Survey Finds Conservative Parents Value Faith Over ‘Empathy for Others’; But Is It Misleading?

new study out by Pew Research seeks to illustrate the difference in “values” important to conservative parents versus those important to liberal parents. Among other things, the study showed, conservatives value religious faith far higher than “empathy for others” — a factoid that doesn’t exactly reflect nicely on conservative parents (at least according to most liberals!) And, as someone who blogs pretty frequently about tolerance, I admit to being turned off by the low priority conservatives gave to tolerance in the survey.

But, on second reading, I think these numbers may be misleading.

First, though, let’s take a look at the data:

the-traits-americans-feel-are-most-important-to-teach-children-conservatives-liberals_chartbuilder-1

Here’s how the survey was conducted, as explained on Quartz. com:

The survey asked Americans about the importance of teaching various values to children. Most of the respondents said children should learn all 12 of these values. The numbers in the chart reflect what “consistently liberal” and “consistently conservative” people—the ones on opposite ends of the spectrum—identified as one of the three most important traits to pass on.

Of course, the opinionated among us have found it to be great fodder. Quartz, for instance, went on to say.

The stark contrast in the numbers for religion, empathy, curiosity, and tolerance might help explain why people grow up with such fierce differences of opinion, or why Congress never gets anything done. 

But, frankly, I’m not sure this study is actually helpful.
First, parents were asked to choose “between” three values to name as most important among 12 totally important values. But instilling values in kids isn’t some zero-sum game. Lots of values can be taught —and are taught — at the same time. I would venture to say that most parents want to teach our kids all these values, to a certain extent, and the priority they give them might change pretty regularly, depending on the kid’s age, personality, or what’s going on their lives. Sure, I’m going to rank creativity lower than being responsible, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t try to encourage creativity on a regular basis in my home.

[Read more...]

Talking About Belief With Kids: When Logic Threatens to Overshadow Kindness

UnknownMy daughter, Maxine, is 8 years old and really getting the hang of logic these days. If A is true, then B must be true. If you believe A, you must believe B. If A doesn’t exist… You get the drift.

Anyway, Maxine’s little cousin Jack  (4) is very into the movie Frozen right now, particularly the character of Elsa, the snow queen. Recently, when chatting about beliefs, he told his mom, “I believe in Elsa” — which is so cute it makes my heart hurt. But when I told Maxine about Jack’s statement, she immediately went into critical mode.

“Jack can’t believe in Elsa,” she said.

If Jack believes in Elsa, she explained, he has to believe in Olaf (the snowman friend) and Sven (the talking reindeer). This was clearly illogical, and the whole thing bothered her. You could tell she wanted to call Jack up right that instant and tell him how wrong he was.

This is not to say that Maxine is free of her own irrational beliefs, of course; she has plenty of them, believe me. But she is, for the first time, beginning to make logical arguments of her own and experiencing a very strong desire to set people straight when they come to the “wrong” conclusions. (God help us all.)

Belief

The whole thing has made me realize that this is a great time and opportunity to talk with her a little about tolerance. After all, how kids respond or react when someone holds irrational or illogical beliefs is a huge indicator of their level of tolerance, is it not? How Maxine responds to her little cousin’s announcement could easily indicate her ability to exercise restraint, compassion and kindness in the face of absurd testimony. And, let’s face it, she will be hearing (and reading) a lot of that in her life.

We already know kids need to be encouraged to think critically about different beliefs, to weigh those beliefs against what they know to be true, and to figure out what makes sense to them. This is important stuff for kids.

But thinking critically about other’s beliefs is very different from criticizing others’ beliefs. We need to explain to our kids that people have lots of different reasons for believing the way they do and sometimes those reasons won’t make any kind of sense. But everyone has a right to their own personal beliefs, and they don’t deserve to be made fun of, or criticized, or talked into changing those beliefs. Unless their beliefs are hurting someone, people deserve to be left alone.

We all do.

If Maxine chooses not to believe in God, that’s nobody’s business but hers. If her cousin believes in Elsa, that’s nobody’s business but his.

A Book American Kids Aren’t Reading — But Should

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed British philosopher and author Julian Baggini, who wrote a fantastic book for kids called Really, Really, Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion (2011, Kingfisher). While I found it at my public library, it’s not one you’re likely to run across in major book stores. While very well-received in Britain, the book has flown largely under the radar here in the U.S. And that’s too bad for us — because it’s a great starting point for kids ready to explore religious issues.

Each section of the book seeks to answer a question that could easily come from a child. The questions include: What is religion? Can we criticize religion? Should we fear God? Why do people worship? What if there is no God? Does religion cause wars? Do I have a soul? and What should I believe?

Great questions, right?

Big Questions

The answers are equally compelling, mostly because Baggini — himself an atheist — writes from a perspective that is, as he puts it, “basically, genuinely open-minded.” The book, which I included in this years’ holiday gift guide for secular families, differs from faith-based books of its ilk in two main ways. First, Baggini constantly urges children to make up their own minds about how to answer these questions and what to believe. And, second, he makes clear those who don’t believe in any religious notions live perfectly happy, fulfilling lives.

It’s that second point that makes this book so special — and so important. It’s also the reason that the British have embraced it more than Americans; the British are far more secularized as a nation than we are.

Really, Really Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion is part of a series and, therefore, was not conceived by Baggini, who has no children himself. Still, the straightforward tone and broad knowledge he brings to the project is perfect for kids.

One of the more interesting aspects of our conversations centered on the notion of interfaith dialogue. Although the idea that people of varying religious backgrounds can come together and cooperate with each other is a lovely and refreshing and progressive in many ways, “interfaith” repeatedly fails atheists and agnostics. Sometimes there is an illusion that we secularists are involved in these dialogues, but we’re not. Not really.

Julian Baggini“Multi-faith isn’t really open-minded,” Baggini says, “because the (central focus) is that we should be religious in some way.”

Make no mistake: Baggini’s book is not exclusively for nonreligious kids. It’s appropriate for all kids and all families. There is no bias against faith, just as there is no bias against non-faith. The book takes an approach of true compassion for all. And that, Baggini says, is because there is still so much mystery in the universe. Why paint a picture of “truth” when some truths cannot be known.

“Some of us are going to turn out to be wrong,” he says, “and some of us are going to turn out to be right.”

In the meantime, let’s be nice to each other.

While some parents stumble through those first conversations about religion, it’s the basic questions — Who is God? What is religion? — that may require the most attention. Baggini theorizes that Culture Wars could be tamped down considerably if  people would simply stop defining certain concepts so narrowly.  The term religion, for example, means so many different things to different people, he says. “Part of the reason atheist-vs.-religious debates aren’t very fruitful is because there is too narrow of a view about what religion is.”

In making it clear that these terms are wishy-washy at best, then we leave plenty of ideas open to interpretation by the children who are exploring them for the first time.

“You’re too young to settle on the view that you’ll have when you’re an adult,” Baggini says, “but that’s no reason not to start thinking about this.”

Baggini is the author of many books on philosophy, including The Pig that Wants to be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher (2006) and is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His new book, just out, is called The Shrink & The Sage: A Guide to Modern Dilemmas. You can follow him on Twitter at @microphilosophy.

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Giveaway #3In other news, many congratulations to the winner of Relax, It’s Just God’s final holiday giveaway. A subscriber named “John” — highly suspicious, I know — will be receiving a bag full of good stuff just in time for the winter solstice. Thanks for your support, John! And thanks, too, to everyone who participated in all the giveaways this month. Great things will be coming in the new year, so I do hope you’ll stick around.

‘My Dearest Daughter’: Letter from an Atheist Mom

Letter WritingAtheist scientist Richard Dawkins once wrote a letter to his 10-year-old daughter about the importance of scientific evidence in weighing the legitimacy of religious claims. “To my dearest daughter,” his now-famous letter began. “Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me… Evidence.” His mission: to explain the vast chasm between faith and science, and make clear that science will always hold the trump card.

I’ve written before (rather poorly) about Dawkins’ letter and my own issues with it, but — as a non-believer, a parent and a writer myself — I can’t help but be drawn to the idea of putting my own feelings about religion in letter form. Instead of making a case for science — and, therefore, for atheism — I wanted to make a case for compassion, religious tolerance, and an appreciation of diversity.

The truth is, I’m not worried about science. Science is already a part of my daughter’s life; it comes up almost daily in our house. I don’t need to sell Maxine on biology or geology or meteorology or botany; she’s already a paying customer. I don’t need to sell her on the importance of evidence, either. She understands that evidence is something that is true, and faith is something that is believed. When you strip it down, the concept isn’t all that complex.

A dad once told me that he and his children didn’t often talk about religion directly in their house. “More often than not,” he said, “our conversations revolve around the ideas of evidence and logical reasoning. Religion hangs around the periphery of these conversations in the form of myth and magic.”

There’s nothing at all wrong with having conversations about evidence and logical reasoning. But if all religion does is “hang around the periphery,” there’s not a lot of room to give kids honest explanations for the belief systems of others, and not a lot of opportunity to send kids into the world ready to peacefully, confidently and happily interact with people from different cultures.

This was my thought, anyway — which was why, as a fun exercise, I wrote my own, decidedly non-Dawkinsian (!!) letter. I doubt I’ll ever give it to Maxine. My mission is to talk to her about religion, not write to her about it. Still, though, it could be a great reference point for me if I ever forget the point of all this. And maybe it will inspire others to put their own thoughts in writing.

To my dearest daughter,

I want to write to you about something that is important to a lot of people: Religion. As you know, religion is a a collection of beliefs, as well as views about how people ought to behave. Many beliefs involve a god or gods. Religion has been around for thousands and thousands of years. Many religions have faded with time, and many others have kept going. Some religions were formed quite recently.

Religion is very personal — meaning it varies widely from person to person — and people often feel strongly about it. So strong, in fact, that it often can lead to disagreements and hurt feelings — which is why you probably won’t learn much about it in school and why children aren’t often encouraged to talk about it on the playground.

Because your Daddy and I aren’t religious ourselves, and because nothing seems to be missing from your life, you might wonder why religion exists. Well, religion — all religions — were spread by human beings in response to certain questions and problems. The questions were things like: Why are we here?  What happens after we die? The problems were things like: death, suffering, sadness and abuse.

On a basic level, most religions are meant to make people’s lives better by giving them comfort and purpose and teaching them how to be good people. Most religions teach compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love. And those are all really great qualities, aren’t they? It’s no wonder so many people, including some of your own family members, are religious.

Of course, I know from personal experience that no one needs religion to be a good person, just as they don’t need religion to feel comfort or to have a purpose or to live a full and satisfying life.

Still, though, it’s important to me that you know about different religions and cultures for two reasons. First, I want you to make up your own mind about what you believe. And, second, I want you to be able to understand and appreciate all the different people you are going to meet during your life. Knowledge, awareness and curiosity are traits that tend to invite new and positive experiences — and I want nothing more than to see you fill your life with as many positive experiences as you can. In short, I think teaching you a bit about religion will help make you a happier person.

It’s also important that you know that religion has some downsides. Some people allow their religious beliefs to blind them. They use religious differences to justify war, even murder. They judge people who are different from them. Some people believe, for instance, that men shouldn’t fall in love with other men, or women shouldn’t fall in love with other women. Some people believe that women should not be allowed to have jobs, even if they really want them. Some people believe everyone should be forced to believe one particular thing or be put in jail, or even killed.

These things I mention are wrong because they hurt people who are just trying to live good lives and be true to themselves. And no one deserves to be hurt for that. In some ways, these kinds of actions seem very strange, because they go directly against the things I mentioned earlier: compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love.

In the next few years you will learn a lot about different religions and religious people. You may find you like the ideas in religion, connect to the beliefs, and want to try one out. You may also find you aren’t interested in religion, or that you don’t care for it at all. Whatever the case, I want you to know that what you believe and how you feel about religion doesn’t matter to me. Just like it doesn’t matter to me what other people in the world believe or think about religion. What does matter to me — and what I hope matters to you, too — is what’s in a person’s heart. What people do in life is what counts, not what they believe.

A lot of incredibly good people are religious, and a lot of incredibly good people are not religious. You can be either one, and, as long as you try to practice compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love, I’ll support you 100 percent. 

Thanks for listening,

Mom

Should Kids Be Told All Religious Stories are ‘Myths’?

I’m facing some deadlines over the next few weeks that are going to make it very tough to generate new blogs of any merit. But I’m hoping — PRAYING! (but not really) — that you guys will stick around anyway. Subscribers, I’m talking to you here. BEAR WITH ME. PLEASE DO NOT UNSUBSCRIBE. IT’S ONLY THREE WEEKS.

Starting today, I’m going to run six of my most well-read and/or controversial blogs of the last two years. I’ve chosen them based on number of page views, number of comments, or the level of contentiousness within the response. I hope you enjoy them. And, even if you don’t, I hope you will stay.

We’ll start with one of the most controversial to date… Should Kids Be Told All Religious Stories are ‘Myths’? (Reprinted from Oct. 31, 2011):

Two weeks ago, I gave away three copies of Richard Dawkins’ new book, the Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, a highly acclaimed book seeking to introduce youngsters to the science behind some of life’s biggest mysteries: Who was the first person? Why do we have night and day? When and how did everything begin? The book is fascinating, easy to read and full of beautiful illustrations. Truly, there is so much about our world that is awe-inspiring, and Dawkins shows us how fun it can be to explore.

But because Dawkins is Dawkins, he doesn’t stop there.

Before each chapter, he outlines various myths adopted through the ages as a way to explain scientific phenomena. He reasons that, before scientific exploration, people needed ways to make sense of these seemingly supernatural occurrences— so they invented stories and passed them off as fact. It’s a clever technique, and it’s interesting the way  Dawkins lays Greek myths, Native American traditions, and Biblical stories side-by-side, and then allows science to tell its version of the story.

Clever and interesting and accurate? Yes. Condescending and arrogant? Which is a problem. For us open-minded, nonreligious parents struggling to find the “right” language with which to approach religion with our kids, his dismissive attitude disappoints.

If we tell our children that present-day religious beliefs — particularly those described in the Bible, the Torah or even the Book of Mormon — are all just mythical stories, we’re teaching them that religion is a bunch of fairytales. And we’re teaching them that the 70-odd percent of their neighbors and friends who buy into these fairytales are, therefore, emotionally immature and intellectually inferior. I don’t care how subtle Dawkins tries to be, that’s his book’s subtext, and we all know it.

Now, how in the world does that kind of instruction set our kids up to be open-minded, freethinking individuals? How does it encourage them to embrace people with different beliefs and opinions? How does it show our kids that they are free to choose their own religious or nonreligious paths in life?

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that science often butts heads with religion. But there are a huge number of people in our society that believe in science and religion. And it doesn’t matter whether it makes sense to Richard Dawkins. It doesn’t matter whether it make sense to me! What my neighbor believes and how he rationalizes that belief is 100 percent not my concern. Whether he brings his own beer to my barbecue, on the other hand…

Here’s the thing: I do not believe — and I sincerely hope you don’t either — that pious people are stupid; in fact, many of the smartest people I know are pious. And that their faith may involve nonscientific stories does not make me superior. It doesn’t make you superior. And it doesn’t make our kids superior.

There is an intolerance in Dawkins’ insistence on calling these stories myths. Dismissing religious stories as archaic or absurd adds nothing to his book. In fact, for people like me, it takes away. And for church-going folks in Middle America? Well, forget it; they’ll never buy it. And didn’t Dawkins see the potential to educate all children — not just those whose parents subscribe to his exact point of view?

I know he wanted to break things down in the simplest way possible. I understand he wanted to present facts alongside of beliefs, and point out their roots and differences. There is merit to that.

But not everything is about science. Some things are about respect.

I will absolutely read The Magic of Reality to my daughter  — or, rather, show her the super-cool iPad app! But I’ll first let her know the book was written by an author who believes religious stories are myths. I’ll remind her that the author is just one person; and that lots of other people in the world believe those stories are real. I’ll tell her, as I do often, that it’s up to her to decide for herself what makes sense, what feels right.

From what I gather, Richard Dawkins wants parents to help their children put religious belief in a context of science. Fair enough. But I do hope that, before cracking open The Magic of Reality, parents will help their children put Richard Dawkins in a context of religion.

[You may read the follow-up this post here.]

Daddy, Daughter Discuss God (Again); More Cuteness Ensues

Charlie_Maxine_MountaintopMy husband and 7-year-old daughter had another totally awesome conversation about God a few days ago. They used to do that from time to time, but it’s been a while since the subject has come up in much detail. I sure love it when it does. The talks are always fun, insightful, thought-provoking and, frankly, cute as hell. They also present Charlie with golden opportunities to teach Maxine about honesty, diversity  and the importance of kindness.

Anyway, this one’s particularly good, so I wanted to share:

Maxine: Where do you think God is? Like, which house or school…

Charlie: I don’t think God is anywhere. I don’t believe there is such a thing as God.

Maxine: But if you did, where do you think he is?

Charlie: Well, people who believe in God believe he is everywhere and see everything. They believe he is with everyone, watching over you.

Maxine: Is he with bad guys?

CharlieThey think he is everywhere.

Maxine: God is with bad guys?

CharlieYeah. They think God wants you to make good decisions, and even if you are making bad decisions, God is with you so when you are ready to do good things, he’ll be there. They think God is there to help you and protect you. (Pause.) Other people who believe in God think he made the world and then kind of stepped back. He just watches from heaven to see what we’ll do, but he doesn’t interfere or help. Like the whole word is a big science experiment.

Maxine: A HUGE experiment.

CharlieWhat do you believe?

Maxine: (Exasperated, like “I’ve told you a hundred times”) I believe in God on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Charlie: But what do you believe about God? Is he everywhere?

Maxine: (Pause) I think he stepped back.

(Pause.)

Maxine: I believe in God on Sundays and Wednesdays because Sunday is the day for church, and Wednesday so I can have a school day.

(Pause.)

Maxine: Is God good or bad?

Charlie: Everyone who believes in God believes he is good.

Maxine: I wish the biggest policeman in the world climbed a huge giant ladder up to heaven and there was a huge microphone as big as five million houses stacked on top of each other and the policeman said into the microphone, “God is real!” or “God is not real!” and then everyone would know and everyone would believe the same thing.

Charlie: It’s hard not knowing, isn’t it?

Maxine: Yeah.

Charlie(Pause.) What I think is it doesn’t really matter what you believe. What you think doesn’t matter. It’s what you do that matters.

Maxine: Or say.

CharlieRight. You can think whatever you want. I can think someone is stupid —

Maxine: But don’t say it to them. “Hey, you’re dumb!”

Charlie: Right. It’s what you do and say that matter. Think whatever you want.

Maxine: Because we don’t want to hurt their feelings.

Charlie: Right.

Brief Tribute to Obscure Children’s Book (P.S. #Giveaway)

I’ve got a book recommendation for you. It’s not religious in nature, but it’s funny and quirky and carries a really great moral that certainly dovetails with some of my blogs about children and belief. The book is called “No! That’s Wrong!” and was written in 2008 by Japanese author Zhaohua Ji and illustrated by Cui Xu.

It tells the tale of a bunny who finds a pair of underpants blowing in the wind. (See now, that’s what you call a solid premise.) Anyway, this particular bunny has never seen a pair of underpants before, so he looks them over and determines that they must be a hat; after all, his ears fit perfectly through the little leg holes. The bunny is thrilled with his find, and proceeds to hop around the animal kingdom, where his friends comment on what a marvelous hat he’s wearing.

But, of course, the bunny has underpants on his head. And we, the readers, are expected to help point out  our hero’s obvious mistake. “No, that’s wrong,” we inform the wayward bunny. “It’s not a hat.” (This interactive element of the book is very fun for kids — and reminiscent of Mo Willem’s Pigeon series.) At one point, the bunny runs into the most educated, humanized of his friends — a donkey — who backs us up. “What are you doing?” he says. “Why are you wearing underpants on your head? It’s not a hat. They’re underpants.”

When the bunny tries puts the underpants on correctly, though, they don’t look right. His tail doesn’t fit, and the underpants are uncomfortable. After getting feedback from his friends — who think he’s crazy for wearing his hat that way — and looking at himself in the glassy surface of a lake, the bunny takes off the underpants and puts them back on his head.

“No, I was right!” he says, hopping merrily along. “It’s a wonderful hat!”

This message can relate to so many facets of life (and even be read literally), but I always think of religious belief when I read it. Sometimes you have to see what’s right FOR YOU, even if others think it’s silly or stupid or embarrassing or sad or flat-out wrong. Does your belief make you happy? Is it hurting anyone? Great. And if those around you are supportive and happy with your decision — well, all the better. The moral: A happy, non-conforming bunny is better than a unhappy, uncomfortable bunny who does what every Tom, Dick or Donkey tell him to do. Can’t get much better than that.

Interested in the book but don’t want to pay for it? Cheap bastards. (Not that I blame you.) Next week, I’ll (randomly) choose one of my awesome subscribers to receive the book for free. Don’t mind paying? You also can find it on Amazon here. Great for ages 3 to 9.

 

Girl Scouts Flap Rears Its Silly Head Once Again

After reading yet another story on the flap over the Girl Scouts book I wrote, I’m reminded once again at how irrationally freaked out some parents become when their kids are exposed to ideas different from their own. Whether it’s nonreligious parents instructing their kids on what to think about Catholicism, or conservatives instructing kids on what to think about gay marriage, the short-sightedness involved in both is the same. Push too hard in one direction and you brainwash your kid, crush their self-esteem and damage your relationship with them in the process. Instead of teaching our kids what to think; we need to teach them how to think. After all, if our ideology is so brittle it can’t stand up to a little opposition, then it’s not an ideology worth having. 

Here’s a blog I wrote in January. Thought it was worth a rerun.

So, remember when Glenn Beck’s The Blaze accused me of injecting the name of a liberal website called Media Matters into a Girl Scouts book I wrote?And how the story prompted a minor shit storm when Fox News decided to feature the issue on two different segments, the Grapevine and Fox & Friends?

And then remember how then I wrote a response on this blog, mostly to clarify for the conservative newsies that I was not the droid they were looking for?

Last week was fun, wasn’t it?

Well, I had kind of assumed the good times were behind us and that the bevy of rabid over-reactions — which included, but were not limited to, someone calling me “a notorious atheist who infiltrated the Girl Scouts” — were in the past. But, thanks to the Lord Almighty, it’s not over yet.

On Tuesday, The Blaze published a follow-up story: Author Denies Inserting Media Matters Reference into Girl Scouts Book. The reader response was not nearly as plentiful as it had been to the first story, but the level of vitriol did not disappoint. One Blaze reader likened me to a serial killer.

“Wendy Thomas Russell, the author with ink-stained fingers, said ‘It wasn’t me!” wrote this particular reader, whose moniker is Spandamonkey. “Notice the three names, just like a serial killer.”

Please tell me Long Beach Press-Telegram columnist Tim Grobaty is not the only one getting a kick out of this.

Honestly, the name-calling doesn’t just amuse me — it fascinates me. As my husband said, “The fact that conservatives are so up in arms because of one link in one book shows how fragile people consider their own values. If conservative values are so frail that they can be completely undermined by exposure to a single slightly progressive website, those conservative values can’t be very strong.”

See why I married that guy?

All kidding aside — and, believe me, I’ve done a lot of kidding in the last couple of days — there are a couple things about this dust-up that really do concern me:

First, it concerns me that the Girl Scouts, a national organization that promotes honor, leadership and citizenship, is being stereotyped as liberal and dangerous to conservative ideals. I worked on three books for the Girl Scouts. I know how stringent the group’s guidelines are. I know how hard editors worked to make sure they were being sensitive and fair and true to the Girl Scout’s philosophy and founder every step of the way. The fact that one reference to one  website was made in one book — and it slipped under the GSA radar — does not a conspiracy make. Far from it.

It also concerns me that, despite the amazing opportunities and self-esteem girls receive from the Girl Scouts, parents are now threatening to pull their kids out of the organization en masse. And why exactly? Because they’re afraid their kids might see the name of a website? Because they think they might actually — gasp! — look at it and see what it says? Oh no! Crash! Bam! Boom! They saw! They saw! Now they’re ruined little whores!

Let’s face it, conservative parents are not the only ones who are guilty of running away and hiding their kids from things they don’t agree with. Liberals do it all the time, too. Sheltering our kids from political and religious views that scare us is universal. And, yet, it’s so much of what I’m trying to move us away from. As my smarty-pants husband said, if we parents really believe in the strength of own values and beliefs, then we ought to know they’ll compete well in the marketplace of ideas. We ought to be confident enough to let our kids see the world as it really is, and people as they really are.

I’m not saying all liberals should go out and buy NRA subscriptions, or that conservatives need to subscribe to Planned Parenthood newsletters. But do remember: Kids will always benefit from exposure to different ideas, beliefs and ways of life — as long as parents are there to provide a guiding light.

Trust me, they can handle it. And, you know what? We can, too.

Is a Lack of Vomit the Best We Can Offer?

Did I ever  tell you about the time my husband told me hated the word tolerance? I was sure I’d misheard him. I was all, like, what? Huh? You can’t hate the word tolerance! Everybody LOVES the word tolerance. Simon Wiesenthal and the Museum of Tolerance and all that. Remember?

Yes, he assured me, he did remember. But he still hated it.

See, in my husband’s view, tolerance was a word used to relate something bad, not good. A guy ate a piece of rancid beef but was able to tolerate it; that is, he was able to barely not vomit. A woman tolerated an abusive husband; she hated him but was terrified to the point of inaction. An Arizona sheriff tolerated illegal immigrants; he left them alone, but anxiously awaited the day he would be allowed to arrest and deport them. A liver transplant patient tolerated his new organ; he may have been in a lot of pain, but at least he didn’t die.

Tolerance isn’t something to aspire to, said my husband. Barely not vomiting just isn’t good enough. Hard to disagree with him there.

In my Survey of Nonreligious Parents, I asked people what tolerance meant to them. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said tolerance meant “regarding religious people with respect, even when their religion is not respected.” About 35 percent said it meant allowing people to have their own religious beliefs.” And the highest percentage — 38 percent — defined tolerance as “embracing all people and all beliefs, as long as those people/beliefs are not hurting anyone.”

This struck me as somewhat encouraging.

It shows that, to many, tolerance signals a sort of conditional embrace — where the “conditions” are based on whether an actual harm is being committed. Now embrace — that’s a far nicer word than tolerance, isn’t it? Embrace makes you think of warm hugs, peaceful acceptance, even love.

But now we must ask ourselves: What do we allow to constitute actual harm? After all, if we define harm too broadly, there’s not a shred of room for tolerance, much less embrace.

Are all Roman Catholics committing harm by being members of an organization that has harbored pedophiles? Are all Baptists or Mormons or Muslims or Jews responsible for things done by sects of their own religion? Define harm too broadly, you see, and pretty soon we’re vomiting all over everyone.

I’m not trying to tell anyone how to define harm or tolerance or anything else. But I do think that, as parents, we owe it to our kids to aim as high as we possibly can — so that they might aim even higher.

 

Where’s an Omniscient Policeman When You Need One?

Whenever my daughter starts talking about God, I try really hard to treat it like any other ordinary subject. But, inside, you can be sure I’m doing one of those Napoleon Dynamite “yesss” fist pumps — because, chances are, if one of our God conversations lasts more than a few seconds, I’ve got myself a blog post.

You know where I’m going with this.

On Friday, Maxine had a playdate with a good friend of hers (who I love dearly and whose mother happens to be a good friend of mine). Both girls are in kindergarten, though they attend different schools. At one point, when I was out of the room, one of them must have broached the subject of God because when I returned a few minutes later, the friend asked me: “Is it true that Maxine believes in God four days and doesn’t believe in God three days.”

Now, I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this to you already, but this split-week business has been Maxine’s position for the last several months now. Such the diplomat, this child. Or maybe she’s hedging her bets.

Anyway, the conversation went like this:

Friend: Is it true that Maxine believes in God four days and doesn’t believe in God three days?

Me: Yes.

Maxine: Told ya.

Friend: I believe in God.

Me: Do you?

Friend: Yes, because babies are born every day.

Me: Oh yeah, and God makes babies, right?

Friend: Yes, God makes all the babies. Do you believe in God?

Me: No, I don’t.

Maxine: Told ya.

Friend: Why not?

Me: Well, I just don’t, I guess. I’ve never seen God.

Friend: I haven’t seen God either, but I believe in him.

Maxine: I’ve never seen God because God is invisible.

Me: Right, and you can either believe in God or not believe in God.

Friend: But if you don’t believe in God, maybe he will be sad.

Me: You think it  might make him sad?

Friend: Yes, it might.

Maxine: I wish a policeman would stand up and say into a microphone “God is real!” or “God is not real!”

Me: That would be great.

Maxine: Does your mom believe in God?

Friend: Yes, my whole family believes in God. Even my cat believes in God.

Maxine: Does your lizard believe in God?

[Note: Friend does not own a lizard.]

Friend: Hahahahahahaha.

Maxine: Hahahahahahaha.

Maxine and friend: Hahahahahahaha.

I spent the rest of the day in awe of these two children. I kept thinking about how they were walking, laughing illustrations of a near-perfect future: Two human beings able to discuss their own unique beliefs with curiosity, mutual respect, compassion and humor. I was so proud of both of them, and all they were doing was being themselves.

As soon as humanly possible, I ducked into my office to write all this down. I couldn’t quite remember what it is the policeman was to have said, so I popped back in on the pair — now happily engaged in Barbies — and asked Maxine to remind me. She did, and I left.

When I was barely out of the room, I heard Maxine say to her friend: “She’s going to write that down. When I say things cute, she writes it down.”

Does anything get by this kid?


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