At the end of our annual summer trip to visit family in northwest Indiana, my mother drove me and my sons to the Chicago O’Hare airport, and, as she had every trip before this one, acted as our tour guide during the entire ride. She detailed the histories and functions of the steel mills as we passed Lake Michigan’s southern shore. Then, as we made our way north through downtown, she shared what she knew about Chicago’s many skyscrapers and neighborhoods. She spoke almost without pause for an hour, and I grew agitated in the passenger seat. I wanted silence – an opportunity for the kids to look out at the Windy City and experience the kind of awe I'd experienced the first time I walked through New York City, struck with wonder as I gazed up at its buildings and made my way through the throngs of tourists and inhabitants.
“Please, stop tour guiding,” I begged as we cruised up Lakeshore Drive. “Let them just look and wonder. Let a question arise in their minds.”
After a few refreshing minutes of silence, my oldest son said, “I wonder why the first skyscraper was built,” and I breathed a sigh of relief.
It's precisely this kind of wondrous moment upon which the book "Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief" (co-authored by Dale McGowan, Molleen Matsumura, Amanda Metskas, and Jan Devor) teaches secular parents to capitalize. Focusing on “the moment of the question” as the foundation for all free-thought parenting, the approach holds fast to the idea that, in contrast to most Western religious belief systems, there are no un-askable questions and no unthinkable thoughts. “I want the idea that questions can be feared because of the answers they might produce to baffle my kids,” writes co-author Dale McGowen.
When my kids asked me how deep the lake that borders our city is, I followed "Raising Freethinkers’" instructions to reflect the wonder back to the child as a starting point for instilling critical thinking skills, so I didn’t immediately provide them with a measurement. I let them consider the answer for a while as they peered over the edge of a kayak into the water’s depths.
“How deep do you think it might be?” I began, and they replied that they couldn’t see the bottom so it must be really deep.
“What makes you think that?” I asked, and they said that in the shallow water they could see the bottom of the lake.
“If there are only little fish in the shallow water, what do you think might live in the deep water?” I asked, and, thus, the conversation continued with opportunities to add information about freshwater ecosystems and threats to its environmental health.
When it comes to informing my kids about religion, I’m more inclined to swiftly provide the “right” answers than I am to invite wonder and curiosity. Though my goal is to give them accurate details about the major religions practiced in the world coupled with a healthy dose of skepticism without imposing my own cynicism, it hasn’t always been an easy balance to strike. Especially when my mother, in my absence, explains rainbows as “God’s promise to never flood the earth again” and thunder as “angels bowling in heaven.”
My kids chuckled at these magical explanations, describing to me, unprompted, the science of rainbows and thunderstorms which made their grandmother’s explanation seem silly to them, but my internal alarms were raised. As an atheist humanist who gave Christianity a thorough and sincere chance at securing me among its ranks, I’ve long since positioned myself firmly in the nonbeliever camp. I aim to raise my children to critically consider the world around them by inviting them to ask the kinds of questions that religion had expressly banned in my own childhood.
Instead of allowing the rising internal panic to grip me or giving in to the urge to trivialize or mock my mother’s explanation, I applied "Raising Freethinkers’" wonder-and-curiosity method to my kids’ comments about the rainbow and thunder. We talked not only about how these atmospheric features occur scientifically, but also about the reasons people believe stories that science deems untrue.
A few weeks later my oldest son came to me and said, “Mom, I think I figured out why people believe in heaven.”
“Why do you think?” I asked.
“Because it feels good for people who are alive to think that death isn’t the end. That way, it’s less sad to lose people you love,” he said.
Here he'd moved beyond a polarizing clash of beliefs to get at the real issue, the existential, human heart of it. This was exactly the kind of thoughtful critical thinking I had hoped our conversation would invite.
With endless information available at our fingertips, I’ve worried about the welfare of childhood wonder and, by extension, curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking. My kids, now seven and eight years old, know that I can instantly look up the answer to many of their questions by typing them into my Google search bar. Sometimes I oblige them and provide prompt answers, but lately I’ve been more reticent.
Harnessing the real potential of their wonder requires their own internal contemplation and quiet moments spent simply witnessing the world and thinking about how it works. I’m trying to make more room for that process. My role as a parent, I’ve determined in part by reading "Raising Freethinkers," is not to just recite correct answers or impose preferred beliefs, but rather to invite questions and provide the opportunity to think autonomously.
Not every moment of wonder is as easy to navigate as explaining a rainbow, but the approach for fostering wonder into curiosity and, later, layering that curiosity with “art, science, and the joy of questioning itself,” as the authors put it, is consistent in the free-thought approach. "Raising Freethinkers" insists on a commitment to the word “free,” which means that no question is off limits for fear of its answer, even – or especially – ones with potentially difficult or uncomfortable answers, like questions about bodies, sexuality, and religion.
To help parents formulate responses and follow-up questions to moments of wonder, dialogue scenarios, family activities, and age- and topic-specific Q & A scenarios are provided throughout the book. Topics covered include helping kids understand the risks of sexual activity and develop mutual respect in intimate relationships without letting notions of sin and shame attach feelings of guilt to pleasure; managing the social consequences of being a secular family in religion-dominant settings; creating and contemplating a meaningful and ethical life outside of religion; attaining religious literacy without indoctrination; and creating traditions by celebrating life’s milestones and nature’s rhythms.
"Raising Freethinkers" has helped prepare me for the many scenarios my kids will face as they begin to define their own beliefs, including respectfully navigating social and institutional spaces where their beliefs may clash with the beliefs of the majority, creating meaningful community as a secular family, and handling questions about life and death. In this philosophical approach to parenting and living, there’s “no rock that can’t be upended if you think there might be something under it. And, of course, there always, always might.”