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student driverVentured into the backwoods of upstate NY last week for a quick visit to Camp Inquiry, a fabulous science-and-wonder-based summer camp run by the Center for Inquiry. Fifty-two sharp and curious kids and a terrific staff under the direction of the energetic and talented Angie McQuaig.

About 30 parents stuck around on Sunday evening for a parent chat around the campfire. These unscripted discussions are my favorites. And as it usually does, one of my key messages came up over and over — the importance of letting kids drive their own decisionmaking as much as we can, even when we disagree. It’s vital to let them take the wheel as often as possible if we want them to develop the long-term ability to think ethically and well on their own. Obviously there are many times when we have to assert our own judgment. But letting go when we can has some great long-term benefits.

This mostly nonreligious crowd was focused on questions of raising kids in a culture dominated by religion. The Pledge of Allegiance, the proselytizing neighbor, Grandma’s insistence on taking the kids to her church, pressure from religious peers — in every case, the best thing a secular parent can do is help the child assess options and weigh consequences, then let the child make his or her own decision about what to do, even if the parent thinks it’s a mistake. They’ll learn more from the experience than from any pre-emptive lecture we can give. (Not to mention the possibility that our advice would have been wrong.)

I blogged about one such situation in 2008. Erin (then 10) asked if she could wear a pink beaded cross necklace to school. She’d bought it on vacation at the dollar store, but now she said, “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’d been ready for that sentence for years, but the context was all wrong.

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

It was a simple talisman to her. 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 had no more connection to God than my worry stone. In fact, her concern was that people might think it did when it didn’t. But even if it did have that significance, I was fully prepared to let her drive the decision.

As it happens, she wore it for a week, then told me she didn’t want to wear it anymore because of the dishonest feeling it gave her. And because she had made the decision herself, there’s a much greater chance that she gained something more valuable than if I had simply issued a ruling.

I returned home from Camp Inquiry to a message from Elizabeth, a parent I’d met. Her son Alex (13) is on a baseball team that has started praying before each game. From her email (reprinted with permission):

Bill, the gentleman who initiated the prayer ritual, is a close friend to our family, and my husband Jason is one of the assistant coaches. Our families have get-togethers at each other’s houses. Bill and Jason have shared many “religious” talks through the years, so we know their family’s belief system and they know ours, and it has never been an issue.

baseballprayWhen Bill first started praying before the game, Jason had a private talk with him and explained why he did not feel that it was an appropriate thing to do. Jason explained to Bill that he has no idea what the belief systems of all the kids on the team are, and that it was presumptuous of him to think that all the kids came from religious households. And even if ‘most’ of the kids are religious, he would have no way of knowing what faith they practiced. He also reminded Bill that our own family was not religious. Bill was not persuaded and continued the team prayer before each game.

Nicely done, Jason — especially the choice to frame it in terms of all kids on the team, not just one.

At this point Jason asked Alex how he felt about the prayer before each game. Alex said that he thought it was silly. Jason asked Alex what (if anything) Alex wanted to do about it and gave him a few options. They could “sit out” the prayer, Jason could try talking to Bill again, or they could just “go with the flow” and wink at each other while the prayer was taking place. 🙂

At that point Alex said something that just made our hearts swell with pride -– he said, “I think it is kind of stupid, but Coach Bill means more to me than a prayer. If it makes him happy to say a prayer before the game, then that’s OK with me.” I wish more adults would act like our son did at that moment.

Alex is choosing his battles, and his parents are letting him. The more they do that, the better and more nuanced his decisionmaking will become.

Maybe after a few games, Alex will change his mind, or maybe not. Maybe he’ll just reflect further on the very odd concept of the God-bothering sports team. Maybe Bill will do some reflection of his own. But if Alex’s parents had forced another conclusion — if Jason, for example, had pushed harder in his talk with Bill — Alex would have lost an opportunity to make his own choice, live with it, and learn from it. But they recognized that this was Alex’s situation, first and foremost, and they let him take the wheel.

Kudos to all three.

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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.