Raising Free-Thinking Kids

[twitter]by Derek K Miller

Back in the mid-1970s when I grew up in Vancouver, almost all the stores were closed on Sundays, because of a piece of legislation called the Lord’s Day Act. Every day before class in elementary school, we said the Lord’s Prayer. These were vestiges of a general assumption, made since British Columbia was colonized a century earlier: even if everyone in B.C. wasn’t Christian, the province would still run as if they were.

But Metro Vancouver has become remarkably secular in the three decades since then. In the 2001 Census, 40% of the population identified itself as having “no religious affiliation,” and the proportion is probably even bigger now. (That’s two and a half times the average across Canada.) My wife and I fit the trend: we have raised our two daughters, ages 9 and 11, in a non-religious household. Like us, few of our friends attend a mosque, temple, or church.

Buzz asked me to write this post because he saw that I just joined the Facebook group for Parenting Beyond Belief, a website run by Dale McGowan from Atlanta, Georgia. I signed up not because I needed much advice about raising children without religion (something many of us now do, especially in Vancouver), but to note publicly that it’s been the approach in my family since our kids were born.

Changing times

Until the 1970s, fewer than 1% of Canadians declared no religious affiliation—but it’s likely that social pressure simply kept the number of families who admitted no religion much smaller than the number who actually lacked it. As the numbers of non-religious have grown, so has our comfort with saying so.

Still, while non-religious families are common in Metro Vancouver today, that’s a relatively new development, one that mirrors the growing diversity of religious and non-religious philosophies among our region’s families:

  • In Surrey, for instance, there are more Sikhs than Catholics.
  • In Richmond, more Buddhists than Anglicans.
  • Celebrations of Diwali, Ramadan, and the Lunar New Year—not to mention the ubiquitous car flags if the Canucks reach the playoffs—overshadow what, decades ago, would have been far higher-profile Christian events, such as Easter or Lent.
  • The Christmas season has (for better and worse) become a catch-all celebration, encompassing not only the Christian holiday, but also the winter solstice, various other cultural and spiritual traditions, and a lot of shopping.

Yet raising children without religion is still something few people talk about. I think that is, in part, because many of us who do it don’t have a particular approach or philosophy about it. Non-religious families are unlikely to be militant atheists. Instead, here are some things we don’t do:

  • Pray.
  • Belong to churches, mosques, or temples.
  • Study religious texts.
  • Observe holidays as religious events.

…and so on. Indeed, we may dip in and out of the religious parts of society at our convenience. Just as I went to Sunday School as a child without it having much impact on my thinking about the world, my daughters attended a local preschool run by a church. There they not only played and learned to share, but heard Bible stories and said grace—along with other children whose families held a wide varieties of beliefs and non-beliefs.

By the time they were in a church-run after-school care program, our girls began to find the prayers a little annoying, which was one reason that, once they got older, they asked not to go anymore. Decades earlier, I’d become bored of Sunday School too, and decided it wasn’t for me. I haven’t been to a church service in many years.

Thinking critically

We’re not a dogmatic family, but when my kids ask me what I believe, I answer honestly. That is, I’m an atheist, and I see no reason to believe in gods, demons, or spirits of any kind. I also have cancer, so talk of death is unavoidable. They know that I expect no afterlife once I die—that anything that remains of me will be in their memories. More importantly, they know that doesn’t scare me.

That raises a key point. My wife and I have tried to raise our daughters to think critically and reasonably. We didn’t restrict their television viewing much, but one of the first things we taught them is that every commercial is trying to sell you something. We want them to extend that awareness to the rest of the world too.

People—including me—make all sorts of claims, but I hope my daughters learn to evaluate those claims on their merits, and on the evidence. Many claims in politics, business, religion, or even love might be unjustified, or might hide an agenda, just like TV commercials.

Of course my daughters are different from me, and they might develop or adopt spiritual beliefs as they grow up. I want them to make decisions about how they view themselves in the universe, rather than having a viewpoint imposed on them. I hope they do so as free-thinking individuals, with as much knowledge as they can accumulate. And I want them to understand why I’ve come to hold the views I have.

I joined the Facebook group in part to raise my hand and say, again, “Yes, good people can raise good kids without religion.” And I also wanted to support Dale McGowan’s attempts to communicate that message, without being malicious or offensive, to the many religious and spiritual people with whom we godless parents share the world every day.

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  1. Jen November 6, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Great piece. As I start thinking more about becoming a mom someday, I wonder how I'll raise my future kids and how family religion (or lack thereof) will shape them.

    One thing you mentioned that I'd love to hear more about, is how you approached the area of critical thinking and examination, especially of TV commercials. I suppose as someone in marketing, I'm more sensitive than most, but I often see a negative judgement of advertising taught equally along with the awareness.

    The fact that commericals try to sell things isn't inherently bad – the shared revenue model of most media is what allows us access at an affordable rate a lot of the time. Like with anything else, there are bad commercials and shady tactics – but a lack of critical thinking is the problem, not the ads or the vehicles delivering them.

  2. megfowler November 6, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Anyone who knows me in more than the most perfunctory or formal sense knows I was raised by parents with a specific faith standpoint — my dad is a Baptist minister (as was my mom's dad.)

    The reason I share that/am open about it is not because I attend church every Sunday as an adult, or have a particular agenda to convey myself, but because I like to let people know that even parents with a specific faith (the word religion is WAY too loaded for most people, and doesn't speak to the personal aspects of belief) can raise their kids to think for themselves and make their own choices.

    My parents always emphasized that faith wasn't something you inherited or had impressed on you, but something you would choose to embrace, according to your own will and your own experiences. I had to make my own calls according to what I understood to be true, just as they had done for themselves. Sure, they would likely want me to embrace their views, but not because I had to — because it made sense to them and was positive for them, and they'd want that same thing for me.

    But they wouldn't want that by force or by pushing — that would have just made my own belief a shadow of theirs, and based on influence instead of choice.

    My friends and I who come from families where our parents embraced a certain faith have a wildly disparate range of experiences with how our parents chose to pass that down, but I would say my experience ranks among the most positive.

    On a different note, faith isn't the only type of worldview or framework that parents pass on to their kids. Politics, economics, work ethic, social behaviours, and health stuff comes up a lot, too.

    The kids who always had to play sports or take lessons, the kids who had to do well in school or face humiliation, the kids who were expected to look or act a certain way to reflect a certain type of social status, the kids who were told that “our family belongs to such and such a political party, we always have”, the kids who were either subject to super-emotional or under-emotional relationship patterns, the kids who had parents who experimented/faced addiction issues, etc… they all have influences and ideas and experiences and scars from all that stuff that are just as powerful as faith echoes.

    We all pass stuff on to our kids, for better or for worse. Faith gets a lot of attention because it influences a lot of areas in life, but there are plenty of other things we do and believe that have a powerful impact.

  3. Derek K. Miller November 6, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Great comments, Jen and Meg. You might also like the exchange happening over at my own blog. It's always an effort to help our kids think critically, and of course we impose our own opinions on them in many ways, often unconsciously, and often quite deliberately.

    We try to talk to them about our thought processes when making decisions, including trying to admit when we really are being arbitrary, if we can be be honest with ourselves about that.

    Specifically about commercials and ads, we've tried to take them as they come. “Oh, that toy looks like it's probably not very well made in real life. Remember how the last one we got fell apart?” or “That does look cool! I saw it in the store yesterday.” We do it for grown-up products too.

    My wife Air runs a podcast about beauty and cosmetics, and we're constantly pointing out the weird new “technologies” that appear in skincare advertising and laugh at the pseudo-scientific names the companies come up with (oooh, “Regenerist!”). Conversely, though, Air also reviews a lot of products, and talks about which ones really are good and which ones aren't. And the kids ask questions like, “Why are long eyelashes supposed to be pretty anyway?”

    Another example: I've hemmed and hawed about getting an iPhone for a long time now, and I've often discussed my reasoning for not getting one, even after Air got one herself. Now I've decided I will, and we've talked about what changed my mind, including both my rational and irrational reasons for doing it, and how our budget plays into the choice.

    I think it helps for children to see that adults often muddle our way through too, and we don't always make the right choices. But that's okay.

  4. kenny eric friedman November 9, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    This is a really interesting discussion for me. I was raised in a very reform Jewish home. I went to Sunday school and Hebrew school, got Bar Mitzvahed and celebrated holidays but it was more of a community/cultural thing, at least for me…I think my mom sees it more of a spiritual thing. I questioned the dogma at a very young age much to my Rabbi and teacher's dismay.

    My wife had a similar up bringing as far as temple went. She might be more spiritual than me but not much.

    But the weird thing is I'm struggling with what we'll do with our child who will be born in a few months. Judiasm is a religion so incredibly intertwined with a culture and community. I kind of want my child to share the same experiences because it helped me with my, non-religious, identity.

    Bar/Bat Mitzvahs are a pretty cool, albeit expensive, cultural experience. Same with Jewish day/overnight camps…there is actually little religion there and more community. Plus I love some of the holidays liek Passover and Hanukkah because of the stories, but I don't like the high holidays that are the most important to the religion because they are preachy.

    I found your thoughts about advertising interesting too, and I like Jen's comment. I make my living off of advertising/marketing and therefore I'm really cynical about it, but I love it.

    So maybe that's how I should treat religion. Allow my child to have the same experiences, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Hebrew school (that's more culture than religion vs. Sunday school), and camp while at the same time letting him or her know to be cynical about what is taught and not believe it all.

  5. Derek K. Miller November 13, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    We certainly go all out with Christmas, and we have big family dinners at Easter as well. But for us they are celebrations about family and togetherness and home, like Thanksgiving or other get-togethers. At Christmas, of course the stories and carols make their way in too — it's not like we try to avoid them. There's much to enjoy about being Jewish too, and how much you want that to be a religious thing is up to you.

  6. Derek K. Miller November 14, 2009 at 2:45 am

    We certainly go all out with Christmas, and we have big family dinners at Easter as well. But for us they are celebrations about family and togetherness and home, like Thanksgiving or other get-togethers. At Christmas, of course the stories and carols make their way in too — it’s not like we try to avoid them. There’s much to enjoy about being Jewish too, and how much you want that to be a religious thing is up to you.

  7. Ac_am September 6, 2010 at 2:02 am

    I agree with you, Derek. I grew up in a suburban Vancouver, Roman Catholic family, but my parents were never pushy about the subject of religion, they let me make my own decisions from a young age, including whether or not I had wanted to go to church or not, and I attribute the fact that my parents, despite being somewhat religious, also being quite progressive and still believed that religion had no place in society outside of the home and church, to me becoming a more aware and open-minded person. If I had questions about why two women were holding hands, or why that man was wearing a funny hat on his head, they would explain it to me in the least judgmental and biased way possible, I think the aspect of religion to my parents was purely more of a cultural and heritage thing than an actual major factor in everyday life to them. nnIt makes me pretty glad too that Metro Vancouver has moved well beyond the days of the Lord’s Day Act and prayer being done in Public Schools, just as the same seems to be happening pretty fast now here in Edmonton, Alberta as well, with a rapidly increasing number of “free-thinking” parents and children entering the fray in both the Public and (oddly enough) Catholic school systems here, I think Alberta is not too far from turning the page as British Columbia did, even despite our long standing reputation of being a staunchly Conservative province.

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