Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reader Mail - Atheist parenting questions

I'm finally getting caught up on all the e-mail that came in while I had the flu. For some reason, there were quite a few questions about secular parenting. I was pleasantly surprised by the tone of all the queries. Since these were asked out of, what I feel, was a genuine interest, I'm posting them here so others can weigh in (and foster a discussion). Like the last post, I've pulled out the questions and left the irrelevant bits out.

Cableskater asks... How do you discipline your possums? Do atheists believe in spanking?
I am not aware of any specific atheist pronouncements on disciplining children. Atheism doesn't address parenting or discipline - it ONLY addresses your position on the existence of a deity. That said, however, I don't think I've ever ran into an atheist parent who believes in physical or corporal punishment. This may be due to the fact that most atheists don't feel that they have dominion over their children (as the Bible would suggest). Or, it could be that, in my experience, atheist parents are generally non-violent. Personally, I don't believe in spanking because I think violence begets violence. If I strike my child in anger, or for punishment, then I'm sending a message that it's okay to take out your anger on someone smaller than you. It also makes no logical sense, to me, to spank a child. I believe that the punishment should fit the "crime". There should be logical consequences and spanking isn't logical. Additionally, I have nothing to gain and everything to lose by encouraging my children to fear me (or Pdaddy).

This doesn't mean that my children have free reign to misbehave. They don't. When they make a bad choice, there are repercussions. I see discipline as a way of preparing children for life. If they slack off on their chores, then they may not be included in an ice cream run or an activity...just as, if they were employed and didn't finish a task, they would have to miss out on fun activities until they caught up. If they don't get their chores done, or start using disrespectful language, then it wouldn't be uncommon for them to lose the distractions like the television or games or iPods. I've also taken a stand on certain shows that display a disrepectful attitude or rude language. I don't consider it censorship so much as I feel that a young child may possibly be oblivious to the fact that those behaviors or words aren't very nice. Until they reach an age where they understand the words/behaviors are rude, and can therefore abstain from using them in our family, the influences aren't welcome in the home.

One thing I didn't expect, when I started parenting by the above strategy, was how well it would work when it came time for the older kids to exercise restraint and recognize appropriate behavior. I've had phone calls from other parents saying that my kids expressed hesitancy to watch something (or play a game) that they knew Pdaddy and I would not approve of. This gives me great confidence in their ability to be honest to themselves and exercise self-control. And, as these things happen, I express to them how I am proud of their maturity. Pre-teens and teens want to be considered mature, so this is a better reward than any material reward.

StarsahoyKathy asks... Do you worry about your children finding spouses who are compatible or accepting of atheism?
Not often, but I can't say it's a question that hasn't entered my mind once or twice. I realize that the odds suggest they are more likely to meet a theist than an atheist. But, I've put that concern aside for the time being. You just never know what the future holds or who your children will date/marry. So, because that's no within my control, I try not to worry about it. And, honestly, just knowing P1 and P2...I don't see them falling for someone or marrying someone who was a devout theist. P3 and P4 are way too young to even speculate about. Still...I'm not married to an atheist. Pdaddy is an agnostic/non-practicing Catholic. If my children found a theist or deist who was okay with their agnosticism or atheism, then I don't see the big deal. Pdaddy and I recognize that religion is only one of many, many, many things a couple should consider when it comes to compatibility.

Biggy D asks...I have a five year old daughter. Our family doesn't know we are atheists and my princess has a big mouth. Any suggestions on how to keep her from telling everyone about us?
I would suggest that you take her out for McDonalds or another treat and casually bring the conversation around to privacy. Atheism is nothing to be ashamed of, and that should be stressed: but, since she's not old enough to understand the conflict, and it's not her duty to explain your position to others, I think it's wise to give them some pre-rehearsed answers should the topic come up. P3 is five, too. If you ask her about my atheist, or our family's secular leanings, she will tell you it's none of your business and to ask mommy or daddy. I really think that's an effective strategy. Relatives, or friends, who would ask a child when they should be asking you deserve to be put in their place by a five year old. Would anyone walk up to a five year old and ask them to talk about their parents' politics? Of course not. So, why should our five year olds have to divulge our philosophical positions. It betrays a certain amount of cowardice on the part of the inquisitor if they're pumping kids for info.


Dale McGowan said...

Hi PM!

FYI, here's a link to a column that makes the argument that nonreligious parents should avoid corporal punishment:


CrypticLife said...

As an atheist parent of three sons myself, I feel I can weigh in a bit here as well.

"Believe in" spanking is something I find kind of an odd phrase. Atheists often put their trust in science, and there is scientific research on punishment. Those who recall their intro psychology courses will remember that punishment is the application of an aversive stimulus to reduce a behavior. Spanking is one such stimulus, and as punishment there are positives and negatives to it. The positives are that it tends to work immediately and have a relatively strong effect. The negatives are numerous: it builds resentment, it is not self-sustaining, it results in unpredictable escape behaviors (don't think running away, think lying -- though it could be either or others), there's a risk of physical damage, it's reinforcing to the punisher, the target often acclimates to punishment, it teaches violence, and it results in other effects that may interfere with other behavior you want to encourage (kids aren't going to be cleaning the scrawl of magic marker they've just decorated the wall with if they're sobbing uncontrollably).

So overall, it is to be avoided, except when it's the best option because you need an immediate effect. I've only found it to the be best option when the alternatives are worse. Specifically, I've used it to prevent my child from doing things where they would suffer more damage from doing them than from the punishment, typically running into the street or drinking bleach or the like. This was particularly important with my first son when we lived in an urban environment, and we couldn't rely on constant baby leashes. And keep in mind that while you can keep your own environment completely safe, one can't keep all environments safe. It's better to have some behavioral controls in place than to always rely on safety devices.

I see no reason to spank a child old enough to speak. Dale correctly notes that spanking represents an inability to reason with a child. After the child can talk, this should not be an issue.

Spouses. I've never worried about my sons finding spouses compatible with atheism. Partially that's because I'm extremely biased regarding the attractiveness of my kids: they're just so good-looking and desirable that they'll find someone (my youngest is two. . . so it's sort of a prospective knowledge). This bit of irrationality aside, not only do I not know what the future holds, but I don't know whether my own kids will necessarily be atheists when they grow up. They may be agnostic, and willing to humor any religious observances (I enjoy religious observances myself as an occasional thing, but mostly for the surreal nature of them).

For the parent of the five-year old, I'd echo possummomma's sentiments, but be aware that she'll face judgments of her peers fairly soon as well; likely sooner than you think. My second-grade son has already had to deal with young-earth creationists (fortunately, he acquitted himself quite well, dismissing them with a, "Well, okay, if you want to believe that, go ahead").

Uncle Sam said...

Regarding the spanking question:

Possummomma, your instinctive reaction that violence begets violence is dead on. I saw a bit of research recently which indicates that children (especially boys) who are spanked by their parents are many times more likely to grow up and physically abuse their own partner or children.

When it comes to "atheist dating", good luck to the Possums.

Great advice Pmomma.

Cogito said...

Thanks for sharing - some interesting questions there. Our four and half year old doesn't know we are atheists per se, but she does parse her experiences without any theistic background, which can be very telling (as you can see from my blog stories). Today she told me that our neighbor's dog got on an airplane and is going to fly around forever and not be able to come home. I gather from this that the neighbor dad told her that the dog is "up in heaven" or some such, and she filled in the rest using her materialistic frame of reference.

As for dating, I feel like I have less reason to worry, as both of ours are girls, and cool atheistic chicks are a rare thing (sadly), so they at least have the gender ratio working for them.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about spanking. I can probably count on one hand the total number of times I spanked both of my kids. As Cryptic said, when they're very young, a parent sometimes has to send an immediate, effective message.

I also agree, for the most part, with the idea that there is "no reason to spank a child old enough to speak." Children understand a lot of speech before they are able to speak articulately themselves. Therefore, one does not need to wait until kids are 3 or 4 to start explaining things to them. When my kids were very young, I provided simple explanations about why things should be done a certain way, or not done at all. My kids understood those explanations and usually accepted them.

Granted, I've got really good-natured kids who were basically easy to raise. Still, I like to think our child-rearing practices had some part in shaping their agreeable natures.

Charred Atheist said...

Thanks a lot for this advice Pmomma. When I have kids I'm going to strive to be as open (but still true to myself) as you are with your family!

William Nedblake said...

Always good to have extra parenting information from sources that I can trust. I have twins (aged 7, boy and girl) who spend about a third of their time with my wife and I (secular non-theists), and the rest with their mother and her husband (of indeterminate theistic bent - we don't really talk about it). They're really good kids, on the whole, and as bright and interested in the world around them as anyone could ask.

Right now, though, the last thing in the world that I want to think about is them finding partners / mates / good friends... I'm doing my best to instill only healthy skepticism and sense of when to question authority in them, and to let them make their own choices, with appropriate guidance.

At any rate, if I ever come up with a good question, rest assured, I'll be dropping a line.

Bwian said...

Well, I suppose I'll buck the trend and say I'm an atheist parent who "believes in" spanking. Which is to say, I'll agree with crypticlife's definition of it as an averse stimulus. And I haven't seen the correlation between onset of talking and onset of reasoning that people seem to be taking for granted here.

Now, all that said, spanking is not a common punishment at our house. But it is one that has been tried, when other methods have failed.