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“Yeah, B.”

“I want to wear something to school tomorrow but it makes me feel weird to wear it. I don’t know if I should.”

It’s completely in character for Erin (10) to open with a “should” question. Erin is as tightly concerned with values questions as the other two are with empirical ones. Most of all, she is intrigued, fascinated, curious, and ultimately repelled by the dark side.

I wrote last year about her long-ago entrée into this ambivalent dialectic, watching Snow White at age four:

Her epiphany came as Snow White entered the deep, dark forest, fleeing the wicked Queen. The Queen had certainly gotten her attention, but Erin’s eyes didn’t pop – and I mean POP — until Snow White fled into the storm-whipped forest.

“Daddy, LOOK!!”

“Oooh, yeah, look at that.” The whipping branches of the trees had transformed into gnarled hands, which were reaching ever closer to Snow White as she cowered and ran down the forest path. I looked over at Erin, whose dinnerplate eyes were glued to the screen.

“What ARE those?!” she asked, breathlessly.

“Looks like some kind of evil hands, B.”

“Daddy,” she said in an intense hush, “…I want to BE those evil hands!”

(For the record, she now talks about pursuing a Pre-Med course of study in college, with only a minor in Evil.)

I wasn’t surprised to hear that she was puzzling over the morality of clothing choice, pondering the implications of spaghetti straps or a too-short skirt. It’s her stock in trade. But this time, there was a twist.

“What is it you’re thinking about wearing?” I asked.

She slowly revealed a pendant necklace, and dangling at the end, a cross.

I remember when she bought it at the dollar store on a Florida vacation last year, selecting a cross of pink plastic beads from a huge display of hundreds of cross necklaces. (I remember the sign over the display reading ALL CROSS NECKLACES $1. I’d added a line in my mind: Jesus Saves—Why Shouldn’t You?)

“Why does it make you feel weird, B?” I assumed she was feeling out the reaction of her secular dad. And there was a time I would have frozen like a moose in the headlights at such a thing, unsure of the right response. But this isn’t some church-state issue. This is about letting my child explore the world for herself. I don’t have to engage anything higher than the brain stem for these situations anymore. But it wasn’t about my views–it was about hers.

“I feel weird wearing it when I don’t really believe in god. Like I’m not being honest. But I just like to wear it.”

“It’s fine, sweetie. It’s a pretty necklace.”

She paused. There was more, I could tell.

“It makes me feel good to wear it.”

Uhhh, okay, there’s at least one unfortunate way to read that sentence. “You mean it makes you feel like a good person to wear a cross?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “It just…” She smiled sheepishly. “It makes me feel good to rub it.”

I’ve been ready for that sentence for years, but the context is all wrong.

“When I’m worried, I rub it with my fingers and it makes the worry go away.”

Aha, okay. It’s a simple talisman. And Erin does spend more time worrying than she ought to. I told her about the jade worry stone I carried in my pocket throughout middle school. Same deal. It did make me feel better. Her cross has no more connection to God than my worry stone. In fact, her concern is that people might think it did when it didn’t.

I asked if I could feel the cross. The pink beads are threaded on two axes and revolve pleasantly beneath the fingertips. “Hey, that is nice,” I said. “Better than my rock!”

She laughed. She’s worn the cross for a week now. And if I know my girl, the compulsion to explain what she does and doesn’t believe is eventually going to surface. It’ll be a conversation starter for her. I could have found a reason to disallow it — something about disrespecting the beliefs of others, perhaps — but I wasn’t fishing for a way to disallow it. On the contrary, I fish for ways to allow things. Here’s a chance for her to engage and think about issues of identity and belief and symbolism. Why miss that chance?

Most important of all, I know it isn’t likely to cast a spell on her—in part because I didn’t treat it like fearful magic, and in part because I know my girl.

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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.