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yawnOne thing is pretty much guaranteed for any social movement that struggles against the mainstream: the children of the activists won’t understand what the big frackin’ deal is.

U.S. civil rights pioneers often end up with kids who (while enjoying the fruits of the struggle) ask their parents, “Why is it always about race with you?” Second-wave feminists spent their youth breaking glass ceilings, only to have their daughters (who’ve never known a time when they couldn’t vote or play hockey or run a corporation) roll their eyes with embarrassment at Mom’s “obsession with gender.”

Without putting myself anywhere near the same plane as those, I’ve started getting a taste of that second-generation thing myself. It’s a good thing for the most part, a likely sign that our own efforts have made it possible for our kids to transcend our obsessions, to find the next beast that needs struggling against instead of tilting with ours — or just to enjoy living in a better, saner world.

When Becca recently brought up the idea of starting a secular parenting group in our area, my 15-year-old son — a classic apatheist — said, “I don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“I kind of don’t get why you need something like that. Just don’t believe. Why do you have to get in a group with other people who don’t believe?”

“You don’t have to,” Becca said. “But some parents who aren’t religious find it helpful to see how other nonreligious parents handle the issues that come up.”

“Like what?”

I offered an example. “I just got an email from a mom this morning. Her family is going to church with her parents for the first time, and she wanted to know what her son should do during communion. You know, when the congregation goes to the front for the…”

“But that’s so obvious!”

“Oh? What’s the obvious thing to do?”

“You just do it! You’re in a church, so you do what the church people do. That’s respectful.”

I remember being fifteen, seeing things so clearly, constantly stunned at the density of others.

“Okay. Do you know what communion is?”

He paused. “Well…not really, no.”

“It’s a re-enactment of the Last Supper. Most important part of a Christian service. It’s a way of saying, ‘I believe in the divinity of Jesus, and here’s the moment I’m closest to him.’ So some people feel it’s more respectful to not do it if you don’t believe it.”

“Huh.” Another pause. “So you told her not to let him do it?”

“Well no, I said I’d explain to him what it means and let him decide what to do. He can see what it’s like to stay sitting when most people go to the front, or to take part in a ritual that means you believe when you really don’t or aren’t sure. It’s good experience.”

Two weeks later we visited my mother-in-law’s Episcopal church. I reminded the kids that they could choose to do whatever they wanted. They could sing or not, pray or not, kneel or not, commune or not. And if they had any questions, they could ask us.

Delaney (9) noticed the Stations of the Cross before the service. I told her it was the story of the last hours of Jesus’ life, and we walked the circuit. As a second-generation freethinker (in the lower case), she didn’t have to recoil or push against it. To the kid who was Athena for Hallowe’en, it’s just another cool mythic story.

During the service, Erin (12) was obviously pondering her choices. When the first kneeling moment came, she looked at her Grandma (kneeling), then at the padded kneeler, then at me (sitting), then at the kneeler again. She half-knelt, looked uncertain, then dropped back into the pew. The second time, with a deep breath, she went for the full kneel. Third and fourth times, she sat.

Trying something on for size is classic Erin, and she left the church knowing what both feigned conformity and sore-thumb honesty felt like. Much better than just yakking about it.

Communion came and went, and Connor stayed in his seat. We exchanged wry smiles. Yeah yeah, his eyes said, whatever.

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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.