The Inquiring Mind

Dale McGowan

How does white milk come from a red cow?

Why doesn't the sun fall down?

How is it that all rivers flow into the ocean without ever filling it?

These questions, which could have come from any child today, are from the Rig Veda, a 3000-year-old Hindu text—and wondering and questioning are surely much older still. Early Homo sapiens, endowed with the same cranial capacity as your Aunt Diane,1 had to be asking similar questions 125,000 years ago. And once oral language developed sufficiently to share these thoughts, parents and others around a child would have had to respond, one way or another, to the endless stream of questions.

It's the human impulse to wonder and ask questions that eventually gave birth to both religion and science, two different ways of responding to the same challenge: an overdeveloped neocortex hungry for answers.

In preparing to write this book, I plunged into the current parenting literature from many perspectives, including religious parenting books. Some are very sound, like the well-grounded work of Christian parenting author Dr. William Sears. Some are mixed, including (to my admitted surprise) James Dobson, who serves up some solid parenting advice along with his unfortunate enthusiasm for corporal punishment, gender stereotypes, and homophobia.

But if book sales and general prominence are any measure, one parenting author has had more to say about questioning and the life of the mind than any other: author and televangelist Joyce Meyer. Meyer has sold over a million copies of a book called Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind, for which this passage can serve as an encapsulation:

I once asked the Lord why so many people are confused and He said to me, "Tell them to stop trying to figure everything out, and they will stop being confused." I have found it to be absolutely true. Reasoning and confusion go together.

In 2006, Meyer issued a version of Battlefield of the Mind for teens, including passages like this:

I was totally confused about everything, and I didn't know why. One thing that added to my confusion was too much reasoning.

This mantra comes back again and again in her advice, in millions of books and throughout her broadcasting empire: Don't even start thinking. Most troubling of all is the attempt to make kids fear their own thoughts—right at the age they should be challenging and questioning in order to become autonomous adults:

Ask yourself, continually, "WWJT?" [What Would Jesus Think?] Remember, if He wouldn't think about something, you shouldn't either By keeping continual watch over your thoughts, you can ensure that no damaging enemy thoughts creep into your mind. (from Battlefield of the Mind for Teens)

Many progressive religious parents are outraged by Meyer's "fearthought" approach. But even those of us who don't consciously tt When University of Texas sociologists John P. Bartkowski and Christopher G. Ellison compared dozens of secular parenting books with conservative Protestant parenting manuals, they found that a literal interpretation of the Bible's childrear-ing advice contributed directly to a worship of authority in all spheres of life, including the political. . . . They also found that conservative evangelical parenting gurus disagreed with mainstream counterparts on virtually every issue. According to their study, secular, science-based parenting advice emphasizes personality adjustment, empathy, cooperation, creativity, curiosity, egalitarian relations between parents, nonviolent discipline, and self-direction. Conservative Protestants, on the other hand, stress a tightly hierarchical family structure and a gendered division of labor, with a breadwinning father at the top of the pyramid and children at the bottom. ^^

—Jeremy Adam Smith, senior editor, Greater Good magazine2

sign on to this kind of thinking must look it squarely in the eye—because it's in our cultural blood. Most of us were raised in homes that were religious to some degree, and many of us carry remnants of these fearful ideologies into our own parenting. Whether we are religious or nonreligious, our attitudes toward questioning and moral development too often include some undercurrent of anxiety and mistrust, the unspoken feeling that our primary job as parents is to stave off a bubbling depravity that lurks just below the surface of our children.

In this chapter, I hope to make the case that this trembling view of human nature is simply not borne out by the best of our knowledge. We will focus on the moment of the question, a moment that is the foundation of freethought parenting, encouraging an approach that holds no question unaskable and no thought unthinkable.

I want the idea that questions can be feared because of the answers they might produce to baffle my kids. I want them to find hilariously silly the idea that certain lines of thought cannot even be pursued, lest they be caught. That requires a certain amount of parental self-discipline. It requires the ability, for example, to not paint the far wall with soup when the 5-year-old asks if monkeys have vaginas, or why black people have big lips, or who will put her blankie on her grave when she dies—all three of which have come up at our dinner table. It requires a firm conviction that there is no rock that can't be upended if you think there might be something under it. And, of course, there always, always might.

Let's begin with a conversation about wonder and curiosity, the incentives that drive questioning, then dive into the art, science, and joy of questioning itself.

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