Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I’m not usually the sort to ask for advice this way, but I’ve come up against a situation where I could use some input. My son is six years old and in his class at school, as is typical, almost all the kids come from Christian families and have been taught to believe in God. Two children have parents who are pastors (both parents in one case), and another has parents who both graduated from seminary but are not currently pastors.
My son and I have talked about God occasionally, and I started from the basis of Greek mythology to explain what a god was in the first place, and why I don’t believe in them. We’ve kept it light, but he’s decided he doesn’t believe either and came to the conclusion that believing in god is stupid. That’s not the way I’ve approached it at all, he just came up with it, and he proclaimed it quite loudly in a very public place at one point. Now on some level I agree with him, but I basically have told him that I don’t like him to call anything or anyone stupid.
On a recent trip to the art museum a sculpture of an Egyptian god apparently brought up the topic among the kids. My son came home and asked me if I believed in god and said all the kids in his class did. I said I didn’t, then told him that the most important thing to me was that he knew how to figure out for himself what was real. I asked if he thought that a lot of people believing something meant it was true, and he said no. I gave a brief version of the scientific method as a good way of knowing what’s real. That was about as far as he wanted to go at the time.
The problem is that he really likes to tell people what he knows. Every time someone calls the bonobos at the zoo monkeys, he corrects them and tells them they’re apes. Apparently he told his mother that he needs to tell his friends god doesn’t exist.
I’m not worried about what he believes, but I am worried that parents are going to stop letting their kids play with him, or kids are going to pick on him. I’m pretty content for kids to have these conversations among themselves, but my kid’s got all the tact of, well an atheist who’s pretty damn sure he’s right when it comes to these things. How can I tell him to be polite without telling him not to express himself? Should I talk to some of the parents that we know and whose kids he regularly plays with and let them know where we come from and what to expect? Is this the point where we suddenly become pariah parents?
Your son is a lucky boy. You are teaching him how to think things out for himself, and you pace what you teach him according to his comprehension level and his attention span. You keep it light and in small doses. Your use of mythology and of Socratic methods such as asking him if a belief’s popularity makes it correct are excellent approaches. Keep in mind that it’s not all about finding the exact right things to say. In the long run, most of what you teach him will not be what you tell him. Most will be what he observes you doing. He will model how to respond to life the way he sees you responding to life.
But in the shorter term, as much as you can, get yourself and his mother on the same page about how to advise him. You really want to avoid him having to stretch between dissimilar opinions and conflicting suggestions from his mom and his dad. Your two approaches might not perfectly match, but try to come as close as you can.
Knowing when to be polite is an important skill for him to learn, and another important skill is knowing when to be prudent. This doesn’t have to be an either/or choice between being polite or being able to freely express himself. It can be a broader choice of the kinds of reactions he will get from others, and the kinds of relationships he wants to have with others.
Use the zoo bonobos as an example: If he’s watched them, he may have noticed that they have distinct personalities. Some are confident, some are shy. Some are demanding, some are easygoing. Some tend to go along with the group, and some do things their own way. Every one of them has to find how to get along with every other one. They do this by trying out little things with each other, and seeing what works. They all learn how to change their behavior just a little bit with each individual, and they learn that they can be very relaxed with some, but they need to be more careful with others.
Explain to him that most people who believe in gods have strong feelings attached to their beliefs, and so they can get upset when someone disagrees with them about their beliefs.
Teach him the difference between saying, “It’s stupid for you to believe that,” and “I need to see it to believe it.” One is a statement about the other person, and it hurts their feelings. The other is only a statement about himself, and it doesn’t say anything good or bad about the other person. Another kid might say that he’s stupid to not believe, but at least he hasn’t been the one to start that. He can just shrug his shoulders and repeat, “I need to see it to believe it. You believe whatever you want. We can still be friends. Let’s go outside and play.”
Consider telling him gently about your concern that some parents might not let their kids play with him, or how some kids might pick on him. Lightly cautioning him gives him the option of deciding if and how he wants to avoid those things, and it helps him be a little more prepared in case they do happen. All actions have consequences, and making well-considered decisions about what consequences are acceptable is what I mean by prudence. Just as you have encouraged him to figure out what is real, encourage him to figure out how he wants to get along with his friends.
Make sure he knows two things for certain: 1. He can always come to you or his mom for support and advice, and if he feels over his head, you will help him and defend him. 2. He is a good person because of his good actions, not because of his friends’ good opinions of him. Being liked is nice, but that’s not what makes him a good person.
It’s probably inevitable that the truth about your family’s atheism will become known in the community, either by your directly telling other parents or by your son revealing it. Often it’s better to have some control over how that comes out by doing what you’re considering, proactively talking to the parents of his regular playmates. Those parents might appreciate your consideration in giving them the forewarning of what their kids might hear from your son, and also it will be an opportunity for you to preemptively dispel the common misconceptions that so many religious adults have about nonbelievers.
However, whether or not you become a pariah family depends mainly on the other families. It’s very difficult to predict, and you might not have a local example of someone else’s experience to go by. You can present your views to the adults as politely and non-threateningly as possible, but I’ve seen religious families who have had no problem with it, and I’ve seen other religious families react as if the atheist families are rabid, rampaging demons, and every response in between. There’s a good chance you’ll get a sampling of a variety of these from different families. In very general terms, the social reaction to an atheist family can be extremely different between countries, strongly different between regions of the U.S., and strongly different between rural and urban communities in the same region. When it gets down to individual families, it’s idiosyncratic.
You and his mother have your own social needs too. Develop your own adult friends and social outlets that will hopefully not be affected by religious conflicts. The difference between a pariah family and a family that just has a few folks who dislike them is in how well they have built alternative social assets.
As your son grows older, he will encounter different kinds of challenges because of his non-belief, but consider that he will be growing up in a world that is much less hostile to atheists than the one in which you grew up. Every year, more and more of his peers will reject fantasy and superstition and will join him in reason and rationality.
It is likely that he will have some valuable things to teach you, even though he’s not consciously trying. As the father of a 27-year-old daughter, I can say that that is a remarkable experience. Appreciate and enjoy that as much as seeing how he has learned from you.
I recommend that you read Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, and its companion, Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief, both by Dale McGowan.
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