“So what’d Mrs. W say?” I asked.

“She said no,” Laney said, matter-of-factly. “She said, ‘I think God is very real.’ ”

“Uh huh. And what did you say?”

“I said, ‘That’s okay—as long as you’re still thinking about it, too.’”

Twelve years later, I still look at that sentence with awe. That’s okay, she said—because it would never occur to her that people must all believe the same—and then the call to continuous freethought, the caveat against the closed process. How many people of religious faith ever hear that their faith is okay only if it remains open to disconfirmation?

Kids typically receive indoctrination as a one-two punch. They hear ideas in Sunday School (“Baby Jesus cries when Billy lies”), from friends on the playground (“I prayed for a bike and God sent me one!”), or from the pulpit (“It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”). That’s the first punch. And you know what? I’m fine with the first punch. I like the first punch. I want my children to receive the first punch. The first punch is informational. It says, “Here is a thing that some people consider true.” Aside from the two abusive non-negotiables—hell and the demonization of doubt—kids have to hear that information before they can think about it.

It’s the second punch that is the cheap shot. And that punch, as often as not, is delivered by Mom and Dad over supper, when Billy presents the first-punch information and is informed of what he should think about it.

The moment of the question is, for want of a better word, a sacred moment, and one that parents fumble too much of the time Children have the daunting task of changing from helpless newborns into fully functioning adults in just over six thousand days. Think of that. A certain degree of gullibility necessarily follows. Kids are believing machines, and for good reason: When we are children, the tendency to believe it when we are told that fire is dangerous, that two and two are four, that cliffs are not to be dangled from, and so on, helps us, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “to pack, with extraordinary rapidity, our skulls full of the wisdom of our parents and our ancestors” in order to accomplish the unthinkably complex feat of becoming adults. The immensity of the task requires children to be “suckers” for whatever it is adults tell them. It is our job as parents to be certain not to abuse this period of relative intellectual dependency and trust.

The pivotal moment, of course, is the question. How we respond to the estimated four hundred thousand questions a child will ask between her second and fifth birthdays will surely have a greater impact on her orientation to the world outside her head than the thirteen years of school that follow. Do we always respond with an answer – or sometimes with another question?

Do we say, “What a great question!” – or do we just fill in the blank? How often do we utter that fabulous phrase, “You know what…I don’t know!” followed by “Let’s look it up together” or “I’ll bet Aunt Bessie would know that, let’s call her”? When it comes to wondering and questioning, these are the things that make all the difference. We have 400,000 chances to get it right, or 400,000 chances to say “because I said so,” “because God says so,” “Don’t concern yourself with that stuff,” or something similarly fatal to the child’s will to find out.

I try my best to encourage reckless inquiry in my kids. To facilitate that, I want to keep them ignorant, for as long as possible, of the fearfulness that keeps so many people from asking certain questions. I want the idea that questions might be feared because of the answers they might produce to flummox my kids, to baffle them. I want them to find hilariously silly the idea that certain lines of thought must not be pursued.

That requires a certain amount of self-discipline. It requires the ability, for example, not to paint the far wall with soup when the five-year-old asks if monkeys have vaginas, or why black people have big lips, or who will put her blankie on her grave when she dies—all questions that have come out of preschoolers at our dining table.

Five years after the encounter on the stairs, I decided to write the book I had needed. But I knew I couldn’t do it alone: Writing a parenting book alone when all of your kids are nine and under would have been pretty cheeky. So in addition to my own thoughts, I pulled together 27 other writers with a wide range of experience and expertise, including the biologist Richard Dawkins, comedian Julia Sweeney, and educators, psychologists, philosophers, and everyday parents. In 2007, Parenting Beyond Belief was born.

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