Raising Freethinkers

A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief

 Raising Freethinkers

Authors: Dale McGowan, Molleen Matsumura, Amanda Metskas, Jan Devor
Pub Date: February 2009
Print Edition: $17.95
Print ISBN: 9780814410967
Page Count: 288
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814410974

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CHAPTER 1: 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 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.

“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 childrearing

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, sciencebased

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 magazine

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


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