What advice would you offer to a young freethinker about to start her first year of middle school?
A Freethinking Mom
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.
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.
You may send your questions for Richard to . 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.