It always interests me when the subject of 'atheist parenting' comes up in the blogosphere. I find it slightly strange the way it is sometimes approached as a new phenomenon. For many deconverts, of course, it is a new idea, one that they have to work out for themselves as they anticipate having children. If I ever have children, however, raising them as atheists will hardly be new territory. I've seen it done. I've been on the receiving end of it!
This post is for some of the things I owe my mother; specifically, for some atheist things I owe her. I say my 'mother' because, well, Dad has always been the one with the full time job. He's around, and very loving when he is around, but it's my mother who had the greatest effect on the crucial things. So, with apologies to Dad, he's only going to appear in this post in the form of various side notes.
Not all of these things are confined to atheists. In fact, now I think of it, nearly all of them could have at least some applicability to a religious upbringing, depending on your level of liberalism. Nonetheless, they relate strongly to values associated with freethought. I have three subheadings.
One of my earliest memories is -- well, it's fragmentary these days, tied to a single picture and a dimly remembered feeling of fascination. The story goes like this.
You know how kids go through a stage where they're trying to distinguish between male and female? It takes a while to learn the little clues (Genuine memory that just flashed into my head: "Most of the time, long haired people are women. Some men have long hair, too, though." That's my mother, trying to explain some of the clues that might help. "Only men have beards" would have been a useful one; pity it's of such limited use. And so on.). Anyway, the way my mother tells it, I was about three and had developed an annoying habit of pointing to people in the supermarket saying "Mummy, mummy, that one there! Is that a man or a woman?"
Questions like that, spoken loudly in a public place, can be embarrassing. "Why, Mummy? Why is that a man?" I suspect the main reason my mother came up with this plan was as a way of shutting me up. "Wait until we get home and I'll explain," she told me, and I can't tell you if the impatience I remember is a real memory or a superimposed one; it was twenty years ago, after all. If it is a real memory, though, then I can tell you that it all sounded very mysterious and that I didn't like having to wait.
So we got home, and she went upstairs and got the book she'd used to tell me about where babies come from when she was expecting my little sister. It's a good book, full of actual scientific photographs. I know I have some memory of this book, because when I saw it, more than a decade later, I recognised the page that she had turned to for this explanation.
"These are chromosomes," she told me (I thought of them as 'krome-zomes' for years afterwards). "Boys have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome. Girls have two X chromosomes. The egg always has an X chromosome from the mother, but the sperm can have an X chromosome or a Y chromosome . . . "
What's the moral of this story? Tell your kids stuff. Encourage them to ask questions by giving them answers -- "I'll tell you when we get home" is a much better response than "Just be quiet and don't be rude." If they're listening and not bored, don't be scared of overloading them with information -- it took me a while to realise my mother was only referring to one out of twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, even though I'm sure she explained that at the time, but that was okay. I just filled in the details when I got older.
Oh, and if you're lucky, they'll make cute precocious statements. My father loves to tell the story of the man who came to visit when I was four who said to me "You're a very clever little girl, aren't you?" and received the response "That's because I have two X krome-zomes." My mother used to scoff at that story. "Of course she knew what chromosomes were. I told her."
Another one of my earliest memories is being given a small hand mirror by my mother so I could look at my vulva. As memories go, it pairs nicely with the previous one, both because I was about the same age and because I was at least as fascinated if not more so. If you're a girl, you can't necessarily see your genitals easily without a mirror. It's nice to know what's there.
When I mentioned this memory to my mother, she said she spent the whole time feeling terribly uncomfortable. If that's true, all I can say is that I owe her doubly for not communicating that to me at the time. This memory is only one small part of what it takes to build comfort with your own body, of course, but I'm sure it's crucial -- why else would I remember it so clearly?
Think about it. Generations of children were told at that age not to touch that part, and don't look at that part or think too much about it, and those are your secret parts, and whatever. And my mother? She gave me a mirror. I love her so much.
When I get into my teens, my mother also told me how to masturbate. Is that odd? It was a serviceable explanation, spoken in the rather factual but otherwise ordinary tone my mother usually retreats to when one of us brings up sexuality. My own feelings about sex are mixed and murky. (So are my mother's. Her early experiences of sex were rather unpleasant. Do I blame her? Yes and no.) I can't be ashamed of masturbation, though. It has no disadvantages. There's nothing for the shame to stick to.
Then there are the various books she supplied me with -- Our Bodies, Ourselves, and the one by Sheila Kitzinger with 'sex' in the title that I shelved spine-backwards at age sixteen when she gave it to me and then pulled out at age eighteen and read with fascination and occasional arousal. I quite like the idea of non-fiction as erotica, actually. I looked for that book when I was twenty-one and couldn't find it. I think my eldest little sister took it. The enlightenment goes on!
3. Rules and Morality
I like this one best of all. My mother is determinedly, thoughtfully moral. Indeed, her approach to teaching us morality was rather like her approach to teaching us science. Just as we were always allowed to ask questions of fact, so also we were always allowed to ask questions about the rules. "Because I said so" was a banned phrase; "argument from authority," she'd have called it. Maybe if she was really tired and exasperated she'd resort to "Oh, please, just behave, I don't have time to argue this right now." Most of the time she'd have the discussion and give us the explanation, though, because she believed in the principle of open debate, and she believed in not claiming to be infallible. If she was wrong, we should argue with her, and she'd change if we could make her see it. Basic principles like fairness and not hurting people were taken for granted, I admit; we never thought to question those. Perhaps they were partially built into us; more likely, I think, we learned what sorts of arguments were acceptable by example.
Interesting, isn't it? She taught us morality and critical thinking at the same time. If you're logical to begin with, having morality presented to you in the form of reasoned argument is a great way to embed it as deeply as it will go. I respect reasons.
There's more I could say on this subject. I'm particularly lucky in that I had educated parents -- my mother left school at sixteen, actually, but she still knew enough biology to tell me about chromosomes. I guess the most important thing was that she knew how to share her knowledge with a small child! Later, she went to university, studied philosophy, and ended up introducing me to all manner of theories of ethics. There's nothing like having a list of counterexamples to make the notion that you can't have a theory of morality without God seem particularly silly. As for my Dad, he's a forest scientist with a crazy love for astronomy -- when they taught me in school to say "my very elegant mother just sat upon nine porcupines" I couldn't help thinking that "Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto" would be a more obvious way of listing those letters in that order. It took me a moment to realise that wasn't the point.
So, yeah, I'm lucky. I won't say there were no disadvantages to my parents' way of bringing me up. I have a long list of things I'd do differently. Atheism isn't one of them, though. In bringing me up as an atheist, my parents gave me an incredible head start.