How to Discipline Your Children Without God

When Deborah Mitchell posted an article on iCNN about why she doesn’t raise her children with religion, it became a viral sensation.

Now, she’s written a complete guide to atheist parenting. It’s called Growing Up Godless and it’s full of nearly 100 short essays on tackling the various obstacles atheist parents face in a predominantly religious world.

In the excerpt below, Mitchell talks about how to discipline your children when they’re not raised to believe God is watching over them:

How do you discipline children after you take God out of the equation? One parent told me that, when he took his two kids to church, he expected the church to teach his son and daughter morals and discipline, especially when it came to sex. It’s just easier to push these parental responsibilities off onto an institution that already has a structure in place to teach morality and discipline. The parent then becomes an agent of the church, reinforcing its teachings at home. But that is merely shrugging off our duties as parents by allowing religion to step in and indoctrinate our children.

There is no doubt that it is easier to team up with God, the guy many children have been taught to fear. God can see and do anything, including give eternal life and take it away. Yet these are just threats: An invisible deity is watching you, and if you’re not “good,” you will go to hell as a result. You will live in pain. Forever.

When we teach morals and discipline to our own children without religion, it takes a lot more effort, but we help our kids strengthen their own moral structure. Rather than telling children, “This is not how God expects you to behave,” we tell them, “This is not how I expect you to behave — and you should expect more from yourself, too.” As parents, we have to talk — a lot. We have to listen — a lot. We have to problem-solve and decide when to look the other way and let things slide, when to let things go with just a talk and when to impose some sort of punishment. It’s not easy. I have made a lot of mistakes. None of us are perfect parents. What redeems us is that we love our children and are trying our best; when we let them down or fall short, we get back up and try to do better.

What is discipline? It’s simply guiding children toward more appropriate behaviors. It has nothing to do with teaching or judging feelings — only actions. Unlike religion, we want to avoid personal attacks or judgments of character: Children are not dirty; they are not sinful; they were not born bad or evil.

Yet kids are born with certain tendencies, and their disposition has nothing to do with us as moms and dads. Some kids are easier to parent, and some are more difficult. Some understand the need for rules, while others see rules as a challenge, as a curb on their freedom. Keep on trying, knowing that your job as a parent means that you hang in there and encourage your kids to become the best they can be. Before you know it, they’ll be eighteen and headed off on their own.

Hold tightly, but not too tightly. Have a lot of patience. Ask yourself: Would I want to be disciplined for that? Spilling a drink is no big deal. Spilling a drink after you asked your child not to bring it to his room is, obviously, a different issue. When we ask our kids to do something, give them a little time before they must “hop to it,” but not so much time that they seem to have ignored us. We have to teach kids to be internally motivated not just to do the right thing, but to do things at the right times.

Here are a few other suggestions:

  • For young children (up to two years old), diversion and distraction are the best ways to redirect them. Lecturing or discipline at that age isn’t very helpful.
  • Point out the consequences of their actions. Hitting hurts me — see the red mark? Throwing balls inside the house breaks my favorite figurine from Aunt Helen.
  • I don’t believe in spanking, but I know some feel strongly that it is a good tool for children younger than ten, as long as it is not done out of anger and is only administered to the bottom.
  • Avoid character attacks. (For example, “You’re lazy.”) Instead, offer reasons why cleaning up is important. “We have to keep our rooms neat so that we can find items when we need them.” Or “We have to rinse and place our dishes in the dishwasher so that we don’t invite bugs to live in our house.”
  • Give kids a little time on requests. “Please clean your room as soon as you are finished reading that chapter.”
  • Ask a lot of questions. “Why are you fighting with your sister? Is there a way to resolve this so you both can stop arguing and move on? How do you think arguing in the car is affecting the person who’s driving?” If you treat children as if they are competent, they will learn that they are competent.
  • When they are a little older—around age seven or eight, ask them to participate in discipline. “You disobeyed my request and could have hurt yourself or others. How do you think you should be disciplined?”Or “Your brother asked you not to take that toy from his room. Since you’ve broken it, what should you do to make amends?” Reparations can be made not just with money from their piggy banks, but also with their own toys or with work. (“I’ll do his chores for a week.”)
  • When my son talked too much in school and the teacher notified me, I told him to write a letter of apology to the teacher, making sure that he noted why talking in class was not a good behavior. (It makes the teacher’s job more difficult and distracts other students.) It’s important to teach kids to respect authority at school and understand how their actions affect the group.
  • Boys and girls have a lot of energy and are rambunctious, so when they start bouncing off the walls and knocking over lamps, tell them to run a couple of laps around the block. This is a great way for them to burn off energy and it helps them get into a better mood. Push-ups work, too, especially if you tell the kids that their old mom or dad can do more.
  • Allow teens to help set some of their own boundaries. Tell them that you trust them to decide when they need to go to bed. A couple of late nights will help them understand that they need to care for themselves and get more sleep. For older teens, ask, “What time is a reasonable time to be home?” In our house, there are no curfews as long as certain conditions are met: My son tells me where he is going and when he will be back. And then he must be where he says he will be and be home when he has promised.
  • Last, but perhaps most important: Punish sparingly. Instead, help kids recognize positive behaviors by acknowledging their kind words or helpful actions. If Johnny helps his younger sister get a toy from a shelf that she cannot reach, thank him for helping his sister. If your kids have an argument, and they are able to resolve their disagreement and move on, tell them how much you appreciate that they were able to work things out. Thank older kids for keeping their word, for helping pull their own weight, and for being a responsible part of the family.

If we put in the time to help kids learn how to regulate their behaviors and resolve conflicts early in life, as opposed to just imposing punishment for infractions, by the time they are teenagers, our job as parents will be much easier, and our children will make a smoother transition into adulthood.

If you’d like to win a copy of the new book, just let us know the biggest obstacle you’ve faced as an atheist parent! Use the hashtag #GodlessParent in your comment to be entered and I’ll select a random winner next week. (Contest only open to continental U.S. residents.)

(Reprinted with permission from Growing Up Godless ©2014 by Deborah Mitchell, Sterling Ethos, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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