In this world discussing religion with your children can be a bit of a landmine when you are not religious. American culture is saturated with religious dogma, words, memes, tradition, ideology, expectations, and whatnot and, sometimes, you can feel as though you are two-stepping around the world. When my kids were smaller I remember feeling very protective of their minds, of wanting to keep them from absorbing the Christian ethos in the air. It was everywhere and I didn't want them to internalize any of it; I wanted to protect them from it. When they are very small and highly aware of world messages, it can be a nightmare!
As First Gen Atheist/Freethinking Parents we can get quite bunged up at the mere suggestion of someone trying to impart religiosity on our children. We can be hyper tense about having people use the nomenclature of religion within their ear shot. Maybe I should say that I got very tense about it when my teens were little ones. Oh boy, did I get tense.
My daughter was particularly prone to seeking out the magical and mystical memes in the world and embracing them. It was quite sweet and adorable when she was playing fairies, Peter Pan, and Easter Bunny. Not so cute when she invoked the name of the various lords. We have friends from many different religions and she would invoke Ganesh, Krishna, and The Goddess as often as she would invoke Jesus. And I was far more accepting of the first few than of the latter. For awhile there I am certain that I burdened her with my own anxieties about Christianity finding its way into her mind as a "truth." What can I say? I was a newbie Skeptical parent... I have learned that there is no reason to kill their fun because of how prickly I am about religions and how deliberate I am about words. She doesn't carry the same history that I do and, therefore, does not share my knowledge and bias. Yet.
Why Being First Gen is Such a Challenge
Being a first generation atheist parent can be a challenge because we don't have long-standing traditions to fall back on. We don't have the trite words and phrases on the tips of our tongues. We don't have the visibility and support. Often we are figuring it out as we go along. And we are often parenting secularly without the support of our beloved family (and with family who are often trying to sabotage our very deliberate work).
And that's OK! It is the hallmark of a freethinking, educated person to be able to make decisions based on facts, goals, intent, research, ethics, and choice rather than on habit and stigma. In fact, I hesitate to hand over a LIST OF WAYS TO PARENT because any inclusion on such a list is merely my own best guess and experience and not a hard-and-fast rule. Yet, here you go. I am still writing such a list. Because it's always nice to talk with like-minded people to find out what worked for them.
My kids are older now, 16 and 13, and they have become quite mature in their thinking, quite skeptical, and excellent critical thinkers. Conversations about ethics/morality (not a word I normally use because of its religious connotations) and the world at large are ongoing and interesting. I enjoy hearing their take on things. It gives me hope for the generations to come. Their refreshing ways of thinking and looking at the world make me feel quite certain of a few parenting points.
First and, perhaps, most obvious and oft-repeated suggestion (on my blog!) is to read many, many different mythological stories including the Christian stories from very early on. The library is full of wonderful tales and folklore to explore. Mix Noah in with Doudicca, the Lambdon Worm with the Minotaur, Dream Time and Nirvana and Muspell, Changing Woman and Spider Woman and Coatlique, Taaroa and Kunitokotachi, the Iroquois Dream Woman in the Sky with Adam and Eve and Anjea and Bochica and Gnowee, Tonántzin with Xango, Hwangun and Mangala and Arrerunta, Juok and Barong and Jupiter with Jesus and Rainbow Serpent, Zeus and Ra and Yahweh and Ilyapa, and Zulu and Eingana and Pan Gu and Jin. Let’s not forget Deva, Krishna, Vishnu, Brahma, Kali, and Durga.
If you do expose your children to these many mythologies, you will find that none of the stories stand out as more true or more wise than any others. In fact, the unreal claims can be quite comical to an unmolested mind. Consider your child firmly inoculated against believing that any of these stories as more than fiction!!!
Instead of "believing", LEARN. Being a researcher, a questioner, a traveler, an experimenter, and a journeyer models important tools and predispositions for your child. Having the ability, the willingness, and the habit of looking it up creates prophylaxis to nonsense.
Question Everything! Why are things the way they are in our culture? What do the words around us mean? What meaning and tradition lurk around us in symbol? Religions have been a central part of civilization as long as we have had civilization. When we model the questioning and the understanding of these age-old traditions, we allow ourselves to live freely among them without internalizing their original meaning. For example, I refuse to utter any sort of pledge that I myself have not written and thought through. The Pledge of Allegiance does not pass my lips. But must I pass my own deliberate decision across to my children? No, but I have discussed my problems with the pledge to them. Let's let them make their own decisions.
Be nice. There is no need to openly debase and demean any other person on the planet. Be the change you wish to see in the world. Be nice not because they always are, but because you always are.
You will err and you will succeed. Learn, discuss your learning experiences with your children as they grow, and do your best. Time is on your side. You do not have to get every last message into their heads while they are still toddlers! With my own kids, as they have grow and have learned to think and discuss, I have learned to trust their ability to make sense of the world around them.
All will be well and all will be well.