What Atheism Taught Me About Parenting

I’m a Christian (and unfortunately I feel the need to note that I’m not the crazy kind) but there are things about traditional Christian parenting that I don’t agree with (spanking, for example).  I enjoy reading secular parenting blogs because I think they have great ideas for teaching many things.

A few years ago I was watching CSPAN (yes, I like CSPAN) and it had a talk at an Atheist convention by Julia Sweeny (of SNL’s Pat fame) about raising Atheist kids.  She was talking about how people assume, wrongly, that Atheists are amoral.  That they don’t teach their kids not to lie or steal.  This is something my Atheist sister just hates.  I would too.  Not believing in God or your particular God does not mean a person is a lawless anarchist.   The things she was saying were pertinent to ALL parents.  Here’s what I learned that Christians should NOT say:

  1. Because the Bible says.  This is the same as “because I’m your Mom!” It is just lazy parenting.  If you honestly don’t have a logical purpose for your rule/lesson then why are you enforcing it?  This also sets up the Bible as this Huge Book of No-Nos.  It can take years for kids to learn that the Bible is full of love and plenty of DOs.
  2. Jesus is watching!  There is a time and a place to note that Jesus is watching us but please don’t use the Savior of mankind as a virtual paddle to smack your kids into line.  Some parents use Santa Clause the same way.  I actually know someone who wrote a note to her kid from Santa saying he was being bad and wasn’t going to get anything.  Jesus didn’t come to us so we could use him to manipulate others.  Yes, even kids because they are, you know, people.  And how to you teach kids that Jesus is a loving figure if you only ever use him as a threat?
  3. Because God Hates _____.  I dislike this one many levels.  A discussion of the word hate in the Bible is for someone else to write about but I’d like to convince you that it just doesn’t work.  This is what Julia Sweeny was talking about.

She was talking about Lying.  She was asked “how do you teach your kids not to lie without enacting morality or saying “because God hates liars”?”

Before I talk about her answer, think for a moment about how your parents taught you not to lie.  How other adults taught you not to lie.  Did they tell you it was a sin?  It was “bad”?  It is a ten commandment?  How about “Jesus doesn’t lie”?

I had wonderful parents but I don’t think I was ever taught, specifically at least, what Julia had to say.

She said she teaches her daughter not to lie because if you lie then people will not trust you or be your friend and then when you need a friend you won’t have any.

whoa!

Isn’t that powerful?  There is a reason that lying can be bad for you.  The world is about relationships – our relationships with others, our relationship with God, etc.  We grow friendships through trust and therefore honesty is important.

I like this because a) it is true and b) it can remove all the confusion kids have about lying.  Adults say “don’t lie”

and then demonstrate lying all. day. long.  Lying is an important social skill (I’ve talked about this before here with respect to marriage or read this syonpsis of the chapter from Nurture Shock.).  When seen in black and white a lie is always wrong no matter what.  Seen as a tool to nurture relationships lying can then be understood in the context of intent.  

(once again, I’m not a theologian but you can read about theories on Rahab’s lie in the Bible.)

Surely, we don’t want kids to think that Miep Gies should have escorted the Nazi’s to Anne Frank’s hiding place?  We want them to learn to be gracious and say you like a gift even if they really don’t.  I just don’t see how a humans can live in our society without lies and we don’t do anyone any good by pretending there aren’t two types of lies:

  1. Lies that enhance relationships
  2. Lies that erode relationships
Now, don’t think I’m meaning to lie about that affair you had.  That lie does not enhance a relationship even if you think it is the better option.  I mean if you broke something and lie about it then a friend won’t know if they can trust you with their things in the future.  If you “fib” and say you love someone’s new haircut then you’ve possibly made their day.  What would be accomplished by brutal honesty?
The Nazi’s are knocking.
What are your thoughts on lying and how we teach kids about the big “no-no’s” within and outside of the context of religious morality?
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9 thoughts on “What Atheism Taught Me About Parenting

  1. Interesting. I never thought about how religious people teach their children morals, but it is true that there’s a lot of shaming and threats in religious teaching. SO wether you’re religious or not, it’s just a big nono to use these kind of manipulating tactics towards your child.
    I did grow up in a very catholic environment, but apart from my grandmother, such threats and shaming wasn’t used, except when it came to sex… that’s a different topic altogether

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  2. Well, my way of teaching my daughter, in a sense, is treating her like a young adult. I tell her something almost identical to what Julia Sweeny tells her daughter. I mean, I break everything down as much as I can to help her understand. She’s only 3, after all. Still, her behavior is spectacular and I’m very happy for her because she’s the one who will benefit from that the most.

    I wasn’t raised using religion even though we were Roman Catholic. No one in my home really practiced the religion and I later converted to Wicca. Even so, I was never told why I shouldn’t do certain things. I was just beaten a lot and my mother said hurtful things to me about my behavior. She basically said I was just an inherently bad child as though there really is such a thing. I would say my mother did a lot of lazy parenting. She either ignored me or said or did the first thing that came to mind which was always horrible. Needless to say, I had no self esteem and still struggle with that to this day. I don’t want that for my daughter, so I try to do better for her.

    I will say this for the beatings. I grew up in a different culture and everyone I knew was beaten at home, but I appeared to be the only one who didn’t see it as something to appreciate. Everyone else had great love and respect for their parents and said they did what they had to do to straighten them out and make them the people they are today. I was appalled by that, but again, I was the only one who seemed to disagree. Perhaps their parents did other things differently that I wasn’t aware of. Generally, I got the impression that these people got a lot more attention when they were growing up and I got none. So perhaps they appreciated it because they still knew at the end of the day that they were loved and their parents meant well. I just thought my mother hated me and wished I would die.

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    • Thanks for sharing Lexie. What a sad thought about your mother hating you. Such a good motivation for breaking the cycle with your child, right?

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    • Very sad…….. and wonderful that you recognize that you can do better. I wonder how your mother was treated by her mother

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