I am a parent.
That is, I have fulfilled my biological duty to our species. This “duty” I speak of is neither a divine mandate nor the demand of a regime. My genes have been passed on (and perhaps slightly modified in the process of replicating themselves). My genes will (more than likely) be passed on through these new vehicles to other transports, much like a perpetual passenger on an Amtrak to the unknown…miss your transfer (fail to procreate) and the entire journey is a failure; keep riding and hitting those transfers, and the sky’s the limit (literally, since inevitably some of our descendants will have to flee this planet for a new home).
Admittedly, though not regrettably, I joined the ranks of parents rather young and unprepared (though certainly not alone). I was presented with two children before I was 21, which was also a period in my life fraught with soul searching, unhappiness, and a good bit of selfishness. I wanted desperately to prove my worth as a parent while also trying to figure out who I was and where I was going — in other words, balancing selflessness with narcissism. This juxtaposition is a hurdle I still encounter, albeit more of a stumbling block these days than a seemingly impassable obstacle as I’ve learned to embrace my traits and adapt them to parenting.
Up until a few years ago, I sincerely believed in a tabula rasa theory of the mind; that is, a preference towards nurture insofar as determining how we develop and who we become. It makes sense — you are presented with young, presumably malleable minds, and for nearly two decades you are assigned the mission, should you choose to accept it (ahem, deadbeats), of sculpting these brains to retain whatever values you see fit to indoctrinate them with, hoping to set them on the straight and narrow and deliver them not into temptation. Basically, we want our kids to be like us (while overlooking or deliberately ignoring the fact that no matter how much our parents tried to do the same to us, we eventually swore that we would never be like them, hence making our attempts at parenting an uphill battle to make sure our children are nothing like their grandparents!). This ingrained philosophy started to crumble, however, after years of self-reflection and realizing that no matter how hard my parents tried, some of my most significant personality traits are pretty far off from the “who” I was raised to be.
Even before I read Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate, which satisfactorily demolishes most of the nurture argument, I had a nagging feeling that there was something erroneous about the belief that you could mold your children like lumps of clay (in stark contrast to this blog entry, the first blog I ever wrote — probably archived somewhere on the MySpace account I never use anymore and will more than likely delete soon — was an essay regarding the infinite malleability of minds, which I presume had slight Marxist undertones). The fact that my soul searching had led me to a position of “staunch atheist” after spending years being raised by a third-generation LCMS minister was the nail in the coffin. After all, I never truly chose atheism (my personal spiritual journey is a subject for a future entry)…something I’ve been accused of and still am to this day.
Going back to 1999, there I was with my firstborn, overwhelmed yet accepting of this new role I had as father, simultaneously swearing to myself not to raise her the way I was raised, yet agreeing to have her baptized to appease not just a couple family members but nearly every single one, making promises to all those people to raise her as a Christian when I didn’t even believe in that stuff anymore. I certainly didn’t have a “parenting philosophy” other than to do my best (which, as noted above, was kind of a half-assed best). I had my second child in late 2000 with a lather/rinse/repeat of the above scenario, and the approach I took to raising them was a very rough-draft prototype of the method I utilize today…let them experience the world and formulate their own opinions in regards to spirituality/religion/philosophy, using myself as a living example that the apple not only falls from the tree, but occasionally has a tendency to roll half an orchard away, only to come to rest against the pear tree or blackberry brambles.
I’m certainly not discouraging anyone from raising their children in the religion they themselves were brought up in; just resign yourselves to the fact that no matter how much time and energy you invest, there’s always a chance it will have been in vain. “But maybe the kids that turn out ‘wrong’ were just raised ‘wrong,’ and I know I’ll do it right because I’m just how my parents raised ME to be!” You could argue that…and you can take that gamble, with years and years of your life, thousands and thousands of dollars spent on schools and educational materials to get them on the “right” path, etc. But it’s still a gamble, especially based on what we know about behavioral genetics and the knowledge gleaned from the various sub-specialties in the field of psychiatry. If your child DOES turn out to have characteristics you “molded” into them, chances are they inherited a good chunk of your personality!
In The Blank Slate, Pinker quotes a beautiful poem, one that has stuck with me and which I have quoted to friends (with kids) several times of late:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Being that this blog has a focus on parenting as an atheist with a religious upbringing, my work here would be amiss if I did not include some quotes in that regard:
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion — “I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as ‘Catholic child’ or ‘Muslim child.’ Speak of a ‘child of Catholic parents’ if you like; but if you hear anybody speak of a ‘Catholic child,’ stop them and politely point out that children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics…There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child.”
Dawkins later in the book illustrates damaging effects of indoctrinating children with religion, including school segregation (“Children are educated…with members of a religious in-group and separately from children whose families adhere to other religions.”) and marriage preferences and the taboos associated with “marrying out” of one’s family’s religion.
Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell — “Religions are transmitted culturally…not through the genes. You may get your father’s nose and your mother’s musical ability through your genes, but if you get your religion from your parents, you get it the way you get your language, through upbringing.”
Dennett illustrates the need for parents to earn the trust of their children…and the resulting exploitation of that trust that can occur: “It is in the genetic interests of parents…to inform — not misinform — their young, so it is efficient (and relatively safe) to trust one’s parents. Once the information superhighway between parent and child is established by genetic evolution, it is ready to be used — or abused — by any agents with agendas of their own, or by any memes that happen to have features that benefit from the biases built into the highway.”
So if you’re raising your child(ren) to be like you and believe like you, chances are that they trust you enough to “go along with it” for as long as they can benefit from your benevolence and maybe discover a few loopholes of their own to exploit. But, you may be raising a walking antithesis to your worldview, which more than likely won’t become apparent until your spawn are out in the world on their own. How will you send them out there — naive, or prepared to encounter and absorb the countless worldviews in existence and make an informed decision that “fits” with their inherent traits?
In closing, I will offer my parenting advice: Ignore parenting advice, especially that of the “experts.” We made it this far as a species with our only motivation being that of ensuring our genes, carried by our offspring, would make it another generation. Of course, in today’s globally connected world, a nearly universal society, we have obligations to pass on some values, but even children raised by parents with no values (or, more simply, raised without parents) will pick up values from society. Remember the pressures your parents placed on you, and compare the person you are now to the person your parents were probably trying to mold you into. Carry that thought experiment over a generation and apply it to your children, and you will understand that most of your efforts will yield nothing like what you expect, but that will never remove love from the equation.
And no, I do not call my children “atheist,” nor do I raise them to reject all religion. They certainly know that Daddy is vehemently anti-theist (and occasionally we have pleasant conversations regarding such), and I encourage them to question anything that doesn’t make sense, but for now they’re just children. They need to experience all the wonder that childhood has to offer, without the trappings of an “Us Versus Them” mentality, and certainly one free of unnecessary fear.
Note: Replacing every instance or implication of “religion” in this entry with “politics” will not change my message one bit.