In Lieu of Heaven: Give Kids Permission to be Happy

This is the last post in a weeklong series offering secular parents some practical advice on handling death, and talks about death, with young children without relying on (or resorting to) religious imagery. Last week, my advice was to give kids permission to be sad. But it’s not the only emotion we should encourage.


Happy KidAfter a person dies, the only thing we have left of them is our memories. Yet so many of us don’t talk about dead people because we feel even our happiest memories lead us to melancholy. We assume the only way to avoid the painful end is to not begin at all.

But honoring our dead and keeping them “with us” is part of how we cope with our losses. Suppressing those memories can deprive us of both joy and comfort.

This may not come naturally to most of us, and may require a bit more “work” on our part. But I do think that making a point of recalling the happy times, of treating our loved ones’ memories as an invitation to laughter, not tears, is a wonderful gift for children. Working Grandma’s favorite recipe into a mealtime, telling Grandpa’s favorite joke, or recounting the copious amounts of liquor Great Aunt Tilly used to consume at Passover every year are all healthy ways of coping—not just with their deaths, but with death in general. [Read more...]

In Lieu of Heaven, Give Kids Permission to Be Sad

This weeklong series offer secular parents some practical advice on handling death, and talks about death, with young children without relying on (or resorting to) religious imagery. Here’s Part Five:


I’vCry it oute talked before about Russell Friedman, co-founder of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks (CA) — and I really like what they guy has to say. Friedman spent nearly three decades counseling people in the midst of grief, and he talks a lot about the commonly held myth that it is both good and helpful to comfort grieving people.

To be sure, the desire to comfort our children is what makes so many parents feel compelled to tell their kids about heaven, right? Heaven seems to take the edge off of death. Heaven gives them an alternative reality. Heaven makes them a little less, well, sad.

But trying to make something that is terribly sad into something “not so sad” is no help at all, says Friedman. Sadness, he says, is such a healthy emotion at times of devastating loss. It’s completely appropriate. And trying to remove the sadness when someone is grieving is unhelpful, inappropriate and unhealthy.

To make his point, Friedman pointed to the emotion of happiness. Would we ever tell a loved one that they ought to feel less happy about a job offer because they might lose that job some day? Would we tell someone to not feel so good about their engagement because 50 percent of marriages end in divorce?

[Read more...]

In Lieu of Heaven, Give Kids Something to Do

This weeklong series offer secular parents some practical advice on handling death, and talks about  death, with young children without relying on (or resorting to) religious imagery. Here’s Part Four:


BurialA side benefit to keeping pets is to familiarize kids with the idea of death, to let them “practice” mourning, and to remind them that life goes on after loved ones die. But, so often, we shield our children from the reality of a pet’s death and, therefore, miss opportunities to let our kids build up their own coping mechanisms.

By encouraging your children to be present when your pets are euthanized and/or allowing your children to be involved in the mourning process with you (rather than, say, leaving the room to cry), you are teaching your kids how to mourn and move on. You are teaching them it’s okay to cry, and that grief — no matter how painful — is not life-threatening.

Likewise, invite your children to participate in mourning rituals when family members die. Modern therapists not only condone taking young children to funerals; they encourage it. Unless the child refuses to go (which rarely happens, I’m told), young kids should be able to witness and participate in the catharsis that funerals bring. Also, children need confirmation of death much more so than adults do. Without it, they may view death as something mysterious and temporary, rather than a real, permanent state. They may even await a loved one’s return. [Read more...]

In Lieu of Heaven: Give Kids Confidence

Part Three of a weeklong series.
Click here for parts One and Two.

superhero-kids-dayDid you know that psychological research has all but debunked Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief,” made famous in her bestselling book On Death and Dying?

In fact, when it comes to losing a loved one, grief doesn’t work in “stages” at all. In The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, author George Bonanno writes that resilience — not denial, anger, bargaining, depression or acceptance — is what truly defines loss and grief. His scientific studies, conducted over 20 years, show that most people weather the deaths of loved ones relatively quickly and thoroughly. Mere weeks after devastating losses, many people are able to experience genuinely positive emotions, even laughter. And this is not denial or drugs doing the work — but rather our own natural resiliency, Bonanno writes.

Personality has a lot to do with grief reactions, of course, and some do experience grief in the Kubler-Ross-created image. But, in general, studies show, grief has an oscillating pattern. It comes and goes in “waves,” which is what, mercifully, allows us to take care of ourselves and those around us. [Read more...]

In Lieu of Heaven, Give Kids Your Attention

Part Two of a weeklong series.

AttentionWhen it comes to addressing the potentially frightening topic of death with our children, heaven isn’t the only tool in the secular parent’s toolbox. On Monday, we learned how science can be a surprisingly powerful tool. Today, we consider the simple power of just being there.


Many children, for whatever reason, go through a death-obsession stage. They worry about their parents’ dying, or themselves. For these kids especially, parents are wise to ask open-ended questions, encourage children to talk about their fears, and to assure these kids that, just as death is natural, so too is the fear of death.

“It’s okay to think about death and to be scared of it,” you might say. “That’s what helps keep us from doing things that threaten our health and safety. What things can you think of that will help you to live a long, long life?”

Engaging with children about these fears, as opposed to trying to keep the fears at bay, will help them follow these thoughts to their logical conclusions.

“What if you die?” your child might ask. [Read more...]

In Lieu of Heaven, Give Kids Science

Part One of a weeklong series.

skeleton eyeLet’s talk about death.

It has been my experience that many nonreligious parents falter when it comes to death talks with their kids because, without religion or heaven or the hope of an afterlife, these parents are left with a void to fill. They want to help reduce their children’s anxiety about death (and their own!), but don’t know where to turn.

The attitude seems to be: “If I can’t talk about heaven, then there’s not much left to say.”

But that’s not true. Heaven isn’t the only tool in our proverbial toolbox. It’s not even the best. There are other things we can give children in lieu of heaven. Things far more concrete and, in many ways, more comforting, too. One of them is science.

Adults tend to focus their worry on the emotional aspects of death — how it feels to lose someone we love, how we would cope without them. But children of a certain age — particularly preschoolers — aren’t as consumed by the grief aspect of death. Focusing on the science of death is a great way to “normalize” death talks for you both, and give you a solid foundation for speaking about death as a natural phenomenon, rather than a terrifying inevitability. [Read more...]

Nothing Not Cool About ‘Day of the Dead’

Looking at all the Halloween decorations in our neighborhood yesterday, my daughter points to the 1,657th fake gravestone with “R.I.P.” etched on the front and asks, “Why do people do that?” “Because,” I say, “it’s scaaaary.” “It’s not scary,” she says. “It’s sad. People die, and it’s sad.” I laughed at her insight, but now that I’ve been researching the “Day of the Dead” (which begins today! Happy Day of the Dead!), I realize I missed an opportunity for what could have been a pretty fascinating talk about death. In other words, I blew it. Not the first time. Death is one of those subjects that can trigger a million emotions. Sadness is one, but so is fear, anxiety, guilt, excitement, love and even laughter. I know laughter seems out of place — my daughter would give me one of those “Mom, that’s crazy talk” looks if she were here — but it’s true. And we need look no further than the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) to see that. Although based on a rather serious idea, honoring our dead loved ones, the Day of the Dead has been infused with sheer, unadulterated fun for thousands of years. Gifts for the dead? Yes! Candy skulls, face paint and costumes? Check. Parties and dancing? Most definitely. That’s not to say the meaning is lost. Not at all. The Day of the Dead is still a time to think about lost loved ones; wash and decorate grave sites; build shrines to the dearly departed. Often, the shrines include things that the dead people loved or enjoyed during their lives — which is probably why tequila gets poured on top of so many gravestones. This is all kind of genius when you think about it. It gives us a chance to pay homage to people’s lives, rather than focus on their deaths. It associates death with positive memories, not tears. It encourages us to stay connected to the dead in ways that make us feel good, not bad. It’s all incredibly healthy-sounding, isn’t it?

Of course, all this — as well as Halloween — now carry religious connotations, as they are celebrated in conjunction with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day (Nov. 1 and 2).

Halloween is literally translated as “All Hallow’s Eve” or “All Saint’s Eve,” which refers to All Saint’s Day (which is today! Happy All Saint’s Day!). This is a mostly Catholic holiday honoring all dead saints, as opposed to all the days scattered throughout the year that celebrate individual saints (St. Patrick, St. Valentine, etc). All Soul’s Day is tomorrow (Happy All Soul’s Eve! Okay, now this is getting ridiculous…) and celebrates all non-sainted but faithful Christians.

As for how the Day of the Dead became a religious holiday, the Arizona Republic offers the brief but fascinating back story here.

More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate. A ritual known today as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls… The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth. The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the monthlong ritual. Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake. “The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic,” said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. “They didn’t separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures.” However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan. In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual. But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die. To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.

Religious or not, I would love love love it if people would include me in their Day of the Dead rituals after I die. Just for the record, though, I prefer scotch over tequila. P.S. Thanks to my photographer-friend Veronica Jauriqui for her amazing photos from a 2010 Day of the Dead celebration in Los Angeles. This post originally appeared on Nov. 1, 2012.

Newsflash: Most Atheists Don’t Want Their Kids to be Dicks

realkidOkay, guys. We’re going to visit indoctrination one… last… time. My previous posts about talking with kids about religion from a relatively neutral perspective so they are capable of making up their own minds about what to believe is still getting some of my fellow bloggers here at Patheos bent out of shape. The most recent: Daniel Fincke of  Camels with Hammers, who has spent most of the week slamming me for my views. But another is Khaveh Mousavi of On the Margin of Error who has written about the subject both here and here.

First, let’s start with the points on which we all seem to agree:

1. Science is true. Telling children what we know to be true from science is important.

2. Children should learn about religion (if for no other reason than its cultural value).

3. We all want to raise critical thinkers — kids who can analyze a situation for themselves, who have strong bullshit detectors, and who question authority.

4. We all share a similar worldview: That is, we do not personally believe in God, heaven, hell, miracles, prophets or supernatural events.

5. We all think it’s important to share our own worldviews with our children.

What we disagree on is whether atheists are right to indoctrinate their children into atheism (that is, leave them no real choice but to disbelieve), and whether religion should be dismissed as fairytales/nonsense/boogieman stuff when talking to our kids.

I am clearly in the “No” camp on both these points. And I’m not alone. The vast majority of the nonreligious parents I’ve interviewed or surveyed agree with me on this one. Here’s why:

1. We want our kids to make up their own minds. As Dale McGowan, of The Secular Spectrum eloquently stated in a post Wednesday, raising freethinkers means letting kids explore reality for themselves and come up with a belief system that makes sense to them. When you tell kids that God is a myth, and a pretty dumb one at that, you aren’t letting kids reach their own conclusions. And you are shutting the door on a perfect opportunity to hone their critical thinking skills. [Read more...]

Religious Picture Books Have Much to Offer Secular Families — But Choose Wisely

I’m assuming most of you atheists didn’t read your kid a religious bedtime story last night. But it might be time to start.

In terms of introducing young kids to certain culturally important religious concepts or stories, or familiarizing them with the fact that people all over the world believe different things (and that none of those things have any more or less validity than the ones practiced by their friends and family members), you can do no better than picture books.

But how do you choose?

As you can imagine, kids’ religious titles run the gamut. Many focus on religious holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Christmas, Eid. Others contain more over-arching material — stories about Buddha or Muhammad or the parables of Jesus. Some are meant to “educate” and are much too comprehensive, dated or dry for most little ones to enjoy; others are beautifully illustrated and clearly written with children’s interests in mind. And because a good number are written for religious children, not all of them are a good match for secular families. The worst of the bunch are indoctrination materials, which — in my opinion at least — pose far more questions than answers. But the best can be quite good. They offer fun stories, interesting settings and clever text — and they do it so well that they don’t feel like “learning experiences” — even though that’s exactly what they are.

Of course, it’s sometimes hard to tell the good from the bad and the bad from the ugly. So I here are some tips for choosing titles that won’t confuse your child, offend you, or bore either of you to tears. [Read more...]

5 Reasons Not To Indoctrinate Kids Against Religion

My post last week on speaking about religion with kids in neutral terms has definitely ruffled some feathers. The comment thread features some folks who believe quite strongly that religion should be treated like the enemy — and that atheist parents are misleading their kids by speaking objectively about the subject. Interestingly (or maybe not), it’s a perspective I encounter far more often in people who have not yet had children. In a post today by fellow Patheos blogger Kaveh Mousav (the pseudonym used by an ex-Muslim atheist living in Iran — brave chap!), Kaveh argues that he plans to teach his children (when he has them) that religion is nonsense, period. And others have chimed in that indoctrinating kids into atheism is A-Okay as long as it doesn’t involve abuse.

Now, there’s no doubt that there are some striking differences between religious and non-religious indoctrination. With non-religious indoctrination, kids are never threatened with hell, for instance, or made to worry that an all-powerful being is judging their every move. (Thank God for that.) But there are plenty of negative consequences nonetheless. More and more, for example, as atheism goes mainstream, we run the risk of creating a generation of anti-religious zealots — children who grow up with no understanding of why anyone would hang on to religious beliefs, no empathy for those who do, and no ability to explore those beliefs for themselves.

For the purposes of my book, Relax, It’s Just God, which comes out in February (yes, you just witnessed shameless self-promotion), I define indoctrination as the halfway mark between simple suggestion and full-on brainwashing. You can be reasonably sure you are indoctrinating your kids if you teach them: [Read more...]