Hi. Welcome back.
I didn’t set out to make this such a long series, but here we are. In Part 1, I wrote about my own awakening as an atheist in my adult life. Part 2 was more or less my decision not to contribute to my Knucklehead’s Christian upbringing, without pitting a young child one household against another. Today, I’d like to write about how I positively contributed to my boy’s ethical development without religion. But to do that, you need to understand something of my parenting style. So we begin with a digression: The Lesson of the Supermarket.
I’ve always believed that the primary purpose of childhood is to prepare children not so much to be good children, but to be good adults. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be room for childish things in childhood – knuckleheadhood should be loaded with this stuff. But as a child looks to the adults in her life, she will catch glimpses of how adult life is to be lived. It’s her opportunity to see adults in action, which makes it our opportunity to provide something of a DVD commentary on what’s going on in our own world.
The Lesson of the Supermarket is to keep up a constant patter while you and your knucklehead are out and about. This is important for two reasons.
First, if you look at a supermarket from a toddler’s point of view, it’s a meltdown waiting to happen. Your child is in an adult environment in which most of the things he’s interested in – running, drawing, playing with toys, screaming, throwing things, kicking things – are forbidden. Your child is expected to behave with the patience fewer and fewer adults are exhibiting nowadays. Ignoring your child, or simply telling him to be good or still or quiet or whatever, is like soaking the house in gasoline before lighting the match. And, sorry, but the shopping carts shaped like fire trucks and race cars are good for one thing: teaching our precious children that life is bullshit. After about three minutes they realize that the little steering wheel does nothing to get them to the candy aisle, and is there just to placate them. Trust me, you can see it in their faces. Talking with your kid, engaging him in what you’re doing, at the very least tells him you haven’t forgotten about him. That he matters to you as much as the cans of creamed corn do.
Secondly, you can start to introduce your child to adult reasoning. For example:
“I shop based on the meals we’re going to have this week. Meat’s usually the most expensive, so I’m going to look at what meat is on sale, and base my meals around that. For example, if the meatloaf mix is on sale, that’s a good time to make meatloaf, and since we like to have mashed potatoes with meatloaf, I know that I’m going to pick up the stuff for that. But I also like to throw in some meatless meals, so I usually look at what we haven’t had in a while. I have two recipes for mac & cheese, but the really good one is loaded with calories, so I try not to make that too often. I’m going to need your help picking out vegetables. Think about what you like, but also think about what the meal will look like. If you have a plate of mac & cheese, for example, it usually looks better to go with a green vegetable so the dinner looks more interesting. Make sure you have some favorite veggies you can look forward to, but be sure to mix it up over a week as well. Ice cream is on sale this week, so we’ll get that, but I like to wait and get the cold things last so they don’t melt….”
And like that. Your kid doesn’t need to remember any of what you’re saying, but over the years she starts getting the sense of what goes into this particular adult activity.* If your kid starts to ask questions, all the better. Now it’s a dialogue. If you carry this same patter into other adult activities – washing the car, running errands, pulling weeds in the garden – like a pointillist painting, a portrait of adult life starts to emerge. The daily activities you carry out begin to make sense.
Teaching ethics to my son, it turned out, was no different. I was worried that I didn’t yet have a comprehensive philosophy put together that I could present to him. My worry turned out to be baseless. As in The Lesson of the Supermarket, the patter would bring it all together.
Each day we had together, at some point, we’d talk about how our day was. Usually, this was done while driving, or over a game of catch in the back yard, or while tucking in bed at the end of the day. In addition to the nuts and bolts of an average American adult day, I’d always tell him something about my feelings during the day. Often I found myself talking about things that made me feel good. That usually came from doing something morally satisfying.
As a nurse, my job was to help families make it through a tough time with as little pain and fear as possible. On nights when my duties would permit me to talk with someone the way I wanted to, I felt like I’d made a difference. That made me feel good. I’d tell Knucks about that. If I was having a problem with a co-worker, I might paint that out in broad strokes for The Knucklehead, talking out loud about options I had for dealing with that. Maybe I’d talk about something as simple as helping an older person with their groceries at the supermarket. Simple courtesies were touched on, as a means of cataloguing how I helped make my community a little bit better. When I did something to help, I felt good about myself. When I missed an opportunity, I felt bad. Sometimes I would suck it up and do my job as a moral parent and tell Knucks about where I’d blown it and how that made me feel.
We’d talk about current events. Especially in an election year, that’s a great way to define your values. I remember a conversation with Knucks when he was five years old, on an issue that was controversial among his extended family:
Knucks: I don’t think it’s right for men to marry men.
Me: Really? Why?
Knucks: I don’t know. It isn’t right.
Me: I don’t have a problem with that. I look at “who is it hurting?” and I don’t see anybody it hurts. Besides, we need more love in this world. I don’t like the idea of saying “no” to that.
But one of the best ways to really narrow down your moral beliefs is with your wallet. Being an atheist, I do not put money into an offering plate. That means I need to make conscious decisions about where charitable donations go, if I’m going to make them at all. Each paycheck, I make a donation to a different cause, generally circling back to a few favorites. Each paycheck, that’s an ethical decision, and to this day I’ll talk with Knucks about where the money goes. Do I stay local, or make a donation to a cause outside my community, or my nation? Should I donate just to immediate human needs (health care, hunger, housing), or to education and the arts? What about donating where I see an opportunity to fight injustice? If an organization I don’t like or agree with is involved in a worthy project, should I still give them my money? Should I donate to popular causes, or try to seek out causes that aren’t as newsworthy? Answering these questions, week after week, brings your values into focus. Talking about them with your kid clarifies values for both of you.
That’s why I said last week that it was The Knucklehead who helped me to find my ethical compass. Through a thousand little questions, decisions, small acts, and contributions, my own moral framework began to take shape. The responsibility to pass that on to another human being unveiled what was there all along.
Now we get to the tough part. I had thought that my moral framework was a Christian one. I thought it was Bible-based. I was worried that I was discarding something that had gotten me through the first 30 years of my life. As it turned out, I had not been turning to the Bible, or to my religion for moral guidance all along. If you’re Christian, chances are you haven’t been doing it, either. Let me explain.
The Christian Bible is really not all that helpful as an ethical text. It is possible for people to read the Bible and come away inspired, or with an insight into an ethical problem. But that’s not because of the instruction it contains. It’s because of the interpretation the reader brings to it. When Christians read the Bible, they do so with an editorial eye. No one follows biblical advice to the letter: to do so would land you in prison for stoning infidels, starting with family members. Among many other things. So, Christians discard some teachings as archaic, and rightfully so. But to do so means you’re bringing in a judgment outside the text itself for justification. As you read, you are making decisions about what you will follow, and what you will not. And Christians have been doing this for so long, that it’s automatic. Most Christians don’t even realize they’re doing it.
Let’s take the Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus advises us to “turn the other cheek.” Sounds great, right? It’s a beautiful thought. Very Zen. But if you think about it for two minutes, you realize that you can’t possibly apply it to all situations. Would you tell a child sexually abused by an adult that he should “turn the other cheek”? Is this how we combat bullying in our schools? By that advice, bullying isn’t something that ought to be opposed at all. Would you offer this advice to a woman in an abusive relationship? To the victims of Bernie Madoff? Is this the response we took as a nation in World War II? After 9/11?
My point isn’t that “turn the other cheek” is bad advice. It’s wonderful advice; without forgiveness, human relationships are impossible. My point is that the text gives us no help in figuring out when we should shrug off an insult or injury, and when it is necessary to pursue justice. When you read “turn the other cheek” you are making a judgment call on how that advice is to be used in real life. The Bible does not spell it out. Jesus applies none of what he says to modern life. How could he? It’s why there is so much disagreement among Christians about how their texts should be interpreted.
Need more proof? Try “Thou shalt not kill.” Sounds pretty direct, but we wriggle off that hook on a daily basis.
Every Christian makes decisions about her faith from outside her faith. Each of us ultimately decides whether what we are hearing is what we want to embrace. Even the decision to follow blindly is a conscious decision, that must be renewed with each ethical decision. That’s how I discovered I hadn’t lost anything when I discarded my attempts at believing in God. That ethical framework was there all along, and remained with me as I raised my son. All I’d done was take the cover off it.
As to where that ethical framework came from, I don’t know. Probably some of it was innate. I’m sure a lot had to do with the influences I had growing up, including my family and church attendance. Those of you who believe in a god will tell me that he was guiding me all along, without my knowledge (if so, I’d like to thank him for guiding me to atheism; for me, it’s much calmer here). I doubt I will ever really know the source of my morality. But for those of us who don’t feel a divine presence in our lives, inventing one isn’t a satisfying solution. I’d rather be unsure than tell myself a lie.
I don’t write this to attack anyone’s religion. I write this for two reasons. First, to illustrate that a drive for goodness and justice is not the exclusive provenance of religion. I, and many billions more around the world, fight for equality and justice without belief in a god. To be atheist is not to be amoral. Secondly, The Lesson of the Supermarket does not depend on a belief or non-belief in a higher power. Talk to your knucklehead about your ethical life. To do so, even (especially!) in the most mundane and ordinary contexts will speak louder to your child than any other voice in her life.
I’ll save some concluding thoughts for next week. See you in Part 4.
*Did you spot the secondary gain? You also get your child more invested in what they’re eating, so you can cut down on the drama at mealtimes. I know, sometimes they’re just going to be oppositional no matter what. But this helps.