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Recent snapshot of secular parents milling about the PBB Secular Parenting Discussion Forum

Had a nice interview yesterday with a religion news wire service for an upcoming syndicated article on secular parenting — but I think I made it all sound too easy. I described ways we buffer our kids from this and that, how we expose them to this and that, and how the interactions our family has had with religious folks generally involve fewer pitchforks and torches than we often fear.

“So if there are so few problems,” the reporter asked, quite sensibly, “what’s the need for the book?”


I do that sometimes. In an effort to take the temperature down a notch, I undersell the very real challenges. I explained that the biggest problem is at the larger level — community and society — which continues to demonize and marginalize nonbelievers and to consider them, among other things, unworthy to hold office or to have a voice in important ethical issues. But it’s also the case that Becca and I have gotten better at anticipating problems and raising our kids in ways that minimize the turbulence at the everyday level by applying many of the ideas in the book. Grappling with the issues has made us better secular parents, which makes things go better on that everyday level — which can lead to improvements on the larger scale.

Because of PBB, I’m becoming something of a Dear Abby of secular parenting. Every week I get emails asking for advice on this or that. How to help the second grader who is being religiously bullied at school. How to deal with a twelve-year-old boy who’s developing an unmoderated arrogance toward all things religious. How/whether to keep Grandma from evangelizing the kids. Whether/how to celebrate Christmas. Whether to go through with the baptism the relatives want. How to get a five-year-old started on understanding evolution. How a mom can talk to her daughter about death when she’s not all that keen on it herself.

In the beginning I’d type out my thoughts, but in recent months I’ve started referring parents to appropriate threads in the Parenting Beyond Belief Forum. Over 200 secular parents are registered and trading ideas on that board, which now has more than 200 topics and 1200 posts.

Last week I got an email asking how best to handle religious relatives who insist on saying grace when they come to your house. This is one I answered on the Forum a while back. An excerpt of that Forum thread:

HappyDad from California wrote:

Here’s a situation I figure must be common. We have a lot of family in town, all churchgoers except for us, and we get together a lot for family events. When a meal is at our house, we start to tuck in without saying grace, and somebody (usually my sister, knowing exactly what she’s doing) says, in a wounded voice, “Aren’t we going to thank Jesus for this lovely meal?”

After an awkward few seconds, SHE will invite someone to do it. “Rachel, why don’t you lead us in prayer, honey.” She’s not trying to be disrespectful or embarrass me, by the way…she just honestly can’t pick up her fork until somebody checks in with jehovah.

Yes, I know it’s my house and I have the right to keep religion away from my table. I know that. But first of all, seriously, I always forget until the moment it happens, and then I’m thrown. And secondly, I’m asking how, precisely, I can do this. It isn’t always my sister; sometimes somebody else beats her to it, so I can’t just pull her aside and make the issue go away. And I really don’t want to insult their intentions, which I promise are good. But I don’t want superstition in my house, and I don’t like having to sit and pretend to pray in front of my kids.

They’re alllll coming over again early next week. Gimme some tips here, guys and gals! Thanks!

I replied:

Public prayer galls me for at least two reasons: it’s coercive, and one person speaks for everyone, assuming a uniformity that is never really accurate. It is also too often manipulative (“And may the Lord bless and protect those among us who have been making unwise choices lately” [all eyes go to cousin Billy]).

We have a family tradition that solves this problem and has become a special daily moment in and of itself.

As we sit down for dinner (every day, not just when there are guests), we join hands around the table and enjoy about a half minute of silence together. We’ve asked the kids to take that time to go inside themselves and think about whatever they wish — something about the day just passed, a hope for the next day, good thoughts for someone who is sick, or nothing at all. And yes, they’re welcome to pray if they’d like to.

But here’s the key: it’s a personal, private moment. We don’t follow it with “You know what I was thinking about? I was thinking about homeless children.” Otherwise it turns into a spitting contest to see who was thinking the most lofty thought. Kids will try this at first. Just nod and change the subject. Eventually they figure out that it really is a private moment, which changes the nature of it.

It’s become a daily watershed for us — a moment that marks the transition from hectic day to quiet evening. I love it.

When we have guests, we tell them (before anyone can launch into prayer) that we begin our evening meal with a moment of silent reflection, during which they may pray, meditate, or simply sit quietly as they wish.

And if you have to pull out the big guns, tell them you just respect the teachings of Jesus too much to disregard Matthew 6:5-6:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the streetcorner to be seen by men….when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret….”

That’s a red-letter passage, straight from the big guy. Tends to end the debate.

Several other parents replied as well with tips and thoughts. And that’s the beauty of it, of course. I don’t mind the emails one bit — I love them, really, they make me feel oh so terribly significant — but why not also drop in on the PBB Forum and tap 200 heads instead of one? Yes, now! Up the big marble stairs, turn right, through the blood sacrifice room, third door on the left.
[Also, psst: Don’t forget to check on the ten wonderfull things page once in a while. And keep sending your suggestions for wonder-full links for secular parents to dale {AT} parentingbeyondbelief DOT com.]

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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.