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my3Older siblings can have a strange and scary power over their youngers. So experienced, so judgmental, and so good at pushing buttons.

I was the middle of three, and so both receiver and wielder of that power. I could get my younger brother to completely lose his mind with a well-timed twitch of my eyebrow and rarely missed the chance (sorry, Randy). My older brother could do the same to me.

Ron’s five years older, so I was in kindergarten when he was in fifth grade and therefore automatically an Ewok to his Obi-Wan. By the time I entered junior high, he was halfway through high school. I started college right after he finished. There was just no catching up.

I know Connor (14) has the same effect on his sisters. They try to dismiss his teasing or criticisms, but it’s not easy. He aims, he fires, they fall.

The same is true with his observations about life in general, which are always delivered with the devastating finality of Judge Judy. He tells them how it is; they mutter “nuh uhh,” then collapse into brow-knitted self-doubt.

That dynamic was only one of my concerns when Connor delivered one of these pronouncements a few days ago. From the next room, I heard Delaney (7) sharing a conversation she had with a friend at school. “I told her I didn’t really believe in God, but I was still thinking about it. She said she didn’t know anybody else who…”

“Lane…” Connor said, then sighed with exaggerated patience.

She stopped. “What?”

“Lane, you really shouldn’t talk about religion at school.”

“Why not? It’s interesting.”

“You shouldn’t talk about it because you gain nothing and it gets all your friends to hate you.”

Unquote.

Pause.

“Nuh uhh.”

“Yes. It does, Lane.”

It took every bit of my strength to stay in my chair.

I had at least three reasons to be concerned about this. First, I wanted to know if he was speaking from painful experience. If not, I wanted to be sure Delaney completely disregarded his advice, since these astonishing conversations are a big part of her unique engagement with the world. And if it WAS something he experienced, I might need to revisit the advice I give to parents around the country — to encourage their kids (and themselves) to discuss belief and disbelief openly in hopes of moving us toward that world in which differences in belief are no big deal. The whole idea of engaged coexistence turns on questions like this.

I waited until after dinner, then told Connor I’d heard their conversation. I said this was something I needed to know the truth about because parents come to me for advice on these issues, and I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Had this ever happened to him? Had he ever had friends begin to hate him because of religious differences or conversations?

“Well…no,” he said. “Not anymore. But younger kids do that.”

“Someone stopped being your friend when you were younger?”

“Well…no. But one time this kid freaked out because I told him I didn’t think God was real.”

“And he hated you from then on?”

Laney’s approach to life
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“No, I guess not. He just freaked out for a minute, you know, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you don’t believe in God, how can you not believe in God?’ blah blah. Then everything was fine. We were still friends and everything.”

I was relieved. This is exactly what I’ve heard from countless parents–the vast majority of the time, kids engage, they freak out, they move on. I asked Connor not to discourage Laney from talking about these things with friends, and he agreed.

At bedtime I asked Laney what she thought about Connor’s advice. She shrugged. “It’s not true. My friends don’t hate me. They think it’s interesting.”

I told her that I’d chatted with him and found out that it had never happened to him. I encouraged her to keep it up as long as she found it interesting.

“I know. It doesn’t bother me when he says things like that,” she assured me. “I just think…” She shook her head dismissively and sighed. “…brothers.”

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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.