Thursday, March 27, 2008

Me, my kids, and "teach the controversy"

First and foremost I want to teach my kids skepticism: to question and think for themselves. The conclusions (the myths of magic are fiction, the gods don't really exist) are secondary. The last thing I want is to teach them atheism as a dogma.

My 6-year-old son Nicolas adores science and nature shows. I mentioned that we've taken up watching broadcast television, but left to his own devices Nico would rather watch his DVDs of C'est Pas Sorcier ("It's Not Magic," a French science show) and Walking With Dinosaurs. As a special treat for Nico, his daddy recently brought home the DVD set of the David Attenborough series Life in Cold Blood about all different types of reptiles and amphibians. Partially because Nico is fascinated by snakes:

rattlesnake cross-section, by Nico

And partially because the DVD case had a picture of a chameleon on it -- an animal we've seen live in the Masala rainforest section of the Zurich Zoo:

chameleon, by Nico

So what's the problem? None of this is controversial.

Well, sort of.

Naturally Nico's naturalism extends to the study of primates (as we see from his family tree I posted here on Main Street Plaza), and he likes to talk about our cousins among the other great apes. Again, there is no controversy on this point in the scientific community. But...

There is controversy about it in my family. And we'll be visiting them back in Minnesota this summer. And I'm kind of wondering what will happen if he starts talking about primates with his (human) first cousins. Nico's not yet aware of "the controversy" -- is he going to get told about "Adam & Eve" and "Noah's Ark"? I'm a little concerned about this, and I imagine my sister is equally concerned about my kids telling hers about their ancestors among the great apes.

We've been blissfully sheltered here in Europe. We haven't had to tell our kids anything about Jesus either way because the subject simply hasn't come up, even when we were visiting Lourdes. And now -- for the first time -- my kids will undoubtedly witness people praying, and it will be up to us (the atheist parents) to come up with some sort of reasonable explanation to give them.

Any of you parents out there have any suggestions on how we should prepare them before setting off on our trip this summer?

One more thing to keep in mind is that all of this science and biology we've got going on at our house is about genuine fascination with life and how it works, not about indoctrination (as much as the "I don't believe in evolution" crowd have made me neurotic about it). Take this whale evolution video. It's true that I found it on a (rather famous) atheist blog, but you'll note that the video says nothing about God. (At least the science one doesn't.) I showed it to Nico once, and he insisted on watching it so many times that my husband finally just downloaded it to Nico's computer so he could watch it whenever he wants. It inspired him to draw this picture:

Basilosaurus, a whale ancestor with tiny back legs, by Nico

And then later, while hiking through the woods, he gathered sticks and taped them together to form a basilosaurus skeleton so he could play paleontologist. (Nico's so funny, always asking us when it was that the dinosaurs left their bones in the ground and whether we'll one day leave our bones in the ground too...)

And -- to continue this absurdly shameless brag-fest -- he totally gets it from me.

Ever since I was a kid, one of my favorite pastimes has always been to observe all of the little animals I could find: frogs, toads, turtles, snakes, insects. As my family can attest, when I was Nico's age I had an extensive collection of live caterpillars. Now that I'm grown up, if I see a lizard, I can share the fun of observation by pointing it out to my little family as I did in Lourdes or we can sit around watching bees gathering nectar from flowers:

abeille, guêpe, frelon, bourdon, by Nico


James said...

That's some pretty serious artistic talent coming from a six-year old.

I don't know if you've ever heard of Possummomma. She's pretty good with parenting questions and dealing with religious family members and things like that.

apthorpe said...

Just a thought: treat the kids as adults and tell them to humor your relatives. It's like believing in Santa Claus or Caga Tio or that Thomas the Tank Engine is a real live talking train.

Just because the relatives say something is true doesn't mean that it is (kids need to learn that lesson at some point), but you'll just hurt the relatives' feelings if you ask too many questions about it. Just nod and smile and we'll talk about it when we get back home.

My parenting skills are limited to amusing other people's toddlers in restaurants so take my advice with a grain of salt.

I despise godbothering in all its forms, especially when it's aimed at kids, but pragmatically I believe it's easier to keep the peace by telling the kids not to take Uncle Leviticus and Aunt Moroni too seriously than telling Aunt & Uncle to not badger the kids with their stupid faerie stories. And no matter what happens, talking to your kids about their experiences is a good thing.

Steelman said...

For non-religious parenting, I highly recommend Dale McGowan's book Parenting Beyond Belief, as well as his blog. There's a link to the discussion forum there, as well.

I've read my 7yr old Virginia Hamilton's In the Beginning, a collection of creation myths from around the world. The Genesis story is just another tale of how the world began, along with African, Chinese, and Native American versions. I told him that there were people in the past who believed these stories were real, and there are people who believe them today, although I do not.

I've also introduced books that depict children from different cultures around the world: the food they eat, the clothes they wear, and what they believe. I've read him books about the Buddha, and a humorous collection of stories about Mullah Nasrudin. I think it's really important that the children of non-religious parents get an education about religion. They won't be baffled or shocked by it when they encounter religious belief "in the wild", so to speak. And they're less likely to be taken in by its intellectual claims, and emotional hooks, if they already know the stories from their parents.

Conversations about religion can be natural, and need not be about indoctrinating the child in non-belief. Here's one I had with my son after discussing different gods and mythologies:

Son: Daddy, are God and Jesus real?

Me: Different people believe different things about that. I don't know if there are really any gods or not, but so far I don't think so. You can ask your grandpa, though; he believes in God and Jesus.

Son: He does?

Me: Yep. That's something people have to make up their own minds about. And it's okay to change your mind about it, too.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey James!!!

I've heard of her blog -- I should probably add it to my reader.

Hey Apthorpe!!!

I agree on principle that the solution is to tell the kids to humor the Mormon and Christian relatives. My main problem is that I'm not sure at this stage my kids are old enough to understand that adults might disagree on points of reality such as which characters are fictional. We're just barely at the point where we can talk about which characters are real and which are fictional (and Nico strangely insists Santa is real).

Hey Steelman!!!

I've been thinking of getting a copy of Parenting Beyond Belief. I hadn't heard of In the Beginning -- that sounds like a good age-appropriate way of approaching the subject. I'd picked up a picture encyclopedia of world religions (because I agree it's really important that the children of non-religious parents get an education about religion so they won't be baffled or shocked by it when they encounter religious belief "in the wild", so to speak), but I think it was a bit over their heads, and they weren't interested in it. I should try with some story books though -- thanks for the suggestions!!

Aerin said...

chanson - I remember asking both of my parents specifically about evolution and other science topics. My Mom (bless her heart) disagrees with carbon dating and feels that someday they'll come up with something new that will explain the dinosaurs in line with what's discribed in the bible. yeah.

Then, my Dad is a big believer in "we don't know how long a day is in heaven" - i.e. evolution could really have happened, except one "day" is really millions of years.

So - I guess I'm saying, I honestly don't know how the religious part of your family will react - but you never know what they will agree or disagree about. And whether or not they would actually say something to Nico about it in your short visit.

I get the sneaking suspicion that they will just be in awe of Nico and just how bright he is!!

I do agree with the "humor your relatives" thing. The earlier they learn that adults disagree - the better - to my mind.

AnnM said...

One suggestion, from unfortunate experience: Make sure you have taught your children how to pray--or at least what to do during prayers--so they can behave appropriately when the time comes. That's probably a good time to discuss what prayer means to different people, and beliefs in God.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

That is so irritating when people who know nothing about radiometric dating decide that they're qualified to pronounce it wrong. Even simple things like using isotopes with a much longer half-life for dating older volcanic layers seem to have escaped the anti-science crowd (who -- as far as I can tell -- have only heard of Carbon-14).

My (exmo Christian) dad has unfortunately used a number of the standard arguments (see ID Creationist Bingo) in hopes of convincing me and my atheist brothers to see the light. But since those arguments were all conceived by and for people who are ignorant of the most basic concepts about science, he's only succeeded in convincing us that he's not above lying (to himself and others) for the Lord. He's the only one in the family I'm worried about in terms of intentionally violating "let's agree to disagree so we can all get along" truce that my family has going.

My mom, OTOH, once told me she believes that there were indeed horses in the Americas during Book of Mormon times, which is a little odd, but at least she has a good sense of when it is and is not appropriate to bring up such things. She also doesn't go on the offensive against sceince with "Evolution is just a theory" and other B.S. that drives me nuts. I'm pretty sure I can trust her not to try to indoctrinate my kids against my wishes.

You're right that we might get lucky and the subject will stay in the background, but Nico and Léo are starting to be old enough to have questions about things they see other people doing, so we should probably plan to use this as a learning opportunity for them.

Hey SAM!!!

The prayer (especially over meals) is the part I'm most worried about. My kids aren't good at "sit still and be quiet" in general, and if we all have to sit at the table quietly and wait for Grandpa to say some strange words before we start eating, my kids are naturally going to wonder why. And if that means Nico asks questions that prompt the "We're thanking our Heavenly Father" discussion right then and there, then it will be largely my fault because it's not as though I can't see this coming a million miles away.

You say "from unfortunate experience": sounds like there's a story here. I'd love to hear it!!! :D

Anonymous said...

I don't have any suggestions about what to tell the kids but wow, you've got an amazing little artist on your hands there! Nico's got it Chanson. Totally got it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Tom!!!

At six, he already draws nearly as well as I do, if not better... :D

beatdad said...

In my family the kids always do what ever they want during prayers, so when the TBM's and the nons are together, and prayer starts, all the adults and TBM kids bow heads. The "non" kids either run around or mostly sit patiently until everyone eats.

My explanation to my older son was that: "this is what they do in their house. When we are here we do it to."

He can get the thing about everything being empty later, when he accepts Zen. ;^ )

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wayne!!!

That sounds like a good strategy. I still think I'm going to have to explain to my kids what is going on and why, though, which might be confusing for someone their age.

On the other hand, now that I think about it, this reminds me of one thing my own mother told me when I was around Nico's age:

Back then we used to go visit my great-grandmother who wasn't a Mormon. I asked my mom at one point why great-grandma drinks tea (a sin!) and my mom explained to me that great-grandma is too old and set in her ways to change. So maybe I can go with a similar explanation: "It's just some thing that old people like to do..." ;^)

Lars Larson said...

Ms. Hanson...remember that Atheism is not is the ABSENCE OF dogma. The only thing you have to teach your kids is to exhibit the requisite amount of politeness in NOT demanding justifications from everyone else for THEIR dogma in day to day life. We don't want to be raising little assholes.

As far as the prayers go...just a bit of coaching beforehand goes a long way. I even instituted a "pledge" (it can be a statement of scientific fact, a nice lyric from a song...whatever) before meals to mark a "starting point" so that my boys would not think it was OK to just come to the table and "dig in" before everyone else was sitting down...then it is just a step away to tell them that some families close their eyes and bow their heads during "the pledge".

And then the "Ritual of Insignificance" (see my blog for details) kicks butt on any sort of prayer any other religious family may have so the solemnity thing is taken care of. Time unfathomable, Distances unthinkable, Smallness unimaginable, God unnecessary, Life is Good.

Wonderful drawings!

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Erlybrd!!!

I agree with you that in general atheism is the absence of dogma. However (if you do it wrong) it's very possible to give your kids a loud message of "God doesn't exist!" (and Mommy will be disappointed in you if you conclude otherwise) instead of teaching them critical thinking and letting them decide for themselves.

That said, making up a pre-meal ritual like that sounds like a good strategy. That way if they're eating a meal with people who's pre-meal ritual is prayer, it won't be so noteworthy that it necessarily requires a huge discussion...

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a fundamentalist home and I am the father of 2 boys (8 & 10). I can only relate my experiences but you would be very surprised at what your kid will understand. I also agree that it is important that they understand what to do when your family prays and that your family doesn't necessarily believe in all the sames things that you do. You don't have to explain to him the details just, "Grandma and Grandpa believe in [fill in the blank] and that they like [pray before meals,whatever]. This is there house and we are going to respect their beliefs. If you have any questions we talk about it later when we are in the car."

I spent a number of years afraid of all the things that my kids were going to be exposed to and how I would combat it but, you know what, it turned out to be my own baggage that I was imposing on my children.

It was about the time my kids were 6/7 years old, like you, when I actually had to explain to them who Jesus was. It really came to a head when my 8 year old (who's 10 now) came home and said that this kid (a notorious brat) told him that he would go to hell where they repeatedly shoot you in the face forever if he didn't believe in god.

This was my child's first experience with overt religion and a god. This was an opportunity for my wife and I to explain in-depth where this kid had gone wrong and where we stand (in case it's not obvious we disagreed with this idea). I'm a little mad at myself for not having armed my sons with information before they were exposed to that.

Anonymous said...

I agree with erlybird - I think the only thing that you really have to teach the kids is respect for others and their beliefs and practices. In this case telling Nico to sit quietly and wait till they're done praying is probably a good defense against an embarassing situation.

You know, I still squirm when I have to sit through mormon prayers at my family member's homes. I refuse to bow my head and close my eyes and fold my fucking arms. And I'm 54 years old. So much for maturity. I do manage to sit quietly even though what I really want to do is stand up and shout "bullshit" really loudly.

Yeh, a little bit of a chat with Nico about what they''ll be doing could be helpful.

I've had several talks with Auri over the years but when she was younger one of the toughest talks, at least going into it, was the one where I told her that her mom and I wouldn't be married anymore and that I'd probably be dating guys. In my mind I'd turned it into this huge drama and when the moment came, sitting on a log at the edge of Hollywood Lake, she simply looked up at me, patted me on the leg and said, "That's OK daddy, I understand." And that was the end of that.

All of the "difficult" talks we've had since, like sex and condoms and stuff, have been a piece of cake because I went into them assuming that she was capable of understanding anything presented to her.

I'll just bet Nico can handle anything you can throw at him. Did I mention what an amazing artist he is??? :-)

Lars Larson said...

Tom...that's is EXACTLY how I feel during the prayers at my sister's house. What gets me is how they take that itty bitty 5 seconds to ramp up the "reverence" and then they all get that Idaho sappiness in their voices as if it will pierce the veil a little bit better...

"Our Heavenly Father. *sigh* Please bless this food...*sigh*...we are soooo FUCKING grateful...*sigh*..."

GAG! Sometimes there is even a tear or two at the end and then my sister takes the time to look over at her husband and give his hand a little squeeze...AWWWWWW. I got no problem with that as long as she it means, "You are in SOOOO much trouble after Family Home Evening, Big Boy!" carried away there.

By the way...anyone who has seen "The Aristocrats" and liked it...and anyone who wants a copy of my version of "The Mormon Roadshow" because it simply CANNOT be published me and let me know.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Skeptigator!!!

it turned out to be my own baggage that I was imposing on my children.

I'm thinking this is probably the bulk of the problem, and when it comes down to it, it will be no big deal. :D

Hey Tom!!!

Good -- further indication that I'm probably worrying too hard and the kids will handle this with no problem. ;^)

Hey Erlybrd!!!

lol, the prayer voice... ;^)

So, what's your version of "The Mormon Roadshow"? A video or a story? You can email it to me, I'd be curious to have a look: chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com.

Lessie said...

Hey Chanson. Thanks so much for posting this. I have no advice, but I was hoping to mooch off the advice others had to offer. I'm checking out some of the book recommendations today. I've been so confused as to how I tell my (personally indoctrinated pre-disbelief) son that I no longer believe some of the things I taught him, but respect his right to believe them, etc.

And yeah, the prayer voice is really annoying. Got an ear full of it this weekend while we attended the baptism of one of our myriad nieces and nephews.

Rebecca said...

I have nothing to add to the advice - it looks like you've gotten a lot of good stuff anyway. However, the talk of evolution reminded me of this:

In case you haven't already seen it...

It's about the Dover, PA case when parents went up against the school board for trying to teach intelligent design. The first part is a little slow, but after about 30 minutes (? something like that - although I watched it on tv and not on the site in 12 parts) it gets into the science, which is really interesting. I imagine if you've taken a lot of biology it's all old news, but I only knew the basics and there were some cool things that were new to me.

My favorite part is when the ID people keep insisting that evolution is "just" a theory, and a scientist says something about how the law of gravity is "just" a theory - that people think theories are random ideas and facts are conclusions, but in science facts are the minutiae and theories are the conclusions.

Anyway, I really enjoyed it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Lessie!!!

Cool, I hope it all goes well for you and your kids, too!!! :D

Hey Rebecca!!!

Wow, sounds like an interesting program -- I'll have a look.

Regarding the "Evolution is just a theory" thing, the point is that what it means for something to be a theory in the scientific sense is not the same thing as what theory means in the colloquial sense. It takes two seconds to point this out and grasp it, yet the Creationist/I.D. crowd won't stop pretending "just a theory!" is a legitimate point against evolution. That's one reason why I've said that they are the basest of liars -- they deliberately try to deceive people by taking advantage of public ignorance about the basic concepts of how science works.

The one good thing that comes of their deceitful attack on science is that it provides an opportunity to talk about how science does work. For example, there's an excellent short article on Wikipedia explaining the scientific use of the word "theory".

Anonymous said...

I sent my kids to a Catholic school for reasons other than religion, expecting them to get a better education than they would have in a public school (they didn't.) It gave them an exposure to religion similar to what I had as a kid. They have discarded religion on their own.

Your son is excited about science, and just by teaching him to be respectful in the presence of religious relatives you will give them a pretty good head start. Kids will surprise you on how they can analyze other people.

With their background and excitement for science and evolution, they will be aware of how creationists think. While it may not come out for a while, they will be prepared when they are older to be able to show how they come to their own beliefs and values. Their thought processes may be challenged this summer, but that will be okay, and better than if they had never been exposed.

I'd tell them just to "think about the things they hear."

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mike!!!

Thanks for the advice -- that's a good way of looking at it, and I think you're right.

Maddie said...

I LOVE Nico's art! Especially the rattlesnake cross-section.

I've wondered how I'll address prayer/religion someday with my own kids...probably tell them some people need religion because it makes them feel better.

When visiting with my (VERY) Mormon sister I'd tell them that we are to respect the way they do things (pray on fruit snack to "nourish and strengthen our bodies"), but explain them waaaaaay in advance, and in depth, to avoid awkward, mid-prayer questions.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Melliferous!!!

I like the cross-sections too. He's done lots of animal cross-sections -- I've posted some of them here.

Praying over fruit snacks "to nourish and strengthen our bodies"? Yeah, that might require a little advance explanation...