One of the things I thought would be difficult about leaving Christianity was raising my kids without religion. I think it was more about my own inexperience than anything. I knew how to be a good Christian mom but I had no idea how to be a good agnostic mom. Not only was I raised by strong Christians but when I was growing up, I was surrounded almost exclusively by Christians. I had no models for parenting as a “non believer”. How would I answer their difficult questions? How would I provide them with moral guidance? What would I say to calm their fears?
I quickly discovered that (for me anyway), parenting without religion was much easier. I often say that preceding my abandonment of religion was a realization that belief added a layer of unnecessary complexity to everything and this was no more evident than in my parenting.
Kids ask great questions. Questions that often get to the core of a matter. Questions that peel away decades of social programming and preconceptions. It can be an unsettling experience to have a child ask a sincere question. But if we let it, it can be positively transformative. The best thing about kids’ questions is that they tell us a lot about ourselves and a lot about what they are learning from those around them.
The other day, my 7-year-old asked me how sex change operations work. She wanted to know in particular about how a man gets breasts. The reason she asked this question is because I have made a concerted effort to tell my children about the nuances of gender and expose them to transgendered people, transvestites, drag queens, genderqueer individuals, etc. They understand that people are born with a biological sex but gender is something that evolves and involves, in part, the decisions of the individual. Put simply, a person’s biological sex isn’t necessarily the same as their self-identified gender and gender does not necessarily remain consistent. These conversations with my kids lead them to asking the kinds of questions they do.
Another example: Not long ago, my then-9-year-old asked how a person has sex without getting pregnant if they don’t want a baby. THAT’s the right question. Again, it was a question fueled by the way we framed sex to her at that age.
When I say “that’s the wrong question,” I am suggesting that the presuppositions and preconceptions leading a person to ask a specific question should be examined. Asking, “how do we fix a gay person?” is the wrong question. Asking “why did God allow a tornado to kill children in Oklahoma City?” is the wrong question. I’m not suggesting those questions are “bad” or that they shouldn’t be asked. But I do believe if we try to answer those questions, the answers won’t get us anywhere.
The questions kids ask tell us a lot about the conversations they’re having with adults and the lessons they’re learning from society. If we take time to listen, we can pretty quickly identify the ways in which we need to reframe the way we’re talking about issues of importance. When my oldest was early elementary age she asked if a woman had to get married. This was the wrong question and was a big red flag to me that I hadn’t addressed the many different paths a woman could take because if I had, she would have been asking very different questions. I didn’t actually answer her question directly. I went back to the underlying preconception that led her to ask the question and asked my own questions. In the end, she made her own conclusion that of course a woman could remain single or marry another woman for that matter.
I encourage everyone to get to know kids. If you choose not to have or adopt children and don’t have any nieces or nephews around, get to know your friends’ kids or volunteer to tutor or something. Or even just find a non-creepy excuse to hang out at a playground sometimes. Kids have a lot to teach us if we’re willing to learn.