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big4309“Dad Dad, come here, you’ve got to see this.”

I followed Connor (14) into the kitchen, where our dog Gowser, a 65 lb. Rhodesian ridgeback mix, was eating contentedly.

Connor got down on all fours and began nuzzling his face toward the food bowl, making slurping noises. Suddenly from deep in Gowser’s throat came a sound I had never heard her make – a deep, angry growl.

“Connor, stop now!” I yelled. “Back up!”

“Why?” he chuckled. He wrongly assumed I was kidding and continued slurping. Gowser’s growl deepened. I grabbed Connor by the belt and slid him abruptly away from the bowl.

“What’s the matter with you?” he snapped.

“Con, she thinks you are another animal taking her food, and she will bite you. The growl was a warning.”

“Oh come on,” he said. “There is no way she’s going to bite me. I’m the one who feeds her!”

I thought about telling him there’s a whole proverb devoted to exactly that, then realized there’s probably an actual fallacy called Argument by Proverb. “Her instinct takes over,” I said. “She’s a wolf inside. She’s not going to stop and think before she eats your face. So don’t do it again.”

“Why not? She’s not going to…”

“I gave you the answer and the reason. We’re done.”

[N.B. This brilliant coinage by my wife Becca is also the answer to a question I often get from parents: “It’s fine to say you’ll let your kids question you, but where does it end?” It ends when you’ve given them both an answer and a reason. Sometimes they have a further line of argument, and sometimes I have the energy to hear it. But if they simply say “Why?” after you’ve already given a reason, use the line and send Becca a nickel.]

The classic attack position

He skulked away, irritated that my fantasies of man-eating wolves kept him from hearing his goofy, lovable dog make that awesome sound up close again. So be it – we’re not covered for face transplants.

Connor is in that phase of development when you mask your gnawing inner doubts about a thousand things with complete outer certitude about a thousand other things, large and small. Remember those years? I sure do. You feel like you can’t afford to be agnostic about ANYTHING, lest that whole inner house of cards come tumbling down.

Connor is handling that inner/outer conflict MUCH better than I did at 14.

One of the main challenges of multiple kids for me is giving the younger ones all of the advantages the oldest had when he was their age. This is where Connor’s confident certainties can sometimes get in the way.

When he was growing up, he was allowed to explore ideas and float hypotheses with complete freedom. I described one such moment of his at age six, and my response, on page 14 of Raising Freethinkers. I cleverly changed the dog’s name to keep Gowser from getting too much fan mail:

KID: I think Bowser can read my mind.

DAD: Oh? Why do you think that?

KID: I was gonna give her a crust of bread, and she started wagging her tail as soon as I thought of it!

(Here’s the moment we typically wind up the correction machine, making sure the child knows that there’s a non-paranormal explanation. Resist!)

DAD: Hmm. Well, we better watch what we’re thinking, then!

Good Dad! I’m so proud of you. You didn’t say it was true or false, and she didn’t ask you to (yet). You simply made her feel good for thinking and guessing and inquiring about the world. There’s plenty of time for insisting on the right answers. First we need to build the desire and the tools to find them on her own.

Connor has long since developed that desire, and his thinking tools (with the occasional exception, see above) are really sharp. Problem is, he reached that point while his sisters were still in the free-hypothesis stage. A typical conversation a couple of years back:

ERIN (9): I think I know why the Earth turns.

MOM: And why is that?

ERIN: I think the wind is pushing against the mountains.

CONNOR (12): No.

The “no” was always delivered with crushing, dismissive confidence. Erin’s face would fall, and she would cede the floor to his greater knowledge. It always broke my heart.

My awesome boy

After hearing this a few times, I pulled him aside and explained that no one had shut down his hypotheses when he was that age. As a result, he has developed a great mind, a love of questioning, and powerful curiosity. I told him he was not to shut the girls down either so they too could develop that love of questioning.

“But the things they say are just…”

“…just like the things you said,” I answered. “Exactly like them.” I knew he wanted to join these conversations at the level he was at, and that it would kill him to stay out entirely. “Tell you what,” I offered. “Instead of saying, ‘No,’ why don’t you say, ‘Actually, I think it’s like this.”

The next time Erin floated a hypothesis, Connor rolled his eyes, mustered all the patient condescension he could, and said:


Oh well. You do what you can.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.