Increasing numbers of parents are choosing to raise their children without religion in the United States. And studies show that raising children to think critically improves their capacity for reasoning, empathy, and educational achievement. But secular parents often struggle to provide answers for children’s never-ending questions.
Secular humanist Dale McGowan offers tips in his book, Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief.
Credit: Michael Ryu.
1. Don’t even try to give them answers.
Answer questions with more questions. Respond, “What do you think?” or “How could you find out?”
Parents struggle to sit back and let their children explore possible truths, but it’s essential to developing good critical thinking skills. Instead of jumping in with the correct answer, say, “That’s a good guess!” Or ask, “What’s another way you might approach that problem?”
Letting kids answer their own questions helps build curiosity and confidence.
2. Encourage wonder, curiosity, and truth-seeking.
Model these qualities yourself as you spend time with your kids, taking time to notice nature, ask questions, and search for answers when you don’t know them. Express emotion over the unknown, the mysterious quality of music, science, beauty, whatever astonishes you or connects you to your children. Listen to what your kids think is magical and express value in that.
Support research of all kinds: sensory, book-based, computer, oral history. Encourage effort, as opposed to praise for finding the “correct” answer. Emphasize that your kids can ask any question and people can always change their minds.
3. Allow kids to “try on” different religious or spiritual beliefs as they grow.
If your children begin spontaneously praying to a new God or reading an unfamiliar spiritual text, don’t worry. It’s unlikely the result of “brainwashing” but the process of critical thinking instead. Listen and question their ideas without judgment, letting them know the final decision is theirs.
Expose them other beliefs through age-appropriate literature, theater, films, talks with friends, visits to worship sites, and most importantly, non-judgmental discussion. Regardless of whether you or your family practices any spiritual tradition, your kids live in a nation of many religions that affect politics, education, social interaction, and legal issues. Give them the tools they need to be confident and successful in our world.
Don’t hide your own beliefs from your child or the world, even if you and your co-parent share different opinions. It’s important for your child to see and engage with people talking about different belief systems.
4. Give explanations for your responses to teach reason—not “Because I said so.”
You may worry you’re setting yourself up for endless debates. Just keep the focus on reason.
Talk about why we have rules—including family discussions—particularly about health, safety, and fairness. Link consequences to behaviors, and find ways to ask for your children’s input on appropriate consequences.
Children can better learn to follow rules based on practical consequences and reasoning than from an authoritarian, or fear-based doctrine.
Explain that all people, including your children, deserve respect as human beings. While ideas should be critically examined, people still have the right to have any ideas they choose.
Often, we look to people with similar racial, social, ethnic, national, geographical, or religious backgrounds when offering empathy. Try to overcome these and other boundaries when teaching children about compassion and understanding.
Support your children’s unique ideas. Encourage them to express any minority opinions and stand up for their beliefs. Thank your kids for showing compassion and encourage caring acts.
6. Celebrate holidays and traditions that fit with your family’s values.
Secular humanists disagree about whether to teach the myths of Santa and the Easter Bunny to their children. Find what feels right to you, and honor your kids’ intelligence as they inevitably begin to question. When kids ask whether Santa is real, respond, “What do you think?”
When skepticism creeps into their questions, explain that you—the parents—are those mythical creatures. Teach respect for other people’s traditions their homes, even if your children don’t participate. But expect other people to respect your traditions, as well.
Attending worship services with relatives from another religion teaches your child about new traditions and shows respect for other people’s views. Discuss the service afterward to learn about your child’s impressions and feelings.
7. Speak openly and frequently about death with children from an early age.
Don’t wait until kids experience a death, or someone else brings up the concept. Turn this topic into a normal part of life rather than something unknown or fearful. Use the life cycle of plants, graveyards, family history, etc., as conversation starters about death.
When your child does experience a death—either of a pet or a person—offer comfort, share emotions, talk honestly and openly about the lost pet or person, and listen.
8. Frequent, early talks about sex and drugs prepare teens to make rational decisions.
Educate your child early about drugs, encourage questions, and listen. Shatter specific sexual myths and talk through potential scenarios to help teens resist peer pressure and understand the true meaning of consent.
Encourage discussions of boundaries and consent between partners. Reinforcing self-confidence, honesty, and independent thinking helps teens resist peer pressure, understand the true meaning of consent, and emotional maturity.
9. Create Community.
People without a church community often feel isolated and worry about their children suffering from the lack of that social support. Other families with similar values help children feel less isolated and reinforce what you are teaching. Focus more on spending time together and less on an agenda.
Look for Unitarian Universalist Fellowships, Ethical Societies, or other humanist groups. Meetup Groups also exist for this purpose. You can start your own community, using typical online networking sites or online support groups.
Raising critical thinkers requires parents to consistently welcome questions and watch the answers evolve through your child’s eyes.
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