.98 percent of the history of the universe happened before our species even arrived on the scene is the single most humbling earthquake of perspective we can ever achieve.

But there’s more . . .

Analogy 3: The Size of the Solar System

Ages 6+

Materials: a soccer ball, several peppercorns, several pins (w/pinheads), a ping-pong ball, a marble, and an open field

It has been said, and rightly so, that people who see themselves in a human-centered universe “are able to do so largely in proportion to their inability to do math.”9 Even without much math, analogies can take us a long way. The immensity of space is difficult to grasp, but not as abstract as time, so even kindergarteners can give it a go. There are countless ways to help kids begin to grasp the size of the universe and our infinitesimal place in it. I offered this example in Parenting Beyond Belief:

Find a large open space. Put a soccer ball in the middle to represent the sun. Walk ten paces from the ball and stick a pin in the ground. That’s Mercury. Take nine more full steps and drop a peppercorn for Venus. Seven more steps, drop another peppercorn for Earth. An inch away from Earth, stick another pin in the ground for the Moon, remembering that this inch is the furthest humans have been so far. Another fourteen steps, drop a very small peppercorn for Mars, then continue another 95 steps and drop Jupiter, a ping-pong ball. 112 paces further, place a large marble for Saturn. Uranus and Neptune are still further apart, and recently demoted Pluto would be a small pinhead about a half mile from the soccer ball.

So how far would you have to walk before you can put down another soccer ball for Proxima Centauri, the very nearest star to our Sun? Bring your good shoes—it’s over 4000 miles away at this scale, New York to Berlin.10 That’s the nearest star. And there are about a trillion such stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and roughly a hundred billion such galaxies, arrayed through billions of those light years in every direction.

See also: An amazing video on YouTube comparing the relative sizes of planets and stars: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tfs1t-2rrOM (or search for “relative size of planets”).

Analogy 4: The Size of the Galaxy and the Universe

All Ages

Materials: one round sandbox, 20’ in diameter—or a good imagination

How big is the Milky Way galaxy? First, remember that one million Earths would fit in the sun. Now imagine an enormous round sandbox, 20 feet across and a foot thick. If our sun were a single grain of sand in that sandbox, the sandbox would be the Milky Way galaxy, which is filled with as many stars as there are grains of sand in the sandbox.

Now shrink that entire galaxy down to a single grain of sand. The grains of sand in the sandbox now represent the number of galaxies in the universe.

Sit in the sandbox and run your fingers through the galaxies. Repeat.

See also: The Hubble Deep Field photo, which many have called “the most important photo ever taken” for its paradigm-rattling power: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2004/07/ (accessed May 8, 2008).

Analogy 5: The Fantastic Voyage

Ages 6+

Don’t neglect the microscopic world beneath our scale.

Materials: none

“If a golf ball could be magnified to the size of the whole earth, most of its atoms would be more or less the size of a golf ball.”11

An atom is mostly empty space—a nucleus surrounded by electrons orbiting at a distance. If an atom were expanded to the size of a stadium, the nucleus would be the size of a grape on the 50-yard line.

Special peek into microworlds: “Cellular Visions: The Inner Life of a Cell”—animated short created by XVIVO Scientific Animation and available all over the Internet. Google “Cellular Visions” or “The Inner Life of a Cell.” Ages 6+.

Telephone Detective

Ages 7+ for six or more players

Materials: index cards

This is the traditional game of telephone (a.k.a. Chinese whispers, Russian Scandal, or Grapevine) with a twist. Put a small dot on one index card. Pass out cards to the entire circle. One person, designated the Source, starts a message around the circle, whispering from one person to the next. Whoever has the card with the dot is instructed to slightly change the message. The Source (first in the circle) then asks questions to determine where the message was changed.

One problem: Members of the circle can lie. Once the Source has asked (at most) one question per person, he or she points to the person he or she thinks has the dot. The accused shows his or her card. If there is no dot, the Source is out. If there is a dot, the holder is out.

The game then resumes with a new Source and continues until two winners remain.

Geomythology (Camp Quest)

Ages: 8-14

A terrific party game for creative and science-minded kids.

Materials: a variety of dinosaur skeleton modeling kits, drawing paper, colored pencils

Many of the ancient stories of mythical beasts—such as dragons, gryphons, and the Cyclops—grew out of the attempts by people in Bronze Age cultures to explain fossilized bones found near their settlements.12 This activity puts kids in the sandals of ancient people who attempted to make sense of found fossils—just one example of the human drive to understand.

1. Remove the kits from the boxes. Intermix the parts to resemble a site with mixed fossil deposits. Do not allow the kids to see the pictures on the boxes or the kit instructions!

2. Give each child or group a mixed selection of bones. Let them know that when people find fossils, skeletons are almost always incomplete. It’s often hard to tell whether just one animal is present or if there are multiple animals in the fossil site.

3. Have each group assemble a creature or creatures out of their pieces.

4. Ask each child or group to draw what the living creature or creatures would have looked like. Did it have scales? Fur? Tusks? A long neck?

5. Have each child or group show off its skeleton model(s) and drawing(s), and explain its creature(s).

Not all myths are purely the product of imagination. Many originated in attempts to explain the evidence of our senses. Even when they weren’t accurate, the people who created them may have had good reasons for believing them at the time. This activity also gives kids insight into science as a process of using the available evidence to come up with the best explanation we can. If later evidence changes what we know, we revise our explanations.

The Truth Is Out There (Camp Quest)

Ages 8-14

Materials: random household junk, digital camera(s)

Using digital cameras and ordinary objects (frisbees, pie pans, aluminum foil, etc.), have kids stage the best possible “UFO photos.”

Invisible Unicorns (Camp Quest)

All ages

Materials: critical thinking skills

This critical thinking challenge asks campers to disprove the existence of the two invisible unicorns that live at Camp Quest. The camp has offered a prize of $100 to the first camper who can successfully prove that the unicorns don’t exist—a prize still unclaimed after twelve years and counting. By trying to prove a negative, kids learn why the burden of proof must rest on those making spectacular claims.

Mothwalk

All ages

This activity is a story, best told while walking in the woods in the evening, just as the moths begin to emerge . . .

Materials: a lovely patch of woods

Two hundred years ago, there were moths in England called peppered moths. They were light gray with dots of black and brown all over them. They looked like somebody had peppered them, which worked out fine for the moths—it made them blend in with tree bark so it was hard for birds to find them and eat them.

But there were also a few peppered moths who didn’t look peppered at all: They were completely black. But only a few. You can probably guess why: The black ones didn’t blend in very well, so they were dinner for the birds. If someone has you for dinner, you aren’t going to have too many babies, of course. And since the black moths were being eaten the most, there were never too many black baby moths being born.

Then something interesting happened. Big factories were built in the town near the moths’ forest. Dark black smoke belched out of huge smokestacks, making the air near the town very dirty. In fact, the bark on the trees in the moths’ forest turned completely black from the dirty factory smoke.

That made things a little different for the moths. What do you think changed? Now the black moths were almost invisible on the black tree trunks, and the light-colored peppered moths were so easy to see. Well, maybe you can guess what happened. Birds only eat what they can find, so who were they eating now? That’s right: the light-colored ones! The black moths were probably pretty happy about this: Now more of their babies could be born and stay safely hidden from the birds on the black tree trunks.

About twenty years later, people noticed that almost all of the moths in the forest were black and only a few were light gray. The peppered moth had been changed, all because its environment changed.

Supplement with: “Camouflage Egg Hunt” on pp. 241–243 in Parenting Beyond Belief.13

(See the Resources section below for links to amazing websites with many more activities for the inquiring mind.)

Other popular AMACOM titles for parents:

Home for Dinner by Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D.

Dinnertime has become a rare luxury among today’s busy families. Yet study after study shows that no other hour in your children’s day will deliver as many emotional and psychological benefits as the one spent sharing food and conversation, unwinding, and connecting. Increased resiliency and self-esteem, higher academic achievement, a healthier relationship to food--these and other positive outcomes have been linked to the simple act of eating dinner together. Make it happen for your family with Harvard psychologist Anne Fishel’s impassioned but practical can-do primer for prioritizing mealtime. Dinner becomes doable with the tips, recipes, and heaps of inspiration packed into this one-stop family-happiness booster.

A Survival Guide for Parenting Teens: Talking to Your Kids about Sexting, Drinking, Drugs, and Other Things That Freak You Out by Joani Geltman

Cutting through the teen drama and parental confusion, this book delivers fast answers and targeted solutions to 80 behaviors that drive parents nuts. Just locate the problem you’re dealing with, and you’ll find a brief but insightful analysis of what your teen is really thinking and feeling, along with smart, effective advice on what exactly you should say and do. By acting quickly, calmly, and knowledgeably, you can halt your teen’s spiral, open up the lines of communication, and get your child back into a positive, responsible, and respectful place.

Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete by Jill Castle

Kids have their own nutritional needs—especially athletic kids. Yet most young athletes aren’t eating properly to compete. Even if they’re on a “healthy” diet, it’s often a scaled-down version of adult diets or offset by convenient, empty calories that slow them down. Eat Like a Champion is a complete nutrition plan specifically geared to fuel the performance of young athletes. With the right food at the right time, kids 8-18 can increase their energy, hone their focus, gain strength and muscle, overcome fatigue, and improve their performance.

The Un-Prescription for Autism: A Natural Approach for a Calmer, Happier, and More Focused Child by Janet Lintala

Blending natural medicine with evidence-based science, The Un-Prescription for Autism is a parent’s lifeline. The detailed diagnostic tools, clear explanations, simple protocols, and Online Action Plan support vibrant health on the autism spectrum with safe, natural, over-the-counter supplements. Once the invisible health challenges are tamed, these kids can calm down and break out of their fog, get more out of school and therapy, and become the children you’ve always known they were meant to be.

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