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Freethinking Parenting

Seth recently expressed some opinions about freethought parenting. It’s a topic worthy of it’s own post, so I’ll respond here.

Any parent who thinks they are going to raise their own kids without forcing their own biases on the little tykes is just fooling themselves. In fact, letting your kids choose for themselves is even more damaging than imposing your belief system on them. My kids may grow up to resent my religion. They may rebel against me. But even then, at least they’ll have a direction in life – a point of reference. I’m doing them a favor.

Better than some so-called open-minded parents who essentially feed the kids to the wolves and tell them to sort out their own beliefs – in spite of the fact that the kid is freaking FIVE YEARS OLD and hasn’t got the first idea of how to form a belief system. Kids come into the world naturally looking to mom and dad to give them some direction. Refusing to provide that direction isn’t just bad parenting, it’s irresponsible and mean.

Parents need to grow a spine and realize that parenting isn’t some cosmopolitan personal vanity project. It isn’t about whether you appear to be fair, or whether you look “open-minded,” or whether you’re “the cool dad,” or whether you’re meeting some self-help book’s guidelines. It’s about raising kids. And it really isn’t about you.

Who cares if you end up looking like some close-minded zealot? The point is whether the kids turned out all right. Loss of “hipness” is a small price to pay for well-raised kids.

Yikes, Seth. Where to begin?

I think you’ve created quite a strawman for yourself of a aimless, convictionless, spineless parent who avoids taking a firm stand for fear that the child will disagree or dislike the parent. That may be true of some parents, but luckily that’s not what freethinking parenting is all about. Freethinking parents won’t necessarily end up on Supernanny because they fail to set boundaries for their children.

Reading Parenting Beyond Belief would help give you a better idea of what being a freethinking parent can and should be. Barring that, reading through the archives of the book’s blog can give you a flavor as well.

I don’t see that children need to stake out a metaphysical position about the reality of the resurrection, for example. I have seen no evidence that allowing them to keep religion an open question for later when they’re older is going to harm them.

Of course children are going to be heavily influenced by their parents. That’s the nature of childhood. Parents who are aware of their influence can try to avoid imposing their own beliefs as much as possible on issues that don’t concern the immediate health and safety of the child. Throwing up our hands in surrender just because some amount of biasing is inevitable is something like deciding that we’re going to be angry at our child sometimes so why fight it? Fostering free thought and questioning is important enough that an effort should be made to reduce how much we impose our beliefs on our children.

Freethinking parents still have rules designed to keep a child safe, healthy, and happy. I have a very strong bias against letting my small children play in the street and I’m not afraid to impose that bias on them. I also expect them to play nicely together. When the time comes, I will have some strong opinions about dating and sex. In other words, being a freethinking parent doesn’t look all that different than any other parent most of the time.

The differences in parenting styles start to creep in when we teach our children about how to address questions that they have. Freethinking parents are more concerned with teaching children how to think rather than what to think. I want to give my girls the tools they need to learn and decide for themselves rather than spoon-feed them my regurgitated opinions.

I might offer them my thoughts, but I usually follow that up by asking “What do you think?” I then follow up their answers with questions of my own, directing them and helping them to see where their thinking may be faulty. In other words, I offer my thoughts up as points of discussion and questioning, not the final word which ends discussion.

Far from being wishy-washy parenting, this is a firm stand that says “Question authority—even my own.” This is not for the faint of heart. It’s not easy to allow your authority and rules to be questioned, and it’s a fine line to tread before this descends into chaos. Freethinking parents still need to have the final say, but they entertain discussion and might even change their mind if the child has a valid point.

Freethinking parents try to help their children explore their world in ways that are appropriate for their age and capabilities. They teach them how to interrogate their world. They prepare them to be independent adults who aren’t dependent on the dictates of authority figures to help them decide what is reasonable and true. They train their children to develop and trust their inner sense of reason. This is not spineless parenting in absentia.

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  1. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 5:59 am

    From the other post, let me add that the LDS church’s current proclivity to subsume a child’s thinking to the opinions of the community and its leaders (groupthink) is one of the cultish aspects that makes it inimical to freethinking.

    “Follow the prophet, follow the prophet,
    Follow the prophet; don’t go astray.
    Follow the prophet, follow the prophet,
    Follow the prophet he knows the way.”

  2. Seth R. said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 6:57 am

    To clarify, I don’t mean atheists.

    I think this is a trend just as much among the churched as the unchurched.

    Atheists can have just as much of a strong set of beliefs and values as Southern Baptists.

  3. Seth R. said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 6:58 am

    Now, with that out of the way, I have to actually read the rest of the post.

  4. Seth R. said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 9:35 am

    I doubt we’re really all that much on different wavelengths. But you might find this article from Orson Scott Card interesting:

  5. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 10:07 am

    Interesting essay. I sympathize completely with this statement:

    In this way, Alma the Younger’s conversion experience, like Saul’s on the road to Damascus, is metaphorically what we all experience when we are truly converted: The old self, the old worldview, is killed. We are no longer the person we were. Nothing looks the same afterward.

    But that’s beside the point. His idea of deep religion is insightful, and I agree that we can’t help but have that rub off on our children. That doesn’t preclude us from allowing them to make their own choices about surface religion, from requiring our children to think for themselves by not being too quick to provide our own answers, and from seeking to make them aware of the nature of our deep religion.

    For example, one precept of my deep religion that I am aware of is that truth leads to good things. I would usually rather know the miserable truth than be blissfully ignorant. I think everyone would be better off if we all felt that same compulsion to know the truth.

    That aspect of my deep religion will rub off on my children to some degree. Where I disagree with Card is that I don’t think we need to surrender to this process. Mindful awareness of our deep religion can bring it into the realm of conscious reasoning. I have a chance at changing it if necessary. I can make my children aware of this deep assumption and they can make their own choices. In this way, they can ideally be as free from the traditions of their fathers as they choose to be.

    I’m sure that our differences is only a matter of degrees. Card probably sees parenting something like sculpting topiary. He plans to deliver a carefully pruned adult to the world, shaped by the beliefs of its parents. I plan to nurture my children and watch their natural form and beauty unfold. I aim to use as little pruning as necessary to keep them healthy so that I can discover who they are instead of consciously imposing my ideas on them.

  6. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 10:41 am

    In fact, the whole idea of not forcing religion on children is really an attempt to force open-mindedness on them. But children don’t want that kind of open-mindedness. They want answers to their questions. If they don’t get them from you, they’ll get them from somebody.

    I meant to respond specifically to this as well. I think this comes from a misunderstanding of what parental open-mindedness can be. An example:

    Child: Do you believe in God?

    Parent: No, I don’t. What do you think about God?

    C: I don’t know. Other kids believe in God.

    P: Do they say why they believe in God?

    C: Janie said that she believed in God because the Bible says he’s real.

    P: Do you think that’s a good reason?

    C: I guess.

    P: Do you think everything that you read is true?

    C: No.

    P: Do you think everything in the Bible is true?

    C: I don’t know. I haven’t really read it.

    P: Maybe we should study the Bible together…

    The child definitely knows what the parent’s beliefs are, but there is never the assumption that the child must share those beliefs or that the child even should.

  7. Seth R. said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 11:10 am

    I suppose if you were a homeschooler, we could debate the relative merits of “unschooling” vs. the “classical method” of homeschooling. A heated debate, I assure you.

    I don’t really think it’s fair to kids to make them make up their own minds until they actually have a mind to make up in the first place.

  8. BEEHIVE said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

    I agree that we need to let our children trust their inner self and respect their answers with out trying to swade them one way or the other. When my son told me that he belived in God, but could not tell me why only that he “got a good feeling” I can not and should not try to explain what those feeings might be.

    I think there is a huge difference between guiding vs telling children what they should believe in. If the church is saying that an 8 yr old has the capasity to choose and be baptized, than I belive that the church should teach primary children how to deduct if the church is true and be baptized. If the church can not do this because children don’t have the ability to reason their choices, than 8 year old should not be taking that huge responsibility.

  9. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 3:59 pm


    I am a new homeschooler (meaning mostly that I support my wife in homeschooling), and I bet you can guess which side of that debate I would probably take. :)

    And who’s talking about making the kids make up their minds? I try to make it clear that they are free to change their minds as often as they think necessary or free to reserve judgment until they know more. All of us could probably use a little more of this strategy in our lives. I mean, who really knows what the best thing to do in Iraq is? Most of us are just armchair generals.


    Agreed. I think eight years old is old enough to make lifelong commitments. Why the rush? I think Mormons rush them into those commitments because they’re afraid that the children won’t make them if they’re older and more independent. Baptizing at eight kind of gets the ball rolling for making commitments to the church.

  10. C. L. Hanson said,

    April 9, 2008 @ 8:03 am

    I want to give my girls the tools they need to learn and decide for themselves rather than spoon-feed them my regurgitated opinions.

    I talked about this a bit on my own blog recently here.

    I think it’s not such an uncommon opinion in the atheist community. I just saw a related post here — not specifically about parenting, but about the importance of encouraging critical thinking rather than trying to get people to accept atheism unquestioningly:

    And that’s why I think that turning people away from religion is not enough. Instead, the primary goal of an atheist movement should be to instill in people the value of rational thinking. I’m worried that, as atheism gains in popularity, we will see a bunch of bandwagon-jumpers climbing on board because it is the thing to do rather than because they have thought critically about the issues. The truth is that most people do not think for themselves – they like to follow the crowd and do what they are told. That is the disease we need to combat in this world.

  11. Dale McGowan said,

    April 9, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

    I don’t really think it’s fair to kids to make them make up their own minds until they actually have a mind to make up in the first place.

    Which is precisely why the entire question can wait until they are old enough to work it out for themselves.

    You’ve started with the assumption that they need a metaphysical stance of some kind at the age of five — and since they can’t sort it out for themselves, we need to do it for them. Why on Earth do they need to be declared, one way or the other, on issues of this kind in childhood? Do they have to be labeled Democrats or Republicans? Marxists or capitalists? Of course not. So why can we not simply leave them to their thoughts on the matter of religion, free to declare — and to change their minds repeatedly — once they are older?

  12. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 14, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

    I think eight years old is old enough to make lifelong commitments.

    I meant that I don’t think eight is old enough.

    Dale McGowan,

    I must say I feel like a celebrity has visited my humble blog. Pardon me if I gush.

    I completely agree with what you said.

  13. chandelle said,

    April 18, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

    this is a great post. we’re “freethought” parents also. our kids are still very young, and i recognize that things may change in the future. but for right now, i want to support and promote independent thought as much as i possibly can. we are an “alternative” family in dozens of ways. i am preparing for the day when our children make opposite choices to ours. i’m preparing for them be mainstream in every way, to backlash against every thoughtful decision we’ve made. i’m preparing to say that i love them no matter what they do and for that to be true. i’m preparing myself against conditional affection. i stand by that idea: “question authority, even mine.” the last thing i want is to contribute to another generation of automatons.

    jon, are you and your wife doing a particular homeschooling method? my husband teaches at a waldorf school and our son goes there for now, but the ideals of unschooling really click with us as well. i haven’t found a homeschooling curriculum that makes sense to me.

  14. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 18, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

    Unschooling makes sense to me, though I get the feeling that my wife is more comfortable with a little more structure, perhaps for her own sake as much as the girls’. We’re just beginning homeschooling so we’ve yet to settle on any particular method. If anyone knows of anything interesting, I’m all ears. :)

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