What I Will Teach My Children

By Jennifer Filipowicz (aka Super Happy Jen)

 “What will you teach your children?”  This was a question posed to me when I recently wore an atheist t-shirt to a child’s birthday party.   What a broad question, thought I, and not knowing quite how to answer, it stuck with me.

Today my three-and-a-half-year-old found a fly buzzing around my bedroom.  “When flies are outside we don’t kill them but when they come inside we have to kill them!” he exclaimed.

“Or we could just live and let live,” I replied, not wanting to raise a murderous child, or find the fly swatter.

A few minutes later, my son asked to watch a video about bugs.  Using the miracle of the internet, I managed to find something before his attention span waned, the BBC documentary series “Life in the Undergrowth” with David Attenborough. Since the bug that sparked his interest was a fly, I chose the episode about flying insects.

Two sections sparked discussion.  The first was of two damsel flies contorting themselves bizarrely for carnal purposes. 

“What are those bugs doing?”

“They’re mating…um…making babies.”

Luckily the damsel fly quickly started laying eggs.

“What is that bug doing?”

“Laying eggs.”

“Why?”

“Because its babies come from eggs.”

Later on, the show featured a wasp laying its eggs inside a caterpillar.  I’ve heard these types of insects used as evidence against a benevolent god, with the wasp larvae keeping its hosts alive until they are eaten from the inside out.  Now I started to think perhaps I had chosen a documentary too adult for my young ones eyes. Did I really want to expose him to the cruelty of the world so early? We watched as the wasp larvae exploded out of the unfortunate caterpillar, and I thought of how best to explain what was happening.  In the end my son summed it up perfectly: “Ew!”

So what will I teach my children? I will plod along, taking advantage of some teachable moments and missing others.  And for his part, my son will forget some things I say and absorb the rest.  And if we don’t get to the topic of religion, I doubt that will matter.  There is so much more to learn.

  • Eurekus

    Top post. I needn’t worry about how to bring up my children. Learning from observation of the world is good enough. What else is rational? Thanks for reinforcing that with me. You know, it’s easy to doubt when you’re married to a fundamentalist Xian.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Luckily my husband is agnostic.

  • http://whoreofalltheearth.blogspot.com Leah

    My son wants to know how people got here after the dinosaurs died. I tried to explain, but don’t think he quite got it. No worries, he will in time. :-)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Gosh, I feel this OP.

  • Richard P.

    I started to teach my son how to read at three and a half. It was a book called “Teach your child to read in 100 easy lessons.” The lessons were easy and short, the method was fantastic. I think we got to lesson 80 before he gave completely lost interest. By the time he was 5, we would each read half a chapter of the chronicles of narnia at bed time, by grade 6 he was reading at first year university level.
    It’s hard to beam with pride on the net. I am so proud of the boy…

  • http://intrinsicallyknotted.wordpress.com Susan B.

    Coincidentally I just re-watched Life in the Undergrowth today. While the episode about parasites is fascinatingly horrifying, it’s also an amazing illustration of the intricate relationships that evolution can create between different species.

  • Herb

    I would say definitely teach your kids about religion. They are going to learn about it, period. But like drugs or sex, you want to be the first to discuss it with them so that they can make an informed decision. Ignoring religion just means they will get the information elsewhere, and it might even seem more alluring because you’ve avoided it.

    Also, remember that the most important thing is that kids learn to think for themselves. If my kids are atheists just because I am one, well that’s my failure as a parent.

    I recommend Dale McGowan’s books on raising freethinkers.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Herb, at times I’m afraid that my way of explaining religion would be disrespectful to those who believe. I’d rather him become Xtian, than grow up to be intolerant of others. Although I’ve told him a little about the theory of evolution. Only to say that all animals and bugs and plants are our cousins.

    Richard, I might try to find that book. My son knows all his capital letters and I’ve been trying to teach him to read a little. He was most intrigued by the exclamation mark because I told him “it makes things loud and exciting!”

  • http://www.shadowmanor.com/blog/ Cobwebs

    I agree with Herb that explaining the whole “some people believe” idea is important, and you can emphasize that just because you don’t believe the same way that doesn’t mean you should be disrespectful to those who do. (Indeed, if the child is taught to respect others, the first time they run into “believers” who *are* disrespectful of anyone who believes differently it may make them wonder just how great beliefs that teach intolerance could possibly be.)

    With my kids, I found that reading them books on other cultures’ mythologies was helpful. Once you explain that people used to believe in Zeus or Odin but (mostly) don’t any more, they’re much more likely to be skeptical of modern beliefs because they understand that there’s exactly as much evidence for believing in Yahweh as there is for believing in Loki.

  • Herb

    I like Cobwebs’ idea, and once my kid can understand English, I think I’ll include Bible stories at bedtime. Then they become just that – stories. And when my kids inevitably meet other kids who pray to Jesus, (1) they’ll know something about him already and (2) they’ll require some justification for praying to Jesus rather than Zeus or Winnie the Pooh.

  • Adele

    As I remember, my mum handed me copies of both the Children’s Illustrated Bible and D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths on my fifth birthday and told me I could make my own choice.

  • Reed

    Wonderful post and I second Herb’s point. My son recently came home from preschool asking things like “Did god make all people?” and “Did god make rain?” At least with those questions we were able to discuss evolution and how rain actually forms. I just feel sorry for his two classmates that these ideas are apparently coming from. I’m also surprised that they aren’t being home-schooled to protect them from all those dangerously diverse ideas out there.

  • L.Long

    I raised both my kids as a-theist – that is without g0d.
    When religion came up we talked about it, they went with friends to their churches.
    When something about religion needed a slap down I did so otherwise it was all sort-a ‘who gives a schite’ kind o’thing.
    We did not worry about what to teach as my kids were very curious and asked incessant questions on every subject and used the various book we have (no internet then) to look stuff up and we talked about EVERYTHING. By the time they were 7 they knew more about science, sex, drugs, & weapons (we did archery and medieval fairs) then most high schoolers.

    My daughters friend asked her to go to catholic church once. The girl asked if she was going to communion and my daughter answered ‘no I don’t practice ritualistic cannibalism.’ She was not asked to go again, strange since she was well behaved.

    Teaching kids is not difficult, its the parents personal fears that makes it tough.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Herb, you shouldn’t wait until they understand English, by that time you won’t have a choice of what stories are read. They’ll be choosing them for you!

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    You sound like you’re doing a wonderful job, Jennifer! Thanks for sharing your story. I’m looking forward to checking out Life in the Undergrowth, too.

    I don’t have any children of my own, but I am the oldest of five and I’ve done enough surrogate parenting to know that the business of child-rearing is hard work. The two youngest are now twelve and nine, and I answer their questions whenever I can. We’ve talked about drugs, science, sex, politics, war, religion, anything you can think of. I try to drill into their heads that the world is a confusing place where people do all kinds of weird things, but it’s all OK as long as nobody’s getting hurt. It’s amazing what young minds can grasp if you talk plainly and help them think it over.

  • anna

    SuperHappyJen, are you from England? I ask since you mentioned the BBC. You might get involved with the National Secular Society if you are.

  • ArtyB

    Thank you Super Happy Jen. Your post had me laughing so hard. Keep up the good work.

  • Archimedez

    “Today my three-and-a-half-year-old found a fly buzzing around my bedroom. “When flies are outside we don’t kill them but when they come inside we have to kill them!” he exclaimed.”

    Houseflies normally exhibit positive phototaxis. If it is daytime, and you turn out the lights in the room and otherwise make it darker, and open the (relatively bright) window, the fly should soon find its way out the window. (That’s assuming there isn’t something more attractive to the fly inside.)

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Anna, no I’m Canadian. We get alot of BBC docs on CBC and on the discovery channel. I like anything with David Attenborough the best. For some reason, the sound of his voice makes everything more interesting.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    I picked this up from Dan Barker when he was in town:

    http://www.amazon.com/Just-Pretend-Freethought-Book-Children/dp/1877733059

  • Eurekus

    ‘With my kids, I found that reading them books on other cultures’ mythologies was helpful. Once you explain that people used to believe in Zeus or Odin but (mostly) don’t any more, they’re much more likely to be skeptical of modern beliefs because they understand that there’s exactly as much evidence for believing in Yahweh as there is for believing in Loki’.

    Hi Cobweb

    Your idea to introduce children to other mythologies is a great idea. I’ll do this to counter the religious teaching they get from my Xian wife, their mother. Just a quick question I have for you to clarify your comment. Are your children now skeptical as a result?

  • Eurekus

    SuperHappyJen

    Incidentally, I love your country Canada. It’s a great place to raise kids. I’m over here in Australia, which I reckon you could call a sister country.

  • Joffan

    “What will you teach your children?”

    Much the same as any other caring parent, I’d guess – teach them to learn and to work, feed their enthusiasms and help them correct their mistakes, support them and love them. Morality (which probably was the underlying question at the party) is mostly a matter of mutual respect, and even more a matter of imitating your example (and the example of others).

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Wonderful post, Jen. I love the suggestions about teaching Biblical stories in the same way you would teach other mythologies. Don’t treat religious stories as something taboo, just treat them as part of a larger body of literature and folklore.

  • Alex Weaver

    Every non-fruity sweet desert (and some of the fruity ones) can be improved by tripling the vanilla called for by the recipe, or adding a teaspoon if none is called for. The same is true for garlic and savory dishes.

  • Broggly

    Even though I agree with you, Weaver (it’s why I like vanilla gelati more than “vanilla” icecream) I don’t get what that has to do with this thread.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I get Alex’a comment. That’s his response to the “what will you teach your children?” question. It’s certainly a more useful thing to teach children than how to grovel to an invisible sky-fairy. However, I fail to see how tripling the vanilla in a garlic or savory dish will improve it. :)

  • http://www.shadowmanor.com/blog/ Cobwebs

    @Eurekus:

    Your idea to introduce children to other mythologies is a great idea. I’ll do this to counter the religious teaching they get from my Xian wife, their mother. Just a quick question I have for you to clarify your comment. Are your children now skeptical as a result?

    I’m pleased to say that they do seem to have turned out that way. The eldest (19) is agnostic/atheist and the youngest (6) recognizes that “Bible stories” are just like the other myths he’s familiar with.

  • Frank

    I’d say we’ve raised our kids as “default atheists”, not really discussing much about it, but when questions did come up, using the “some people believe” angle. I now think that we could/should have been more informative, but it’s all right: recently, my 15-year-old, after attending church with a friend a few times, declared that she thought it was “all fake”. That started a great conversaion.

  • Alex Weaver

    However, I fail to see how tripling the vanilla in a garlic or savory dish will improve it. :)

    Heathen. :P

  • Zietlos

    I personally prefer substituting almond extract for vanilla extract in my desserts and sometimes in garlic dishes. It’s much stronger, so you don’t need to triple the amount or anything, and it adds a very nice flavour and smell. When I teach my kids, I’ll make sure they know the controversy between Vanillists and Almondites, though. They get to choose.

    The youth are a fascinating group. Introducing the myriad mythologies seems like a great way to do things. I enjoy cursing in the name of Loki, actually (long story short: I like their mythos), so it would probably come naturally to me to wind up doing that, but it is certainly something to keep in mind…

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Almond extract? Blasphemy!

  • http://newempiricism.blogspot.com/2009/03/materialist-should-read-this-first.html John

    It is obviously right to teach your children that natural events have natural causes. (Or to put it in adult language, the entire universe/multiverse is almost certainly causally closed). However, it must surely also be right to teach your kids a bit of humility. When they are 40 years old and have studied and understood science beyond the level of Einstein, philosophy past Popper and experienced life and the arts to the full they will know what can be known now and this may include spirituality. (See Materialists should read this first for an antedote to trivial atheism)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    From John’s link”

    There is a problem with materialism. If everything is due to the flow of matter and time is like the succession of frames in a motion picture then at every instant reality is a frozen three dimensional pattern, like a single frame in a movie.

    This is obviously rot, as anyone with a rudimentary education in physics knows; all four dimensions are continua, and not marked off into discrete units.

    The materialists say that the physical world is made from stuff moving from place to place and time is like the frames of a film so if this does not describe mind then mind does not really exist.

    Who believes such a caricature?

  • http://newempiricism.blogspot.com/2009/03/materialist-should-read-this-first.html John

    Thumpalumpus and I agree that nineteenth century cosmology is rot. Thumpalumpus asks “Who believes such a caricature?” Well, it is not a “caricature”, it is a description of the cosmology that underlies the regress arguments in the philosophy of mind. These arguments are also sometimes known by the shorthand name of “homunculus” arguments and are used to argue that people cannot have images or thoughts in “minds” and that the idea of a mind is “folk psychology”.

    These regress arguments underpin much of the philosophy of materialism whether it be Ryle’s Regress or Dennett’s caricature of the homunculus who views the “Cartesian Theatre” of the mind. Marx (who claims philosophical affinity with La Mettrie), Ryle and Dennett all derive their materialism from the very primitive Alexandrian cosmology that Thumpalumpus says is “rot”. Perhaps Thumpalumpus should write to Dennett and tell him that his simplistic mocking of the possibility of mind is based on physical ideas that most people would regard as “rot”.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Ugh, I appear to have stepped in a pile of philosophy. Anyone got a paper towel?

  • http://newempiricism.blogspot.com/2009/03/materialist-should-read-this-first.html John

    “Ugh, I appear to have stepped in a pile of philosophy. Anyone got a paper towel?”

    You seem pissed off, I’ll let you you clean up your mess on your own. Bye.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Not pissed off, merely skeptical of its utility.

  • the dude

    I was raised Christian by my Christian parents. Unfortunate to have been brainwashed in my youth, like most of us. As an adult today I have acquired critical thinking, logic, and the scientific method, and I am now somewhere between agnostic and atheist, but leaning towards the latter. My parents disapprove because they are close-minded.

    I will raise my children neither to be theists nor atheists, for either would be forcing beliefs upon them. I will raise them to be critical thinkers, and let them chose for themselves. I know they will be smart :)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The Dude, in this case, does abide.