The Best Practices Model

Religion provides parents with answers. But on one parenting topic after an-other—moral development, sexuality, dealing with death, child discipline, avoiding substance abuse, and more—a growing body of research across multiple disciplines shows that traditional religious answers often get it precisely wrong. It isn't just a matter of "different strokes"—ignoring the best of our knowledge in favor of conservative religious practice often results in impaired moral development,2 more dysfunctional behavior,3 equal or greater rates of teen pregnancy, a more confused attitude toward death, and equal or greater alcohol and drug abuse than scientifically informed secular approaches—a sobering pattern explored throughout this book.

So it isn't surprising that so many religious and nonreligious parents alike are walking away from these counterproductive ideas. But even as bad answers are discarded, the questions remain. In addition to searching out the best insights from research, nonreligious parents are turning to each other, building an informed and continuously tested consensus on the best practices for non-religious parenting.

"Best practices" are practices that have been found most effective in a given field. In the absence of a single authority, nonreligious parents are developing their own set of best practices, informed by scientific research and shaped by their own experiences.

Perhaps most important of all, best practices are not commandments carved in stone but an evolving set of guidelines—a kind of cultural Wiki, continuously edited and re-edited by those who are testing its assumptions on a daily basis.

After nearly three years of research, travel, teaching, and discussion, I offer the following evolving list of nine best practices for nonreligious parenting:

1. Encourage ever-wider circles of empathy. Worldview, race, nationalism, and various other chauvinisms cut us off from empathy with the rest of humanity. Nonreligious parents should encourage their children to reach beyond such artificial boundaries.

2. Encourage active moral development. Children can and should be encouraged to develop active moral reasoning by understanding the reasons to be and do good.

3. Promote ravenous curiosity. An active and insatiable curiosity is the key to learning and the engine of a productive and engaged life.

4. Teach engaged coexistence. Religion in some form will always be with us. Our job is to raise kids to coexist with religion while engaging and challenging its adherents to make its effects more humane—and inviting the same in return.

5. Encourage religious literacy. Children must be made knowledgeable about religion without being indoctrinated into religion.

6. Leave kids unlabeled. Calling a child a "Christian" or an "atheist" is counterproductive to encouraging genuine freethought. It is just as dishonest to label a child with a complex worldview as to call her a "Republican" or a "Marxist."

7. Make death natural and familiar. By shielding our children too completely from the contemplation of death, we set them up for a much more difficult and dysfunctional adult relationship with mortality.

8. Invite the questioning of authority. At the heart of freethought is the rejection of the argument from authority. Encourage children to ask for the reasons behind rules and the reasoning behind answers.

9. Normalize disbelief. There is no greater contribution nonreligious parents can make to their children's future as freethinkers than to make religious disbelief a normal, unexceptional option in our culture.

These practices require a guiding philosophy as well—the philosophy of humanism, one rooted in the dual principles of love and reason so beautifully captured by the Bertrand Russell quote that begins Parenting Beyond Belief. "The good life," Russell noted, "is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge." Freethought, in its pursuit of knowledge, too often leaves the principles of love and compassion to fend for themselves. This is the point at which science and reason become unmoored and alienating. Without compassion and a deep-seated empathy, our freethinking principles become too detached from our humanity to do us any good.

Even a parent who agrees that the practices are sound will have countless questions about how to actually achieve them: How can I teach my kids to engage religion productively? How can I make them literate without indoctrinating them? How can I engender that ravenous curiosity, comfort them in the face of death, push out the boundaries of empathy? These and over 100 other questions form the backbone of this book. Each chapter begins with an introduction to frame the chapter topic, followed by "Questions and Answers" featuring many of the most common questions voiced by nonreligious parents. Each then concludes with specific activities to engage the topic with your kids and/or partner, and a carefully selected list of resources for further exploration.

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