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Skeptical Parenting: Raising Young Critical Thinkers

Article

Heidi Anderson

Volume 33.6, November / December 2009

There comes a moment in every parent’s life when your child asks you the question you most feared hearing from your dear one’s lips.

“Mom?”

“Yes, honey?”

“Where did people come from?”

“You mean babies? Well, um, first the man takes his penis and . . .”

“No, no, I mean the very first people. Where did the first people on Earth come from?”

I was dumbfounded. What could I say? I knew this moment was coming and yet was completely unprepared. I would be more than happy to discuss sex with him, but evolution? How could I explain evolution to my three-year-old when I myself was fuzzy on the process? I was, after all, the product of the South Carolina public education system.

And that is when I said the worst possible thing any parent can say to a child asking about this controversial subject. No, I did not tell him that we came from God or that we were planted here millennia ago as an extraterrestrial experiment. I told him something much, much worse.

“Baby, one day monkeys turned into people.”

Skepticism is a worldview that has come to me slowly over the years, under less than illustrious circumstances. Although I had been an atheist for years, I was not practicing critical thinking and had never heard of skepticism. Due to hormonally-based “appreciation” of a certain skeptical magician, I began to listen to the now-defunct Penn Radio show. One of his guests was Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer. After hearing Phil on the show, I went to his blog and was hooked. With Penn and Phil acting as the gateway drugs of skepticism, I quickly found myself needing harder and harder fixes. I listened to Point of Inquiry and Skepticality, read the blog of P.Z. Myers, and devoured the writings of both Richard Dawkins and Neil de Grasse Tyson. Ultimately, I went to the source of the love and appreciation of science and critical thinking for many of us in the movement, the works of Carl Sagan. He was my heroin of skepticism. There was no going back to the dark for this small-town Southern girl. I had become a full-blown skeptic.

Although being a skeptic usually involves many, if not all, aspects of a person’s life, turning the skeptical lens on our personal lives is sure to bring attention to the most sacred of cows. How do you put critical thinking into practice without losing friends and alienating family? Although my husband and I had agreed to raise our children without religion, I found myself wanting to go even further. I wanted to help my children develop critical thinking skills I had only recently acquired myself.

Why Parent at All?

Many of the skeptical parents I talked with came to skepticism after having children and admitted that choosing to become a parent was not always a rational decision. Even for those of us who planned our parenthood, many of us did it because it just “felt right” or seemed like the “right next step” in our life plan. Though not logical, our love for children and desire to have them was reason enough. Sara Rosinsky of Lakeland, Florida, admits that choosing to have a child was a “bit of a leap of faith,” an approach that can be quite foreign to many skeptics. Jason and Kim Bilotta of Punta Gorda, Florida, said that although they discussed the pros and cons of having children, they are not entirely sure if the decision could be considered rational.

Of course, having children greatly reduces free time available for skeptic-related activities. Blogs, books, and magazine articles can get pushed to the wayside after the arrival of children, and funds that would go to registration at the Amaz!ng Meeting or a Center for Inquiry conference often go for private school tuition or medical care (not that I am bitter). In fact, it is not surprising to this author that many of the most prolific writers/activists/members of this movement are either women without small children or men.

Raising Skeptics

Once parenthood is achieved—by choice or by happenstance—the challenge of raising a child to be a critical thinker begins. So many of us were indoctrinated with a religious or political worldview as children and want nothing more than to avoid indoctrination in our own families. So what should the goal be? Are we trying to raise a flock of miniature James Randi clones? Do we want to tell our children what skepticism says the world is or, as Jeff Wagg, communications director for the James Randi Educational Foundation, says, accept that “the process teaches kids to think about things.” Critical thinking and science are tools to learn about the world, and teaching our children to correctly use these tools will help them not only to understand the true nature of the world but be the innovators and visionaries of the next generation.

Children are born scientists. Toddlers are tiny behavioral psychologists taking detailed notes on just how many times the large people in charge will bend over and pick up the sippee cup hurled at their heads. This curiosity can be harnessed and used for less painful lessons by encouraging a dialogue with your child. When your child asks you why the sky is blue, which Jeff Wagg claims is a deceptively complicated answer, ask her what she thinks and then research the topic together. You can even help your child design experiments; you can ask her what her hypothesis is and then help her to test and retest the hypothesis to form a theory. This works especially well in crowded stores when she asks you what you are going to do if she refuses to stop screaming at you while stamping her feet!

Science can be woven into children’s lives at every opportunity. Sara Rosinsky, mother of ten-year-old Helen, says that “Science is the soundtrack by which we live our lives.” There are many new and amazing resources available for bringing science to children. One of my favorites is www.CharliesPlayhouse.com, an online store with games and toys inspired by Charles Darwin. Children also love dinosaurs, a trait the Creation Museum in Kentucky exploits to get bodies in the door. Even children, though, can understand the foolishness of believing that dinosaurs and humans lived together in harmony before the fall of man or that the giant, sharp teeth of Tyrannosaurus Rex were used to eat plants before Eve ruined everything by eating the apple. The Creation Museum does score points, however, by offering children the chance to ride a triceratops. Science needs to work on that—perhaps by cloning!

The Real World

Although most of the parents I talked to were raising children with fellow skeptics, this is not always the case. Although my own lovely husband refuses to call himself a skeptic, he has been my best resource in learning the value of critical thinking. Perhaps it is less important that we wear the same team hat and more important that we agree on the importance of using evidence over faith in making decisions.

A few of the single parents I talk with struggle with exes who want children involved in organized religion. Even for those of us who are married to skeptics, extended family often presents many opportunities for children to be exposed to pronouncements about the world with which we disagree. In these instances, I find it helpful to tell my children that religion is what people “believe,” not what “is.”

When my children go to church with their grandparents, I tell them that while a man named Jesus probably existed 2,000 years ago, some people think he was the son of god and other people do not. I then tell my children that I see no evidence that such claims are true or that the Bible is anything other than a book of stories. We have also used the fantastical nature of biblical stories to explore the validity of miracles, and we question the lack of miracles present today. This approach must also be tempered with a warning to children to use discretion in talking with family and friends about religion. Grandma and Grampa may not be ready to hear their precious grandchild talk like Nietzsche.

Holidays and cultural celebrations can cause strife with family and friends but can also be used as another opportunity to teach critical thinking. It seems that many skeptics do what Michael Blanford, president of the Skeptical Society of St. Louis and father to three-year-old Atom, calls the “half-assed Santa” approach—you don’t tell the children there is a Santa but don’t tell them Santa is fake either. When the child is old enough to ask questions, the whole thing is presented as an exercise in skepticism, and the child is helped in drawing the correct conclusions through scientific inquiry. Brad Fusilier, president of the Southern Skeptical Society and father of four, asks his children “Why wouldn’t Santa be able to deliver 2.2 billion presents in twenty-four hours with or without time zones?” Again, though, as with religion, children must be warned that these matters should not always be discussed with other children. Hell hath no fury like a mother whose child has been told the truth about Santa against her will.

Skeptic parents consider the love of learning one of the most important values to pass on to their children. They often see themselves as their child’s first teacher and seek out the highest quality education available. Many of the people I talked to were fortunate enough to live in areas with excellent public schools and had no qualms about sending their children there. Others, like Myndee White of Lakeland, Florida, mother of sixteen-year-old Kyree, fourteen-year-old Nate, and eleven-year-old Tyson, found their best solution was to home-school the children for much of their educational career. Myndee tries very hard to keep the study of science fun and relevant to everyday life and has particularly enjoyed the Growing Up in the Universe series by Richard Dawkins. Still others, myself included, have chosen to send our children to private school to avoid poor-quality public schools and the lack of inquiry-based curriculum. (Plus, public school teachers in my town seem to be unappreciative of a child who respects evidence over authority!)

Before anyone reports me to Child Protective Services or, worse, to Richard Dawkins, I did go back and explain evolution to my child correctly. I told my son that I was not sure how evolution worked, and we went to the library and read as many books as they had on the subject. I then went online and ordered many amazing books on evolution written especially for children. (See Center for Inquiry librarian Tim Binga’s piece “Skeptical Books for Children and Young Adults,” on page 43.)

The point of that story is not that I was an idiot but that I took a question from my child and used it as an opportunity to help him learn the process of critical thinking. Instead of passing dogma down from generation to generation, skeptical parents seek to teach their children the importance of inquiry. Inquiry, and the willingness to consider ideas on the merit of their evidence, can make parenting more complicated and certainly more mentally exhaustive, but the results speak for themselves.

When one of my son’s friends told him that he had a ghost in his house and that the friend’s mother “confirmed” the story, my son was not frightened at all. He simply looked his friend in the eye, raised his eyebrow, and asked, “Where is your evidence?”

I have never been more proud in my life.

Heidi Anderson

Heidi Anderson is the development coordinator for a domestic violence/sexual assault services agency in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She is the mother of two incredibly smart sons and the wife of one incredibly patient man. Seh can be reached through her Web site, fatoneinthemiddle.com, where essays on skepticism, parenting, sexuality, and body image can be found.