Raising Ethical Kids Without Religion

“The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” Ayn Rand*

I haven’t always been an atheist, but I’ve always had a strong desire to be a good person and I’ve always known that having a consistent moral code was important in life. That has not changed. No matter your religious views – or lack thereof – having a philosophy to guide your life is crucial. Even if you don’t live by an organized philosophy, there are certain ideas you hold that guide your thinking and thus, your actions and determination of what’s right, what’s wrong, and how you ought to live. If you don’t deliberately choose these ideas, they will be influenced by your family and friends, the art you admire, the schools you attend or simply your own life experience. The same applies for our children. If we don’t help them understand reality, and how to recognize right from wrong for themselves, they will adopt whatever ideas they see in practice around them, for better or worse.

How to teach about moral values and religion in a secular home.

Philosophy – the study of the nature of existence – is our key to instilling the right morality in our children. For me (and many other atheists), that philosophy is Objectivism, which was developed by Ayn Rand. There is no such thing as “Objectivist parenting”, but philosophy can be used to shape and inform your parenting style just as it shapes and informs all other aspects of how you live your life. If you’re not particularly interested in philosophy, you may wonder how you can be confident that your ideas are consistent, true and right for you and your kids.

As Ayn Rand wrote in “Philosophy: Who Needs It”, the most important question to ask yourself is “what a given theory, if accepted, would do to a human life, starting with your own.” In other words, does this idea allow you to live and thrive, or would it cause you harm and suffering? I’m an Objectivist because it is a philosophy that puts human life as it’s standard of value. The rights of “man” apply to every individual, and therefore the rights of one cannot violate the rights of another. This principle sets the stage for understanding what you may and may not do morally, and instills a sense of respect for both oneself and others. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine if your ideas support life, too:

  • If I accept this idea completely, would I need to make exceptions to it in order to live?
  • Does this idea encourage self-worth and respect for others, or self-doubt and resentment of others?
  • Does this idea contain an inherent double standard? Does it put some lives above others?

So now that we have some basics in place for considering the ideas we’ve come to accept in our lives, how can we put the right ideas into practice with our kids? Studying philosophy is not developmentally appropriate for young children. We must set the right example for them through our actions and our expectations of them. Here are a few examples of where I think we can demonstrate ideas for children that are developmentally appropriate and teach them some good basic values.

The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

The golden rule is often associated with religious values, however it can be applied without contradiction to secular ethics as well. Since we are using human life as our standard of value, it stands to reason that we should respect others as we wish to be respected, and for the same reasons. If my life matters to me, your life matters to you. This is how we uphold the idea that human lives matter – ours and others. This short rule is easy to understand and can get kids thinking outside their own heads, which helps them relate to others. We don’t have to like everyone we meet, but we should still treat them respectfully. If that respect is not returned, avoid the person or situation when possible.

Discipline

The way we teach and interact with children teaches them about their place in the world and how to deal with others. For this reason, I firmly believe in differentiating discipline from punishment. My favorite dictionary definition of discipline in the Merriam-Webster dictionary reads “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.” L. R. Knost said it best: “Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer retribution for having a problem. To raise problem solvers, focus on solutions, not retribution.”

I do not believe in spanking. I do believe in firm and loving discipline. Training a child to develop their mental faculties and moral character will serve them throughout their lives. Hitting, spanking and yelling only teaches a child that a person bigger than them or in a position of authority has power, and they do not. When my child has a problem, I want her to learn to solve it herself or come to me, not hide or retreat from me. I certainly do not want my child to get the impression that she is powerless or that physical pain is somehow a part of loving relationships. Research, reason and observation can teach us the best way to discipline, and there are tons of great resources on positive discipline that do not refer to religious scripture to support their suggestions.

Sharing

It is common in our culture that kids are told from a very young age they must learn to share. But by forcing them to do so, we may inadvertently create resentment among children, rather than goodwill. In fact, research finds that kids share voluntarily when they are not coerced to do so. I don’t believe in making kids share because it doesn’t make practical sense. Do you, as an adult, hand over things you value to others just because they want them? Does being a generous person require you to give up your possessions to whomever comes along and stakes a claim to them? Of course not. We can be kind and generous without being self-immolating. A good way to put this into practice is to consider ownership. If a toy was bought for a particular child, that child has a right to the toy. If a sibling or friend gets upset that the child is not sharing, we can say “Johnny is playing with his toy. Perhaps you can ask him to give you a turn once he’s finished.” This puts the decision back on Johnny and allows him to make a decision for himself. If the toy belongs to a third party, such as an adult or childcare center where it is intended for use by many children, we should respect the child who has it in his or her possession first. If they leave it to play with something else, it becomes fair game to other children. By allowing kids to work it out on their own, they will develop strong social and problem-solving skills. Those skills will ultimately help them relate to others and develop empathy.

Answering the endless “Whys” of toddlers

Toddlers are known for asking “why” about absolutely everything. These questions are great opportunities to encourage a child’s natural curiosity and teach them to seek truth like little scientists. By giving a vague answer such as “because I (or God or the Bible) said so”, reason is replaced with authority and the child is taught not to question authority. Answering all of the whys can be exhausting, but the phase will pass in time. Until then, try to explain in simple terms or offer to help the child seek the answer by answering with a question of your own. If it is a question about the world around them, you might say, “Great question! Where do you think we can learn more about that?” The library, internet and people they know with expertise are all great resources. If the question is about rules and things you want them to do, try replacing “because I said so” with a brief and honest reason. For example, a question about why bedtime is now can be met with “because you need to be well rested for our busy day tomorrow” or “because I’ve been with you all day. Daddy and I need our time together now.” In some cases over time, this may lead to the child negotiating. Don’t be afraid to let them do this and make reasonable concessions if their argument is sound. This is a great learning and skill-building opportunity for your child. It will teach them critical thinking and personal responsibility as well as the ability to advocate for their ideas. These are all great skills for helping a child grow into an adult of strong character.

Teaching about religion

If there are religious people in your family or community, your child will likely ask about their faith or religious practices at some point. My best friend is not religious but her son went through a phase where he listened to a Christian radio station and began asking her about Jesus. I think her approach was a good one because she explained her own views and the reasons for them while allowing him to explore other ideas and make his own determination. She showed him that she trusts him and that he can trust his own mind to find the right answers. He asked to visit a church and she brought him, but ultimately the phase passed. I don’t think as atheists that we need to fear church or possible indoctrination of our kids so long as we are open, honest and maintain a strong bond with our children. Certainly as an atheist, I would not send my child to Sunday school where faith is taught to be a proper means of knowledge, but there’s no reason a child can’t ask others why they believe what they believe. As kids get to junior high and high school, they will need to be taught about various religions from a historical perspective in order to get a full understanding of human history. Children are naturally inquisitive and will question anything that does not make sense to them. We can explain that some people have beliefs based on faith, but that we do not accept faith as a means of knowledge because faith means believing in something without evidence. Science provides many answers and if we are proven wrong by new scientific developments, we must adjust our thinking accordingly. Above all, we must teach our children to trust their minds, think for themselves and always be open to learning.

Do you have experience with other aspects of character development where you believe your atheism or agnosticism impacted the approach you took with your own kids? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

 

*Galt’s Speech, For the New Intellectual, 123

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