the cover of the book Raising Freethinkers by McGowan, Matsumura, Metskas, and Devor showing a child looking through a magnifying glass

Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan, Molleen Matsumura, Amanda Metskas, and Jan Devor

A great conversation starter, if heavy handed on the nonreligion.

"[T]he best thing we can do is encourage our kids to actively engage in their own moral development—asking questions, challenging the answers they are given, and working hard to understand the reasons to be good."

A conversation starter for book clubs

My book club recently read Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan, Molleen Matsumura, Amanda Metskas, and Jan Devor (AMACOM, 2009). The woman who suggested we read it didn't realize it was a specifically nonreligious book—I think she was hoping it'd be about raising kids who are critical thinkers or something benign like that. But "freethinker" is one of those militant atheist keywords, so putting it in the title of the book is a cue that the book will probably veer into "preachy" nonreligious territory.

The authors do not hold to any religious traditions. Some identify as humanists or freethinkers. Some attend Unitarian Universalist churches. (I was surprised by how often the authors suggested UU churches as a semi-but-not-really-religious alternative to religion.) But regardless of their particular labels, they are all strongly in the "Religion? Nope!" boat. And thus, at the core of Raising Freethinkers is the idea that questioning everything is the way to go and that all religion has elements of brainwashing.

Part of that, I think, is because none of the authors seem to dig deep into religion. They all see religion as shutting down questioning, and as using "well, that's what God wants" as a cheap answer. But if you talk, e.g., to the trad Catholics, or to any serious religiously minded people who are looking for answers, their answers don't often stop at "because God says so." They dig into natural law as well as their interpretations of scripture; they have moral arguments that rely on logic and science as much as on the word of God. But if you only have a surface level or literal understanding, then it can be easy to come to incorrect conclusions.

All that said: I went into this book with mixed feelings, but ultimately, I'm glad I read it. I approve of questioning, but I think religion has a greater window into truth and human nature than the authors here admit. Plus, I've read enough parenting and child psychology books that most don't feel particularly novel. However, the wide range of topics covered in Raising Freethinkers meant we had space to pick and choose interesting topics to discuss—and led to an engaging discussion!

Curiosity and wonder

McGowan says are the "three main requirements for inquiring mind: (1) self-confidence, (2) curiosity, and (3) an unconditional love of reality." The other authors also emphasized curiosity and wonder as a key approach to the world, perhaps because curiosity can lead to more questioning, and questioning everything is at the root of freethinking philosophy.

To instill a sense of wonder and curiosity, McGowan recommended giving children unstructured time, going outside, noticing the mundane, and participating in children's curiosity—nothing particularly novel. In short, model the behavior you want children to adopt. Show curiosity about the world yourself.

McGowan suggested that wonder and curiosity diminish over time. So you have to work hard to help children develop or recover the unconditional love of reality that they start out with. I was skeptical of this claim. All the authors are most familiar with children who attend conventional schools; two indeed, are conventional educators. They're coming at parenting and interactions with children from a very particular viewpoint that I generally disagree with and work within particular systems.

Based on what I know about motivation, curiosity, and play, conventional schooling is detrimental to children's curiosity and intrinsic motivation, and probably their unconditional love of reality, too. (Also see my reviews of The Self-Driven Child, How Children Succeed, and Drive.)

Supporting children's autonomy

I also didn't agree with several of the ways that the authors, in particular McGowan, suggested for supporting children's autonomy and questioning. They weren't sufficiently respectful of children as people. For example, McGowan stated that autonomy leads to confidence. Okay, sure. But his examples about offering autonomy tended to involve letting children struggle with frustration and failure.

I agree that people should learn to persist through frustration and failure—but you don't learn much by simply being frustrated. You learn about persistence by learning emotion regulation skills, and by getting support and scaffolding when you are frustrated. Frustration is a cue that the level of challenge you're facing is too difficult (for whatever reason: e.g., when tired and hungry, something that's normally easy can be insurmountable). It's not a cue to leave children hanging. Autonomy, motivation, and self-discipline come from practice, like anything else.

Similarly, McGowan's advice that you should respond to children asking questions by asking more questions fell flat for me. Many times (most times?), children are asking questions because they don't know something and they want to know. Absolutely use some Socratic methods if you like, but be respectful too. Know when you should respond with an answer, not merely say, "Well, what do you guess?" You can also follow-up answers with questions prompting children to consider the answer more deeply.

Religion and community

Metskas, in her chapter on community, points out some reasons why so many people are drawn to churches: Religion comes with ready-made community, guidance, and encouragement. It has universal meaning rooted in God.

The freethinking and atheist communities, on the other hand, have generally focused on debunking religion, not building community. They appeal to a very particular subset of the nonreligious population, most commonly the 50+, white, male; they rarely cater to families or kids. They often fall into the trap of nihilism or wishy-washy "you make your own meaning!"; most don't acknowledge meaningness as something real, though fluid and interactive rather than objective or subjective. There are a few alternatives, such as UU churches, humanistic Jews, and ethical societies; none come close to the kind of fellowship religious communities develop.

Lack of community is by far the biggest issue nonreligious people face. It's one of the biggest reasons I participate in my husband Randy's religious community, despite not being a trad Catholic myself. That community is extremely supportive of families. There's a meal train set up every time anyone has a baby or is ill. At every event women attend, it's expected that everyone will bring along their nursing babies and toddlers, because what else would you do with them? In mixed or secular groups, even in Idaho, there's generally an assumption that for any mom's meetups, you'll leave the kids at home (all one or two of them).

Perhaps you can't have strong community in many nonreligious frameworks because they tend to be overly individualistic. Many religions, on the other hand, tend to lean into interdependence. Life's not about you, it's about your group, your family, your community. Life's about building virtue, giving, humility, cooperation—all things that work to make community stronger.

What if parents don't agree?

Raising Freethinkers had little to offer parents who are not in agreement about the fundamental nature of the universe. Although Dale McGowan has written an entire book about mixed faith marriages (In Faith and In Doubt), this book doesn't touch on mixed faith parenting at all. I think it would have been useful to include a chapter, or at least a subsection somewhere, given the prevalence of interfaith marriages (and of those, 18% were Christians marrying the religiously unaffiliated).

Commenting on differing parenting beliefs would have fit well in the chapter on religious literacy. Everyone needs to learn how to balance what they believe with living in a world full of people with varying beliefs. Unfortunately, this religious literacy chapter came off as, "Sure, we respect people who are religious and different from us, but we know we're right and they're wrong, and most of them are clearly very wrong and we don't have to be respectful of them." Oh well.

Freethinking in parenting

The book was wide-ranging in its topics. It also covered ethics, moral development, discipline and motivation, dealing with death, holidays and traditions, and more. Many of the conversations you might have as a family about your shared values and your family traditions are elements of building a happy family.

Overall, I'd say Raising Freethinkers is a useful book for non-religious parents. It is, as advertised, a practical guide. Every chapter began with a short essay, continued on with a Q&A format on the chapter's topic, and ended with lists of resources relating to the topic: organizations, books, exercises, activities, and games. The resources were a strong point.

My book club's reaction

My book club is religiously mixed, with an above-average subset veering toward "spiritual but not religious". Raising Freethinkers proved to be a great conversation starter around how we approach religion in our families, how we were each raised and how that has influenced our paths to or away from religion, how we approach teaching about religious literacy, how we encourage tolerance and empathy, the importance of community and how we can build community, and how we approach holidays. (We discussed the book in the Christmas season, so we talked about Santa Claus: do you lie to your kids? We don't.)

Questions for book clubs

One of my book club members went looking for discussion questions to go along with book, and had difficulty finding any. So here are some questions we discussed to get you and your book club started:

  • How do your beliefs influence what you want your children to believe?
  • What kind of household did you grow up in, and how has that influenced your own parenting practices around religion and religious literacy?
  • Where have you found the greatest community? How can we build better nonreligious communities?
  • What kinds of traditions, religious or otherwise, do you have in your family? How has your heritage (religious, ethnic, etc) been passed down? What do you wish you had? How are you preserving family history for your kids and connecting them to their roots?
  • What framework do you use to determine what's good and moral? How are you passing that on to your children?
  • Is your parenting oriented toward some end—e.g., developing virtue, producing good citizens, getting to heaven, etc—and if so, how do you approach this in daily life with your children?
  • If you are nonreligious, what would you do if one of your children became religious? If you are religious, how would you feel if one of your children left your faith for another, or for none?
  • How can you support confidence, curiosity, and an unconditional love of reality in your children? What methods do you already use?

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