Reading Time: 4 minutes

And now…the third and final winner of the first annual Parenting Beyond Belief Column Competition: Robbin Dawson’s “Look at the Bird.” Thanks again to all who participated!


    Look at the Bird
    by Robbin Dawson


      You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.Richard Feynman

      “What’s the matter, babe?”

      We were at a bowling alley for the birthday party of my son’s friend, Joe. My son, Ethan, was walking toward me with tears welling.

      I met him halfway, scanned him for goose eggs, then began examining his fingers. When 7 year-olds are bowling, there are some things in the alley that can break.

      “No, it’s not that!” He wrenched his hand from mine. I followed him to some nearby chairs. He crossed his arms over the back of his seat and rested his chin atop. A few tears slid down his cheeks.

      We sat quietly for a few minutes.

      “Joe said I’m not his best friend.”


      At that time, Joe and Ethan were inseparable. Their usual mode of greeting involved Joe running across the playground screaming, “Eetthhaaaaaannnnn!” before they tackle-hugged. The two would then thoroughly vet each playscape while sharing the milestones that had occurred since their last meeting.

      Certainly, they each had other friends. Certainly, friendships changed and shifted. I just hadn’t seen this coming, and neither had my son.

      “He said that,” Ethan sniffled and blew out a breath. “He said that Jesus is his best friend.”

      Ah. Now that made more sense.

      I picked quarters out of my purse and motioned toward a vending machine in the arcade. While Ethan chugged his cold drink, I selected a pool cue from a rack on the wall and rolled it across a table.

      “What are you doing?”

      “I’m judging how straight this cue stick is.” (It wobbled across the felt like a lady wearing one stiletto.) I was just about to challenge Ethan to a game, when he appeared at my side with another cue to test.

      I explained eight ball, taught him how to hold a cue and helped him break. There is something inherently satisfying in the sound and feel of breaking. I racked the balls several more times for him, ostensibly for practice.

      Two turns in, I tested the waters. “Joe seemed to like the Bionicle you gave him.”

      “Yeah.” Ethan’s tone was matter-of-fact. “He’s been wanting Toa Hordika Vakama for a long time.”

      “Oh. I guess that’s something a friend would know.” I paused to prepare my innocent, casual tone. “I wonder if he’ll let Jesus play with it.”

      Ethan looked up from his shot, one eyebrow raised.

      “What?” I shrugged. “I share my Bionicles with my friends.”

      “Mama! You don’t have Bionicles!” He resumed lining up his next shot with entertaining concentration.

      “True. But if I had Bionicles, I would let my friends play with them. My bug collecting boxes, too. I might even let them play with that goop in a jar that makes farting noises.”

      We giggled. Then we talked about what makes our friends our friends. Enjoyable conversation, shared interests and helping each other out were high on both of our lists.

      I was just about to bring the talk full circle, back to Jesus, when Ethan did it for us.

      He laid his pool cue on the table. “I know I’m still Joe’s best real friend—you know, his best people friend. It just made me feel bad when he said that I was second.”

      Several months prior, he’d asked me to refrain from hugs and kisses in public. Alone in the arcade nook, he accepted both without complaint.

      We continued our game. In between helping him visualize angles and realizing that my skills had atrophied to embarrassing, I did my level best to explain the notion of a personal god and why anyone might refer to a god as a “friend.”

      “Do you believe that?” he asked.

      “No, I don’t.”

      “Me either.”


      “No. I mean, you can’t see God, and you can’t hear God.” A light bulb flicked on. “I’m going to try praying tonight.”

      I sensed a chance to inject methodology. “What would your hypothe…”

      “I got one!” he yelled. He had indeed managed to sink a ball in a corner pocket.

      “Great shot!” I did not point out that the ball was mine, or that the cue ball had followed it.

      “Mama, can I go back now?”

      “Of course.”

      I couldn’t help but smile. We would get to fuller explanations of others’ religious beliefs. We would visit places of worship. He would eventually decide for himself.

      At that moment, though, watching the bird and seeing what it did seemed the most age-appropriate, educational approach possible.

      ROBBIN DAWSON lives on a tiny mountain in upstate South Carolina with her illustrator/cartoonist husband and their two fabulous kids. She bid farewell to corporate accounting in 2004 to home school her children, and co-founded an inclusive support group. When she’s not out exploring the world with her kids, she’s usually reading or spending quality time with her computer.

      Avatar photo

      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.