Ask Richard: Advice For a Freethinker Entering Middle School

Dear Richard,

What advice would you offer to a young freethinker about to start her first year of middle school?

Best regards,
A Freethinking Mom

Middle School
Too soon, too soon, childhood dies,
Too far away adulthood lies.
The long, perplexing in-between
Can be so tender and so mean.

No longer boy, but not yet man
I’d left the “can’t” but still lacked “can.”
“I’ll never make it!” I would think.
Now looking back, it was a blink.

Dear Freethinking Mom,

Middle school is a time when everything is new, exciting and confusing. The budding sexuality, the rapidly increasing intelligence, the new intensity of emotions, and the extremely complex social demands can keep a young person constantly scrambling to understand and to be understood.

This is the age for most people when they first experience falling in love with ideas. This is when the idealists and the cynics are born. Some will remain so their whole lives, and some will adjust to a balance somewhere along the way. It’s when we see glimpses of their future adult character: their levels of kindness or cruelty, truthfulness or deceitfulness, humility or vanity, and their comfort or discomfort with people who are different.

One of the main challenges for any preteen and teen is social acceptance. This is a time when belonging to a group and “fitting in” becomes very important for almost everyone, and the penalties for individuals who are not in a group, in the form of taunting, harassing or shunning can be harsh. Within just a few days after middle school opens, most of the new students have formed groups, and as time passes, those groups become increasingly exclusive. They look with conceit and disdain at other groups, and they look with contempt and suspicion at “loners.” Those kids who for whatever reason are still not attached to a group very soon discover that they are not just by themselves, they are “out.” Some don’t really mind, but others are very lonely.

Navigating into and between these groups can sometimes be extra complicated and risky for a young freethinker.

It’s more complicated because a freethinker is someone who doesn’t necessarily follow a group’s consensus. She thinks for herself. So if your daughter is part of a group, and her freethinking trait is more general than just about religious issues, she may frequently feel conflicting pressures to assert her own opinion on one hand, but to go along with her group’s opinion on the other. Out of necessity, freethinkers who belong to a group sometimes develop very good negotiating and diplomatic skills.

It’s more risky because in some regions of the US, one of the main ways groups form is to gather around a shared religion. It’s a very powerful way of determining who’s “in” and who’s “out.” If your daughter is not a member of one of the group’s accepted list of churches, (which can be a remarkably short list) she won’t just be not allowed in the group, she could face severe ostracizing.

So here is where she will have to learn to balance being open and being private, and to find friends who really know how to be discrete with the private things she shares. It will be difficult at times, that is probably a given. She will benefit greatly if she can come to you for guidance, encouragement, commiseration, and hopefully only on rare occasions, some support in fighting back.

Although it’s okay that she has read all of this, now I’ll speak directly to your daughter:

Hi Freethinker. You are extremely lucky to have a mother who is a freethinker too. Most young people who see things in their own way, such as not believing a religious idea, are in direct conflict with their parents’ beliefs, and the results can be painful and heartbreaking. As you grow physically and mentally, you will naturally find some things where you differ with your parents. That’s okay. It is natural for that to happen. But as long as you keep your core relationship with your mom honest, open, trusting, and loving, you and she will be able to work out those differences. You’ll see that they are unimportant compared to that core relationship, and you will remain a team. There is very little in life as precious as this. Keep it.

Out in the rest of the world, honesty is usually the best policy in general, but blanket honesty without looking around at the situation can be just plain stupid. Wisdom is sometimes shown by saying something wise, but very often it’s shown by keeping a wise silence. Learn to be discrete, meaning you know who to tell a confidence, and you know how to keep a confidence.

Remember the 4U-2U rule: If they’ll do it for you, they’ll do it to you. For instance, if you have a friend who tells you all about some other friend’s secrets, don’t assume that she will keep your secrets to herself, no matter how much she promises. She made the same promise to that other friend, and she’s just demonstrated how poorly she kept it. Find friends who don’t constantly spread gossip. That is rare at this age, but they do exist. You can find them by being like that yourself.

Middle school is a rumor factory. Rumors spread, grow and can really hurt people very badly. When someone tells you that so-in-so did such-and-such with this-and-that to so-in-so, don’t participate in spreading the hurtful rumor. Use your freethinking skills to politely ask the teller, “Wait a minute, who told you this, and how would they know? This sounds like just a rumor.” You can be a quiet force for good in your school by respectfully spreading a little skepticism about rumors and gossip, rather than thoughtlessly spreading another growing lie.

When it comes to expressing your disbelief in religious ideas, you are handling dynamite. Be very careful about who you tell and when you tell. Being a nonbeliever is not something to feel ashamed about, but you should not be naïve. Other people may treat you as if it’s the most shameful thing possible. Give yourself time to be ready for the challenges you’ll face in a prejudiced society that tends to see nonbelievers as evil, even though they’ve never done an evil thing.

DO NOT post your views about religion on FaceBook. It will spread around your community at the speed of light. You should share your religious opinions only if, when, where, how, and to whom you choose. Don’t put yourself at the mercy of the school gossips who love to torment anyone they can, just so they will feel superior. If you really want to express yourself about religious matters online, do it anonymously. Create a user name that leaves no clue to your identity, and don’t have a gravitar that shows your face.

Because you probably have a natural desire to fit in with a group, you may be very tempted to pretend to believe something that you don’t really believe, just so they’ll let you in. This is a very difficult situation, and there are no solutions that fit every one. Ask yourself if it’s really worth being part of a group that won’t accept you as you are. Perhaps you can find a group that has no problem with the real you. Talk to your mom about your feelings. She’s your backup ally. She’s probably had a similar dilemma.

As you get older, you’ll gradually have more independence to have friends and belong to groups who are supportive of your views. The support of a few like-minded friends can help keep your morale up when times are tough. You don’t need to have a lot, just enough. Even one or two are enormously better than none at all.

When you eventually get into online or face-to-face discussions with religious people, keep your poise and dignity. Go for mutual understanding instead of agreement. Be patient and polite. Don’t trade insult for insult. That’s a waste of time. Don’t become well practiced at being cruel. We have too many experts at cruelty, and not enough experts at understanding. You can disagree without being unkind or insulting, and your words will sink in deeper. You don’t have to respect their beliefs if you think those beliefs are absurd, but you can still treat the person respectfully. If they get abusive or insulting to you, just end it, saying that you’ll be willing to talk when they can actually practice the love and good will that their religion preaches.

Although you may sometimes feel hopelessly outnumbered, don’t despair. Remember that time is on your side. For the last century, each generation has been less religious than the previous one, and that trend is accelerating. You are part of a rapidly growing group. Every day there are more freethinking people than the day before. By the time you are an adult, you will be in a much better environment for your views than you are now. I wish you and your mother a wonderful journey.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Trace

    Wow Richard, where were you when I needed this advice?

    Good luck to the young FT (Ah…being young again).

  • littlejohn

    Middle school is no time to “come out” as what others will regard as an oddball. Just avoil religious entanglements, social events and conversations, unless it’s with someone who seems very open-minded. Eighteen is about the age when it’s safe to come out in most environments. With any luck, you’ll be in college then, and there is a world of difference when it come to acceptance.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    My only advice for the parent of a middle-schooler is to let the middle schooler kind of work things out for themselves and don’t insist on them holding true to any particular stance on things. The child will (and should) have plenty of time to work these things out as they develop their self identity and figure out their place in the world.

    The main thing is to let your children know that you love them unconditionally no matter what they believe.

    P.S. I have a son in the 6th grade.

  • Jenifer

    I’m a little uncomfortable with what I perceive to be a ‘pretend you not an atheist’ sentiment. I have two kids, one in high school and the other wrapping up middle school this year and I did have ‘The Talk’ with them but it was slightly different.

    Yes, I talked to them about the potential for people who are religious to treat them differently but I tried to present this as a reason to make sure they are careful to choose friends who love them for who they are, not what they believe (or don’t believe).

    The problem with blending in and keeping a don’t ask don’t tell attitude is that eventually people will know you’re not a Christian, and that you never were. The religious friends may then feel justified in their prejudice against non-believers because you’ve given them an example of how untrustworthy they can be.

    Every situation is different though, and it’s not all that easy. This has worked in our case so far. My best to anyone with kids who are in any type of minority because they all face similar challenges :)

  • CS Shelton

    Oh, Middle School? You mean the worst time in most American’s entire lives, that middle school?

    My advice would be: Be socially invisible as much as humanly possible, trust no one, and believe in your heart that this prison sentence will one day end.

    Or alternately, pick the biggest guy you can see on the first day, sucker punch him and send him to the infirmary while he’s down, so everyone thinks you’re wicked psycho and avoids you. Rock it!

    -

  • april

    No need to publish this comment. Just curious if gravitar = avatar?

  • Carrie

    Middle school was when I learned the word atheist, and started identifying as such. I wasn’t religious before, I just hadn’t realized that there was a word for people who didn’t believe in god. It was also when I learned just how serious people were about religion, as we moved from northern Ohio (where people did not ask strangers what religion they were) to Bible Belt Kentucky.

    Before then, I didn’t think people literally believed in god. Middle school was pretty wretched starting out, but I eventually found some fellow freaks and geeks.

  • muggle

    Religious views aren’t necessarily the only thing or even the thing. My daughter was very open and though she had problems with school staff for being openly Atheist, her friends were always accepting of it. Most, in fact, told her on the sly they didn’t believe in god either but couldn’t let their parents know that. And their parents were “liberal” enough to not care that they had an Atheist friend. Something else was expected at home, however. My daughter got a lot of the we can’t believe what you can talk to your mother about that.

    Where I had to stop my daughter from being too open, sad to say, especially in public, was being bisexual. She was used to being able to talk openly to me and would get mad at cautions to not speak so openly on places like public transit but, man, I got some scary vibes from other passengers at times for her talking openly about it when she’d either seem to be oblivious to the glowers or thought it funny.

    That’s a tough one. Privately, supporting your child in what they are, but publicly teaching them enough caution not to get lynched for it. I’m straight but wear my hair short and don’t wear dresses or make-up and stereotypes being what they are I get mistaken for gay a lot so I had some idea. She knew that but she was at that age where she thought being defiant was the way to go and thought I was over-reacting ’til we got some snarling maniac calling us both dykes and saying Jesus would smite the homosexuals and my telling her to go, just get off the bus as he lunged at us when she thought she’d tell him where to get off before she realized I wasn’t.

    Don’t you freaking hate having your kid learn a lesson like that?

  • nankay

    My son is in 6th grade and for a couple of years now he has been a very matter of fact; “I don’t believe in god” kind of guy. Not pushy, not hiding, just a statement of fact when asked. He has received a few indignant remarks,a few shocked reactions (mostly from kids who have never encountered the idea ) but nothing horrible. His 2 best friends are a Mormon transplant from Idaho and a boy very active in a very conservative church. I do wonder how (if?) these friendships will survive as the 2 religious boys mature into their church “roles”.

  • prospera

    I do wonder how (if?) these friendships will survive as the 2 religious boys mature into their church “roles”.

    My daughter in high school has a similar mix of friends who are from various religious backgrounds. Religion is a non-issue in their friendship for the most part. Although I also wonder how and if that will change as they become adults, I think the mere experience of having been friends with each other will have a lasting impact on how they interact with people of different beliefs in the future.

    I do believe tolerance is learned through exposure and experience rather than instruction.

  • Samantha

    I’m not sure if my opinion is worth much here; other people have basically covered it. But here’s my 0.02 anyway :D

    I’m a sophomore in high school, and middle school was the worst 3 years of my life. I didn’t really open up to anyone, and I didn’t feel I could. I wouldn’t tell everyone you’re an atheist on the first day. Gauge your environment for the first few months; figure out what other people think. Find some other people who think similarly. Then, depending on how comfortable you feel, you can “out” yourself as an atheist.

    I live in Massachusetts, not in the middle of the Bible belt, so I didn’t have a very difficult time. I still had many people who would yell at me, or try to use scare tactics (“God hates you! You’re going to hell!) Ignore them. They can’t prove god exists to you; they’ll just make ad hominem attacks. That’s about it.
    Also, talk to your mom (you are so lucky to have a freethinking mom). It will really help.
    If only I knew this website existed when I was in middle school…

  • Richard Wade

    Samantha,
    Your opinion is worth a great deal, much more than two cents. Someone who has just gone through the ordeal of middle school has a very valid credibility with those still in it, as well as practical advice, and yours is both welcome and useful. Thank you. I’m glad you’re here.

  • prospera

    My advice to a freethinking middle schooler would be to try to have an open mind about all types of people, even those who seem to be close-minded and reject freethinking.

    I think many people get so caught up in trying to be accepted by others that we tend to forget to be accepting of those others in the process.

    I think it’s important to remember that even those who reject us are likely to be struggling with their own identities.

    (Richard – I enjoyed your insightful poetry. Bravo! :-) )

  • L.Long

    “pick the biggest guy you can see on the first day, sucker punch him and send him to the infirmary while he’s down, so everyone thinks you’re wicked psycho and avoids you.” I did not mean to do this but it worked out that this did happen to me. It WORKS!!!
    My daughter did a judo demo on defending yourself from an adult. That works too!!! the boys were scared to death of her after she demoed how to kick them in the balls!!! Getting dates was a problem too.