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Humanist Parenting Resources

Dale McGowan co-hosts a Parenting Beyond Belief blog with Rebekah Bennetch of Sakatoon Secular Family Network that shares thoughts and ideas by and for secular parents.  “It’s a place to exchange ideas, to learn what has and hasn’t worked elsewhere, to discover how best to get a new secular parenting group airborne, and to realize you’re not remotely alone.”  Dale also has blog The Meming of Life, which is on secular parenting and other natural wonders.

The Family of Humanists (FOH) “is a group of families and individuals from around the USA and abroad, who are applying the Humanist philosophy of life to issues of interest to families and family members of all ages.”

British Humanist Association provides information and resources for families.  They address questions that are important to parents in Humanist families discuss family life.  They also recommend resources for children, teachers and students covering a wide range of issues.

The Secular Web’s Parents’ Corner “is a compendium of articles and resources that help non-theistic parents deal with challenges of secular child-rearing in a religious world.  Traditional child-rearing resources typically assume that parents are religious and wish their children to be so as well.  These resources, some of which even go so far as to condemn the very idea of raising children without religious belief, ignore the needs of non-theistic parents.  The Parent’s Corner is intended to address this imbalance by providing information that addresses the unique questions and challenges that non-theistic parents face.”

Jennifer Hancock is a writer and speaker who specializes in Humanistic Leadership and Humanistic Parenting topics.  She is the author of the bully vaccine and The Humanist Approach to Happiness.  Her website on Humanistic Parenting offers information and lesson plans for parents to teach their children critical thinking.

Skeptic Family, Science and Humanism for Parents is a parenting blog site designed “to promote quality science and refute different types of speculative claims such as the supernatural, pseudoscience, alternative medicine, and any other extraordinary claim that contradicts facts established by science and/or reasoning.”

A Resource Page for Humanist Parents was put together by The Foundation Beyond Belief.  “This constantly evolving page brings resources to humanist parents wishing to help their children develop compassionate engagement with the world around them.  In addition to general resources for encouraging generosity and mutual responsibility, this page will include books, online activities, and other resources related to the Foundation’s causes at a given time.  This resource page does require registering an account with The Foundation Beyond Belief.

Humanist Mami is a blogging “working mom focused on helping a wondering, smart, and sweet child become a freethinking, mature, and kind adult.  There is so much parenting advice out there and nothing has helped me as much as the experiences of other secular humanists parents.  If I remain open, honest, and unafraid of questions to which there are no complete answers I may just find my way and be the best mami I can be.

Do we attend humanist societies or is that too much like the religions I’ve rejected?  Do we celebrate the religious holidays or deprive my daughter of that great big bearded guy in the red suit?  How do I answer the big questions without the help of comforting stories about afterlives and loving just creator?  Will my child reject my ideas and become a nun?  Join Mami in her journey to sort out all this stuff and more –or attempt to.

Montana Humanist/Secular Parenting facebook page is a group aimed at parents who would like to share their journeys parenting without belief.  Offers articles, information, links and thoughts on being a non-theistic parent.

Atheist Parents:  Parenting Without Belief has a new internet site that is dedicated to helping parents worldwide raise well-educated, thoughtful, ethical, socially responsible, environmentally aware and, most important, godless children.  The site offers a newsletter, forum, events, recommended books and much more.

Search MeetUp for Humanist family groups.  Find a Humanist family group in your area by using this search engine.  What activities are happening near you?  What interesting topics are being discussed?  This search engine will help you get connected.

EvolveFish represents Atheists, Humanists, Scientists, Skeptics, People of Reason and a vision of the future that is brighter for all people! EvovleFish offers books on non-theistic parenting, children’s books and much, much more.

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Social Connection and Community

Personal identity, social connection, and community

Multiple studies had suggested that churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers by several life-satisfaction indicators. But a University of Wisconsin/Harvard study in the December 2010 issue of American Sociological Review dug in to ask why that might be, and the researchers found another essential variable: Churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers only if they have significant friendships in the congregation. As the number and significance of the friendships increase, so does life satisfaction. And those who attend church regularly but have no strong connections to others in the congregation show less life satisfaction than non-churchgoers.

“[Life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect,” said UW Madison’s Chaeyoon Lim, one of the lead researchers. “People are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church because they build a social network within their congregation….We think it has to do with the fact that you meet a group of close friends on a regular basis and participate in certain activities that are meaningful to the group. At the same time, they share a certain social identity…The sense of belonging seems to be the key to the relationship between church attendance and life satisfaction.”

A regular meeting of close friends who engage in meaningful activities—this is a human need that can be met entirely outside of the church context. Secular parents should anticipate a child’s need to find identity and community and help encourage positive choices, especially during adolescence.

Ways that kids can find identity and meaningful context include:

  • Friends
  • Extended family
  • Hobby/interest groups or clubs
  • Service clubs/volunteering
  • Sports teams
  • Musical ensembles

As for identity labels: While it is advisable to keep restrictive worldview labels off of our children during their early years, it is equally important to allow them to experiment with self-selected identities once they are older—typically age 12 and up. The one important reminder a parent should provide is that labels are a matter of choice, and each individual is free to change his or her mind, and labels, without limit.

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Multiple Perspectives

When children are ready for the next level of engagement, or no longer find the previous notion adequate, several useful concepts can be introduced. But one caveat first: Always be sure to validate the child’s concern. Let her know that it’s normal to find death scary. Let her know she evolved to fear death. Ask her to imagine a long-ago ancestor who had a tendency to fear and avoid death, and another one who had no such fear, and to guess which one would survive to pass on his or her genes. And don’t forget to let her know that you’re not too crazy about the idea, either.

Then introduce some of these ideas:

  • That every atom in your body has been here since the beginning of time, passing through countless stars and planets and people and animals and plants before becoming part of you, and that every atom in your body will continue to exist, passing through countless plants and animals and people and planets and stars again until the end of time.
  • That we continue to live on in the memories of those who knew and loved us, and in the difference we make with our lives.
  • That you believe death is total non-existence—no pain and no fear.
  • That the experience of dying itself is most often eased by a peaceful symphony of endorphins.
  • That we have each experienced that non-existence before. The billions of years before we were born are identical to the billions of years after we die. The only difference is our ability to anticipate the next one.
  • That for every person alive, there are quintillions of potential people who could have been born but were not. Thinking of how lucky each of us is to have won this cosmic lottery can greatly help ease the fear of death by making us feel lucky to have ever lived in the first place.

To avoid forcing a single perspective on your child, it’s important to add that others believe in an afterlife or reincarnation. You can say why you find these unconvincing, but add a sincere invitation to make up his or her mind about it.

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Naturalizing Death

It’s also important to recognize that comfort is only one goal.  Death is also the subject of some of the most meaningful human reflection imaginable. The most significant and profound thing about our existence is that it ends, rivaled only by the fact that it begins. Our children should be invited as early and often as they wish to contemplate this astonishing and ultimately enriching fact of our reality.

The key for both goals is naturalizing death. Make it a normal subject of discussion, and show your own willingness to engage the question honestly:

  • Take casual opportunities to talk about it before a loved one dies. Scrambling for an approach to mortality only after a grandparent has died is not ideal. Instead, normalize the topic from the beginning.
  • Talk about dead insects, birds, animals and plants, including seasonal changes.
  • Read books and see movies that deal intelligently with death, including Charlotte’s Web, Tuck Everlasting, My Girl, On Golden Pond, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, and The Fall of Freddy the Leaf.
  • Death in the news. Though the flashing red lights and terrifying headlines of Fox local news may be overkill, don’t shy away from letting your children know about, and talk about, tragedies in the news.
  • Visit cemeteries. Maps not only of death but of life, stopping by an old cemetery on your next road trip can be a source of endless discussion. Comparing names to establish relationships, finding connections to local history, identifying occupations and conventions of a different time, noting lives both unusually long and short… Children need very little prompting to engage this activity.
  • Allow children to attend funerals of loved ones. Even the youngest children can manage the emotions and thoughts associated with funerals, and it often helps with closure.

As for comfort, there are many ways to encourage new and productive thinking about mortality. In the case of obsessive worry, the youngest children can be (temporarily) comforted simply by distancing their own death or the deaths of their parents (often the more pressing concern for young kids) in time, noting that a long life of 80, 90, or 100 years lays ahead—very close to immortality to a five-year-old!

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Creating the healthiest approach to mortality begins by overthrowing three common myths:

1.    That religion cures the fear of death.

By pretending that religious consolations fully cure the human fear of death, the first myth sets the bar too high for the nonreligious.  Religious believers do as much as anyone to avoid death.  They take their pills and visit their doctors.  When they receive a troubling prognosis, they are afraid.  They ask their friends to pray for them.  If they do not survive, those same friends will call it a tragedy and cry at the funeral.  Whatever its comforts, religion does not cure the evolved fear of death.

2. That children are less able than adults to think about death.

Neither the finality of death (that it is permanent) nor the universality of it (that it applies to all living things) are concrete in early childhood.  In his brilliant classic The Tangled Wing, Emory University psychologist Melvin Konner notes that “from age three to five [children] consider [death] reversible, resembling a journey or sleep.  After six they view it as a fact of life but a very remote one” (p. 369).  Though rates of development vary, Konner places the first true grasp of the finality and universality of death as late as age ten–a realization that includes the first deep awareness that it applies to them as well.  This delayed realization provides a window of opportunity during which many children are better able to think about death than they may be later on.  So grappling with the concept early, before we are paralyzed by the fear of it, can go a long way toward making that fear more manageable in the long run.

3. That we can or should fully accept death.

The fear of death has evolved for very good reasons. It helps to keep us alive and ensure social order. People without a proper fear of death tend to do antisocial things, like flying planes into buildings.

Even if it were desirable to lose it, the fear of death is too deeply ingrained by evolution for any realistic hope of wishing it away. Fortunately there are real consolations, and entirely naturalistic ones, that help reduce the fear and increase our acceptance of this challenging fact of life.

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Questioning Environment


Equally important is creating a questioning environment around morality. Oliner and Oliner conducted a powerful study in which 700 survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe—both “rescuers” (those who actively rescued victims of Nazi persecution) and “non-rescuers” (those who were either passive in the face of the persecution or actively involved in it)—were interviewed about their moral upbringing. Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely than rescuers to have grown up in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify “reasoning” as an element of their moral education. “Explained,” the authors note, “is the word most rescuers favored” in describing their parents’ way of communicating rules and ethical concepts.[2]

This echoed work by Grusec and Goodnow[3] in the 1990s, which showed that “parents who tend to be harshly and arbitrarily authoritarian or power-assertive are less likely to be successful than those who place substantial emphasis on induction or reasoning.”

Both the Oliners’ results and the central role children play in their own moral development are underlined by cross-cultural research from the Office for Studies in Moral Development at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Children in cultures around the world tend to reach certain landmarks in moral development reliably and on time, according to lead researcher Larry Nucci, regardless of what their parents do or don’t do. “Children’s understanding of morality is the same whether they’re of one religion, another religion or no religion,” says Nucci.[4]

The reliability with which children hit these moral landmarks was underlined by a University of Zurich study published in the August issue of the journal Nature. Kids between 3 and 4 were seen to be almost universally selfish, after which a “strong sense of fairness” develops, usually by age 6-8. Fairness was most evident toward those with whom the children identified—in this case, kids from the same school as opposed to a different one.

We are wired up, however imperfectly, for cooperation and fairness. Parents can and should encourage these tendencies, but we mustn’t think we are writing on a blank slate, or even worse, rowing against a current of natural depravity. Our job is to draw out and enhance the ethical nature that evolution has already put in place, then expand it beyond the in-group by widening those circles of empathy. Knowing that our children’s tendency is toward the ethical can help us relax and row with the current, knowing that kids in a supportive, “pro-social” environment tend to turn out just fine.

[2] Oliner and Oliner, The Altruistic Personality, 181-2.
[3] Grusec, J.E. and J. J. Goodnow, “Impact of Parental Discipline on the Child’s Internalization of Values: A Reconceptualization of Current Points of View,” Developmental Psychology, 30, 1994.
[4] Quoted in Pearson, Beth, “The art of creating ethics man,” The Herald (Scotland), January 23, 2006.

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Moral Development

Moral development

Moral development is often portrayed either as a mysterious process or as a matter of inculcation from the outside. Neither is true. A tremendous body of research has established how moral development occurs, and just as importantly, how it does not—and, in what may count as a blow to the parental ego, the process has far less to do with outside inculcation than we would like to believe.

An armchair understanding of behavioral evolution is enough to establish that a population’s genetic tendency toward mutual care would be selected for over a tendency toward mutual harm. Far from being inclined toward depravity, our children are born with a tendency toward cooperation and ethical behavior. Such behavior is by no means guaranteed, but the nature of the parent’s task is markedly different when the moral field is seen to incline at least slightly toward the good. Instead of leading children away from depravity and toward ethical behavior, the task of moral development is about encouraging a natural evolved tendency that is already present.

So how best to do this?

Work by researchers including Oliner and Oliner, Grusec and Goodnow, Berkowitz et al., and Nucci et al. have shown that the most positive outcomes in moral development result from

  • Providing a supportive, pro-social environment
  • Inviting children to question moral authority, including that of the parent
  • Articulating the reason for rules and parental decisions
  • Providing a variety of opportunities to interact socially with peers

Moral understanding emerges not from books or lectures, but primarily from interactions with others, especially peers. Parents can help create these opportunities and invite children to talk about their feelings related to those experiences, including the experience of being treated fairly and unfairly. It is from these, not from formal teaching or the memorization of rules, that the moral sense emerges.

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